Are Minnesotans as Generous as we are Nice?

We’ve long been a top donating state—but how we give is changing

The other day, near what remains of Nicollet Mall, I saw a young woman—tattoos, dreadlocks, exceptionally thin—digging through a trash can. I wasn’t the only one who noticed. An older gentleman holding a cardboard sign who was leaning up against the can asked if she was looking for something to eat. Before she even nodded yes, he reached into a tattered backpack and handed her half a sleeve of crackers. He may not have known where his next meal was coming from, and yet he gave what he had to someone who needed it more. 

If you paid for this magazine, chances are you have far more at your disposal to give, and if you live in Minnesota it’s likely that you already do—our state always ranks highly in the percentage of its residents who donate their time and money. The question of how much to give, and to whom, is a universal one. But now motivations for and expectations of charitable activity are undergoing a monumental shift, as frequent contributor Frank Bures reports in this month’s feature, “Next Generation Philanthropy.”

Since the days when names such as Hill, Walker, and Pillsbury funded some of the state’s early civic and cultural institutions, many a family fortune has divided and diminished. And as these large benefactors pass on, they’re not so easily replaced—Minnesota’s not minting any new lumber barons these days, neither railroad magnates, nor milling moguls.

The era of older white males writing big checks and attending stuffy board meetings and black-tie galas is being replaced by a more casual, diverse, grassroots, and experiential approach to giving. Though pure altruism surely drives much charitable activity, the status and good feelings philanthropy lends undeniably play a role. I imagine that for past generations, charitable giving helped major donors display their largesse, lending credibility to their business and social spheres. That same halo hasn’t diminished, it’s just taken a different form, of younger donors seeking to impress their vaster digital networks. 

That change doesn’t surprise me as much as the way today’s “pitch” for donors more baldly panders to self-interests. “Donating to a cause you love should be a joy ride, not a guilt trip,” reads the website of one local crowdfunding site. Another national site is even more blunt: “If you don’t give, no one will like you.” Intentions aside, one thing is certain: We can all probably do a little more.

Portrait of Rachel Hutton by Erika Ludwig. Hair and makeup by Margo Gordon.