Edina’s Philanthropic Spirit

Local philanthropy leaders on what fuels Edina’s well-known spirit of generosity.
Karen Nelson, Executive Director of the Edina Education Fund.

What makes Edina such a great place to live, work and play? Ask a resident, and you’ll get a variety of answers: top-notch schools, a thriving arts scene, plenty of spots to connect with nature…and the list goes on. We talked with several Edinans about what sets our city apart, and one answer isn’t green spaces or world-class restaurants. It’s Edina’s spirit of giving back. “That’s what Edina was built on,” says Lori Syverson, president of the Edina Chamber of Commerce. “A strong local government, great schools and a very giving community.”

Syverson and her colleagues in the city’s business community have found a multitude of effective—and creative—ways to share their success. We talked with the men and women who lead Edina’s largest philanthropic organizations about their passions (education, entrepreneurialism and health care, to name a few) and what giving back means to them.

Lori Syverson, president of the Edina Chamber of Commerce

Lori Syverson sees herself as a connector. “Edina has very strong partnerships,” she explains. “The primary purpose of the Chamber of Commerce is to be a point of access to the business community.” As chamber president, Syverson helps businesses link to one another, and—most importantly—helps businesses link to the nonprofits and community foundations that need their financial support.

“Sometimes there’s not a lot we [as the chamber] can do financially to give back, but we help build partnerships,” she explains. Syverson lists some of the organizations the chamber has connected with in the past, and the roster is impressive: the Edina Community Foundation, Abbey’s Hope and the Edina Crime Prevention Fund are a few of the most recognizable names.

Though most of Syverson’s business colleagues give back with their dollars, she also notes the importance of old-fashioned volunteerism—especially among younger members of the community. “My children are in their 20s,” she says, “and their generation is very focused on giving. I interviewed a young woman who said she wants to work with a nonprofit. She might earn a little more money with a corporation, but for her it’s important to be passionate about her work. She said, ‘I don’t have the finances to give a lot of money, so this is my way of giving back.’ ”

Syverson says the best part of her job is her bird’s-eye view of the community. She sees businesses, schools, organizations and individuals working together to strengthen Edina’s fabric. “If you only have one or two pieces of the puzzle, you can’t see the whole picture.”

Dick Crockett, executive director of the Edina Community Foundation

Picture this: You’d like to raise money for a cause you’re passionate about—maybe an athletic program for kids or a financial literacy class for families. You need a way to manage the funds you raise, and when you start looking into the logistics, it’s a little overwhelming. Do you need to apply for 501(c)(3) status? Do you need to designate someone to oversee your funds? What’s the next step?

Thanks to the Edina Community Foundation, residents are finding that philanthropy can be as easy as one, two three. The foundation serves as a charitable giving partner for a variety of funds and provides structure and oversight. “We’ve developed 75 programs, organizations and events and provide a charitable structure,” says Dick Crockett, who moved to the foundation 10 years ago from a career in higher-education law.

The foundation directly runs approximately six programs, including Edina Reads, The Edina Challenge, Connecting with Kids and the city’s annual Fourth of July parade. For the other funds under the foundation’s umbrella, Crockett and his staff act as financial and legal coordinators, taking care of the tricky logistics that can come with fundraising.

“Our purpose is to encourage and facilitate philanthropy in the community,” Crockett explains. “We help people give back.” And they’ve been very successful, with about 1,000 donors every year who give to one or more of the foundation’s general operations programs and designated beneficiary funds, from high school sports boosters to music organizations to environmental protection groups. “The foundation offers a chance for people to build their own community,” Crockett says. “You shouldn’t have to leave Edina to enjoy cultural experiences and enjoy community … and we help people do that.”

Jeffrey C. Robbins, founder of AngelPolleNation

For any economy to thrive, it needs fresh ideas and investment in new technology and business concepts. To ensure that a new generation of Edinans can put down roots in the community and continue to give back, Jeffrey Robbins, attorney at Messerli & Kramer and investor, has taken a fresh approach to supporting young entrepreneurs.

During the lowest point of the recession in 2010, Robbins saw that many entrepreneurs were getting left in the dust by an inefficient system. The solution, he says, seemed a little counterintuitive. “There were so many organizations focused on the entrepreneurs,” he explains, “and nothing focused on the investors.”

From that realization, Robbins founded AngelPolleNation, “an old-fashioned networking organization that increased communication, education and awareness.” Every three months, 50 to 60 investors get together at Interlachen Country Club to hear from three start-up companies, which Robbins chooses. “AngelPolleNation is a place of discovery,” he says. “My hope is that investors will come and be able to discover new ideas and new companies, and talk with each other and the [entrepreneurs] in an informal atmosphere.”

Robbins says his motivation is his deep passion for entrepreneurialism. “I come from an entrepreneurial family,” he says. “My father was the second generation in a family business that my grandfather started in ’33, during the Depression. … I lived in the entrepreneurial world through him.” And when he talks about creating the next generation of business leaders, Robbins isn’t kidding. In addition to running AngelPolleNation, he’s a board member of Venture Academy, a brand-new charter school in South Minneapolis with a focus on inspiring students to become innovators and entrepreneurs.

Karen Nelson, executive director of the Edina Education Fund

In 1995, the Edina Education Fund (EEF) was founded with a simple purpose. “We were a group of parents who were very active and involved and wanted to give back to the schools,” remembers Karen Nelson, the EEF’s executive director. “We support valuable experiences and innovation in Edina Public Schools.”

Nelson oversees an active board of 18 volunteers, mostly parents, who run fundraising events, design marketing campaigns and do some strategic planning for the fund, including making funding decisions on grants and initiatives. Money is used district-wide to fund projects like the math center at Valley View Middle School. Additionally, teachers can apply for a $5,000 Innovation Grant for a project or curriculum they wouldn’t otherwise be able to fund. The most popular projects tend to have a ripple effect, says Nelson. “Some are then implemented on a school-wide basis,” she explains.

The EEF has made possible some pretty cool projects, including a GPS-based curriculum (to help kids learn about latitude and longitude), a “window farm” for growing hydroponic plants, a rooftop weather station and a summer reading camp.

On a larger scale, the EEF has funded a hugely popular writing center at Edina High School and a personal financial literacy program for students—with this group of parents and community members, the sky is truly the limit. “It’s very exciting,” Nelson says with a smile.

Mark Shockey, liaison of the Edina Morningside Rotary Foundation

It’s a tale of two Rotaries. With all of the charitable giving and generosity that flows through Edina, it’s no surprise that our modestly sized suburb is home to not one but two Rotary clubs—almost unheard of in a community of this size. Traditionally, the goal of a local Rotary branch (one arm of the larger international organization) is to bring together business leaders to give back to their communities through charities, service projects and more. Edina Rotarians are living out that mission in a big way.

Mark Shockey, pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, heads up the fundraising and distribution arm of the Edina Morningside Rotary. “In 2013, the [Morningside Rotary’s] foundation has granted $45,000 to a variety of local and global service organizations,” he says. Among the recipients of the community grants are the Edina Community Foundation and the Edina Education Fund—a perfect example of the partnerships that are so evident in Edina’s philanthropy scene.

Shockey believes, like so many others, that the city is truly set apart by its focus on giving. “The curiosity and willingness of our community to be involved is amazing.”

Heather Hansen, New Generations director of the Rotary Club of Edina

With room for two Rotary clubs in our community, there are plenty of good works to go around. Heather Hansen, New Generations director of the Rotary Club of Edina in charge of all youth programs, knows firsthand that you’re never too young to get involved. “We provide programs such as STRIVE, a mentoring program for high school students; Camp RYLA and Camp Enterprise, which foster leadership skill development and an International Youth Exchange program,” she notes, which is only a few of the organizations the Rotary has touched over the years.

On average, the Rotary raises nearly $100,000 every year for local and international service projects, from polio eradication programs to clean water initiatives. “Edina has a history of community generosity,” Hansen says. “Perhaps it’s because we witness the benefits that result from good deeds and efforts. Maybe for some it is out of gratitude for the blessings [we’ve been given].” Hansen doesn’t see the rate of giving slowing down anytime soon. “Those who have chosen to share will set the stage for the rest to follow—and that is perhaps why Edina residents continue to be “such a giving, altruistic bunch,” she says.