Bremer Foundation focuses east metro giving on anti-poverty efforts

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Charlotte Johnson is guided by the spirit of Otto Bremer.

But she is also chained to his ghost.

Johnson is one of three trustees at the Otto Bremer Foundation, the St. Paul philanthropic organization founded by the German immigrant banker in 1944. Johnson and fellow trustees William Lipschultz and Daniel C. Reardon approve the grants awarded by the foundation bimonthly.

Last year, Johnson says, the foundation gave away roughly $23.5 million in the Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota communities where Bremer operates banks. That’s down 10.6 percent from the $28.7 million it gave away in 2008 and down 26.8 percent from the $32.1 it gave out in 2007-an indication that the economic downturn has hurt Bremer just as it has impaired other private foundations’ ability to give.

Otto Bremer had very distinct goals for the money he set aside to create the foundation that bears his name. For example, he specifically wanted it used to fight poverty in St. Paul, the city where Bremer lived. That tradition continues in the east metro and throughout the Twin Cities, Johnson says.

However, the foundation’s founder also wanted his money used in ways more reflective of his own times than ours.

For instance, he wanted foundation money used to fund orphanages, not many of which still exist. Trustees have gotten around that by convincing the courts that Bremer’s real concern was with the welfare of children, Johnson says, so money has been redirected to education and other children’s services.

If trustees ever wanted to make their own mark by designating foundation money to, say, the battle against global warming, they would be out of luck. Bremer never mentioned anything remotely like that in his directives, Johnson says, and there is no way the courts-which check in with the foundation every three years to make sure the founder’s wishes are being followed-could be convinced that he did.

The foundation gets applications from art museums and historical societies frequently, but the trustees must turn all those requests down. “That wasn’t what Otto talked about, so, sorry,” Johnson says. “It’s not my money and I can’t decide how to use it. We have to do what he wanted.”

Nonetheless, Bremer has many opportunities for giving.

Last year alone the foundation handed out more than 700 grants ranging from $10,000 to $100,000.

When they were most needed

Trustees retain enough flexibility that in January 2009, for the first time, the Otto Bremer Foundation and Bremer banks jointly set aside $4 million for a one-time Emergency Relief Fund, providing direct assistance to individuals hit hard by the nose-diving economy.

The fund provided assistance to families and individuals struggling to pay for food, housing, health care and transportation.

“It was obvious that there was a real need and that maybe we should just dedicate some funds to emergency relief,” Johnson says. “And that was true throughout the whole Bremer system. But the Twin Cities has more people, so there was more evidence of need there.”

That evidence came in the form of a flood of applications for assistance-$21 million in requests in all. “That was almost the full year’s grant budget, and this was just one piece of what we wanted to do,” Johnson says. “We didn’t want this to be instead of everything else that we do.”

The fund ultimately totaled $4 million and went out to 81 community organizations.

One recipient was the St. Paul-based Hmong American Partnership, a community organization that serves the Hmong populations in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

CEO Bao Vang says that the $50,000 her organization got from Bremer provided a kind of safety net beneath a safety net for her organization’s clients. The money was divvied up among 76 Hmong families who had used up every other community and state resource at their disposal.

Those families were allowed to tap into the $50,000 Bremer Emergency Relief Fund as a last resort, Vang says, each receiving grants from $300 to $1,000.

“I think Bremer came at the time when the community needed them the most,” Vang says. “I commend them for their leadership and really looking at the issues, and for listening to the community partner agencies on the ground who bring these issues and challenges to their attention.”

The Hmong American Partnership received a second grant from Bremer in November, this one for $35,000 as part of the foundation’s normal bimonthly grant cycle. Although not part of the Emergency Relief Fund disbursement, that money helped pay for transportation expenses for 175 job-seeking clients.

The money covered car repairs, monthly bus passes and other transportation costs for people who needed help getting to job fairs, interviews or training programs, Vang says.

St. Paul-based La Familia Guidance Center, an outpatient mental health service center that caters to the Hispanic community, was also among the Bremer grant recipients in November.

Jose Santos Jr., the center’s executive director of community affairs, says that the $10,000 award allowed his center to help uninsured and underinsured Hispanic young people in the Hennepin County school system pay for needed psychological attention.

“The money we got from Otto Bremer is very much appreciated,” Santos says. “It helps bridge the gap so that we can provide services to these kids.”

Hard choices

Bremer has traditionally allocated its grants to communities in rough proportion to the income that they bring into Bremer banks, and the foundation continues to reach for that benchmark.

The bank’s Twin Cities branches currently bring in roughly 25 percent of the banks’ income stream, says Johnson, who like the two other trustees is also on the bank’s board of directors. “Our overarching guiding principal is that in any year’s budget, we try to keep the Twin Cities portion of the grants at roughly a quarter of total grants,” she says.

That is not easy, she says, because there are many more community service organizations in the Twin Cities than in, say, Max, N.D., where Bremer has one of its oldest branches. But smaller communities have needs, too, Johnson says. Finding the right mix is a tremendous challenge.

“It is hard,” says Johnson, who succeeded her father, Gordon Shepard, as a trustee in 1990. “It is very easy to be moved by all kinds of stories-and they are great stories from good people who are passionate and love their work and what they’re doing.

“But ultimately, the way I think of it, we are successful if individuals’ lives are improved.”

One way that the trustees avoid getting emotionally conflicted by those choices is by delegating the due diligence work to the foundation’s six-member staff. They review grant applications, interview applicants, then decide as a group whom to recommend to the trustees for grant awards.

Trustees then have little to do but say yes or no, Johnson says. Sometimes, she says, no is the best answer for everyone involved.

“Sometimes an organization just doesn’t have the infrastructure,” Johnson says. “You see times when it’s just a husband and wife operation. Maybe they don’t have a director, there is no one guiding them to tell them if they’re doing it right or wrong. If you can read that ahead of time, you can save them a whole lot of agony.”

Johnson says Bremer’s trustees are getting ready to announce their next round of grants at the end of this week. They also are planning strategy meetings in February to set grant-making priorities for the rest of 2010 and beyond.

“For the Twin Cities,” she says, “we will certainly give some thought about how to effectively grant within this huge metropolitan area. We may pick two or three particular areas that were mentioned in (Otto Bremer’s) directives and more intently focus on those.”

Whatever the foundation does, it has no choice but to continue asking the same question that’s been asked since Otto Bremer tapped the original trio of trustees seven decades ago: What would Otto do?

It would be nice if Bremer were still around to ask, but since he died in 1951, the group doesn’t have that luxury. “We tried a séance,” Johnson jokes. “He didn’t show up.”


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