It’s hard to imagine now, but as summer 2019 turned to fall, over 1,000 community members gathered together to share a meal along Division Street. Easier to imagine is the effort it took to coordinate hundreds of volunteers, find food vendors and communicate with sponsors — ultimately making the event free to attend.

The first-ever “Northfield Shares a Dinner” was a testament to its namesake, a community foundation that acts as a conduit for sharing both time and money. Along with event chairs, donors and helpers, Northfield Shares board members — including chair Mary Lynn Oglesbee and treasurer Meleah Follen — worked hands-on to bring residents together that evening.

As an organization, Northfield Shares’ two primary goals of coordinating philanthropic and volunteer efforts in town stem from its roots. Created in 2014, it’s a union of the longstanding Northfield Area Foundation — an endowment managing legacy gifts and other donations for the community — as well as volunteer- and donor-focused 5th Bridge. Now, Northfield Shares manages those same legacy funds, allocating money out to tax-exempt organizations through a robust grant program.

“The leadership of those two groups pulled together some people in the community and said, ‘What if we combined?’” explained Follen, who has been involved since 2012. “We talked a lot about what a foundation could look like if it also had a volunteer arm.”

When Oglesbee joined the board three years ago, she immediately jumped into helping grow the latter. Through community feedback, Northfield Shares crafted an opportunity board on its website — an extensive resource for anyone wanting to get involved. While philanthropy and volunteerism are its two core missions, Oglesbee and Follen added that large-scale community events are vital to their work.

“One of the visions we have is to be transformative in our community, and I don’t think we can do that in isolation,” said Oglesbee. “It’s important for folks to gather together and see what we have in common.”

During the pandemic, Northfield Shares is coordinating mask-sewing efforts and working with local businesses and individuals on the new “Share in Northfield’s Future” fund, designated to help local nonprofits work through COVID-19. After distributing $20,000 in assistance over the summer, it plans to put out a second round of grants this fall.

Immediate needs and ‘long haul’

In nine years with Northfield Shares, Follen has worn many hats — from strategic planning to work on the grants and governance committees, and most recently as treasurer. Initially, she got involved at the request of a friend soon after moving to Northfield.

“In Minneapolis, I was involved with a couple of different foundations. I think they were interested in my perspective as a newcomer who had some experience in this work,” she recalled. “I had also spent time working with the Greater Twin Cities United Way, and their engagement of people in both volunteer and philanthropic work.”

Like Northfield Shares, Follen noted that the United Way focuses on bringing in local businesses and large-scale community involvement. Moving to a smaller town, she added that the impact of a foundation felt even greater.

“When we talk about $45,000 in grants coming out of the organization each year — in the Twin Cities, that might feel small. In Northfield, it definitely has a big impact,” she said. “A foundation in a smaller community is much more of a touchstone, and its influence can be felt in many ways.”

Additionally, Follen has enjoyed her work with the organization because of its longevity. Investing money from the legacy funds and allocating it out in small amounts allows Northfield Shares to uniquely respond to short- and long-term needs. “The way that we invest that money and spend off of it, the funds don’t go away. Typically, nonprofits aren’t set up to do that,” she explained.

Reaching ‘wider into the community’

This long-term impact also appealed to Oglesbee, who added that it’s a way to remember past residents through legacy gifts. After retiring a few years ago from her role as a clinic administrator, Oglesbee wanted to use her free time serving an organization she cared about — having lived in Northfield for over 20 years. This connection to Northfield Shares’ vision has translated into her recent work as board chair.

“We need to always know what we do, why we do it and who we do it for — I think Mary Lynn really has a handle on what our role is and can be in the community,” said Program Director Carrie Carroll. “With every project, you build it into the organization and think about how to reach wider and wider into the community.”

Carroll also praised Follen’s work connecting youth with community opportunities through her job as youth engagement director at Northfield Healthy Community Initiative. While Follen typically has to keep her job separate from her role on the Northfield Shares board, the two positions overlap nicely when it comes to sharing engagement opportunities with youth. To this end, she helps connect area teenagers with board positions and other ways to share their voices in the community — both at Northfield Shares and beyond.

“The number of youth that are involved on different boards and commissions has grown from 22 when I started to over 90 this year,” said Follen. “I’m thinking about how we can work with kids now, but also how we can get them interested in community work, in learning how cities work, how commissions work and how boards work. It’s also very future-focused.”

Focus on pandemic, systemic change

Heading into the fall, Northfield Shares is gearing up to distribute its next round of “Share in Northfield’s Future” fund grants. It has also resumed its search for a new executive director, a process Oglesbee expects will wrap up by the end of this year.

Going forward, she hopes to focus more on how the organization can contribute to systemic change in the community — including affordable housing and how to help the most vulnerable residents, with many challenges being illuminated by COVID-19.

“One of the things the pandemic is bringing to light is where some needs are that we haven’t paid as much attention to, as a society or as a community,” she added. “We’re having more communication with the city, talking about how to partner with them on some of the things that they’re working on.”

With a community endowment and an overarching foundation that are here and built to last, it’s not too hard to imagine another community dinner a few years down the line. Perhaps more importantly, the day-to-day connections between volunteers, nonprofits, donors and the city are continuing during the pandemic. A kind of “legacy fund” of its own, the volunteerism and interaction facilitated by Northfield Shares and its board are here to stay.

Bridget Kranz is a freelance writer based in St. Paul.

Load comments