Initiative Foundation's Gaalswyk announces retirement

The only person to ever sit at the helm of the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls announced she will soon leave the organization. Over the course of 30 years, founding President Kathy Gaalswyk oversaw the growth of a fund born during the farmi...

Kathy Gaalswyk celebrates the yearlong participation and graduation of the Initiative Foundation’s first cohort of Emerging Leaders. Submitted by: Initiative Foundation

The only person to ever sit at the helm of the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls announced she will soon leave the organization.

Over the course of 30 years, founding President Kathy Gaalswyk oversaw the growth of a fund born during the farming crisis of the mid-1980s into a multifaceted foundation with assets totaling $62 million. The foundation has invested $80 million through grants and business investments in the 14-county region it serves, leading to the creation and retention of nearly 13,000 jobs while leveraging more than $300 million in private investment.

"When you have a job that's better than anything you've ever dreamed of, and you absolutely love going to work every day and you feel like you're at the top of the game, it's emotional to say, 'OK, this is the time,'" Gaalswyk, 58, said. "The foundation is in a really good place. We have an amazing board, an amazing staff, a new strategic plan. It feels rewarding to be able to think about handing it off to someone, a new leader, in this kind of shape. I'm excited to see where a new leader can take it, and what the next level for the organization can look like."


Reacting to crisis


The Initiative Foundation is one of six such organizations in the state, serving all but the seven metro-area counties. The organizations formed in 1986, when community leaders sought solutions to the need to diversify rural economies and to help distribute philanthropic dollars farther into greater Minnesota communities. The McKnight Foundation, which remains a funding partner with the foundations, provided the seed money to see where the experiment might lead.

"We really were starting out of this place of incredible desperation and helping people help themselves," Gaalswyk said.

Gaalswyk was not viewing this desperation abstractly-she and her husband Neal were experiencing it firsthand. After growing up in southern California, Gaalswyk moved to Minnesota to marry Neal and together they lived west of Pillager on the family farm. They now make their home in East Gull Lake.

"When I was growing up, I always planned to be a lawyer in Los Angeles. That was my plan. But true love and a hog farm brought me to Minnesota," Gaalswyk said.

While heading the Region Five Development Commission and raising three small children, Gaalswyk watched her husband and father-in-law grapple with their farm succumbing to the same crises farmers across the country were facing. It was during that time she became involved with planning what was then known as the Central Minnesota Initiative Fund. She applied for and was selected to become the fund's first president.

"What started out as despair turned into hope, for us as a family and for the communities and the people we've been able to serve in the organization," Gaalswyk said. "We got a lot of input about, what's it going to take? People said, 'We need local jobs.' The way you create jobs in small communities is by helping local people start or expand their companies one, two or five jobs at a time. The biggest barrier to that was access to capital. ... It was not a time to go get high-risk loans to start a business."

At the time, whether the funds would work as envisioned was unclear. Gaalswyk described the nerves associated with leaving her post as executive director for Region Five.

"I was ... walking away not knowing if this crazy experiment was going to work," she said. "We knew initially we had two years of funding. I didn't know if I would have a job in two years."



Influence, resources grow

First established was a revolving loan fund, allowing the fund to work alongside banks to provide gap financing and business capital. The fund received a special IRS ruling that allowed it to engage in this financing. The first two loans offered by the fund were two projects directly related to helping farm families weather the crisis.

Over time, the board was expanded, staff hired, grant and loan programs designed and soon, state and federal sources of funding along with grants from other foundations began adding to the available resources.

"Now, we've weathered several economic cycles, and our region handles those a lot better than we used to because our economy is more diverse," Gaalswyk said. "People know where to go to leverage resources and help each other, have learned how to have conversations and set goals and set visions and work together."

The Initiative Foundation expanded its role and programs it develops are responsive to what those in the community identify as needs, she said. Initiatives Gaalswyk identified as those she's most proud of include those impacting early childhood education, childhood dental care, methamphetamine education and prevention, the establishment of Bridges of Hope and the Bridges Career Academies and post-tornado disaster relief efforts in Wadena.

Gaalswyk said these initiatives have both direct and indirect impacts on economic development in rural communities-by improving the kindergarten readiness of future leaders, for example, or rebuilding lives and communities stronger than before a disaster, whether it be meth or a catastrophic weather event.

"It's because of our ability to move quickly on an issue, engage people, bring resources to the table," Gaalswyk said of the meth initiative. "We were able to raise a significant amount of grant funding in a very short amount of time because we had the credibility."


Other efforts the foundation engages in include the development of young leaders, the protection of water quality in lakes and rivers, fighting the spread of aquatic invasive species, nonprofit financing and, as the host of turn key funds for families, businesses and other groups.


A leading lady

When the organization began, Gaalswyk was a woman in a leadership role at a time when that was less common. She said she never saw this as a barrier, in part because of her upbringing.

"I grew up in a very traditional home, but I had parents who said, you can do anything you want to do," Gaalswyk said. "It has never occurred to me that my gender should be a barrier to anything."

Gaalswyk said this did not stop the occasional vibe of her gender affecting the perception of others. She recalled once early in her career when she went to Minneapolis for a meeting at the McKnight Foundation. She arrived early and decided to walk across the street to the Minneapolis Club. She said she received odd looks and soon realized she was not supposed to be there-since she was a woman.

"I realized women weren't supposed to be in that room," she said. "I was just naive to that kind of thing. ... I have been treated with the utmost respect by my board and my staff, and it really hasn't been a barrier to anything."



Many kind words

The words "integrity," "credibility" and "trust" were used liberally by those on the board and in the community describing Gaalswyk's leadership.

Larry Korf, Initiative Foundation board chairman, said Gaalswyk's leadership helped to define the credibility that allows the foundation to tackle such a variety of issues.

"Wherever there is a problem or a gap in the community, we can address it very quickly," he said.

"She's been the face of the Initiative Foundation and she's done a terrific job," said Reggie Clow, a trustee with the foundation and the CEO/owner/president of Clow Stamping Company. "Nobody deserves retirement as much as Kathy, considering all the time and effort."

Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, worked with Gaalswyk at the Initiative Foundation for 16 years.

"She truly is one of the most ethical people I know, and as I make decisions, I always hear in my mind her talking about her two mantras: 'Always do the right thing,' and 'Always treat others the way you want to be treated,'" Kilian said. "Another thing that's remarkable about Kathy is her refusal to limit her thinking to the reality of the present. ... Resources follow big ideas. If you have a plan, and you have a vision, you can make it happen."

Kim Ellingson, a foundation trustee and the executive vice president and CEO for Bremer Bank's north central Minnesota region, said the bank has a longstanding relationship with Gaalswyk.


"I think that Kathy's passion about collaborating and engaging constituents in communities makes the Initiative Foundation such a high-impact organization," Ellingson said. "Her 30 years of doing that insightful work with trust, with integrity, with commitment, is really what we're going to see forge on within the Initiative Foundation."

Sheila Haverkamp, executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation, described Gaalswyk as a personal friend and confidant.

"Kathy's leadership will be missed yet the impact of her work will remain with us for many years to come-job creation, healthy communities, early childhood education programs and workforce development," Haverkamp said by email. "Kathy has been a tremendous community and economic development leader. ... She will be hard to replace."

Korf said a plan for an orderly succession is in place, and the goal is to have finalists to replace Gaalswyk by December.

"Kathy has done a great job over 30 years in building the organization with high integrity," Korf said. "We want to thank her from the bottom of our hearts, for all the successes along the way."


To the heart of it

Gaalswyk said she'll keep plenty busy once she's officially moved on. As a grandmother to seven grandchildren, she intends to enjoy time with family in a way her long hours would not allow.


"I do not want to be the grandma that looks back and regrets missing the birthday parties and the sporting events," she said.

In addition, she and Neal will expand the mission work they've engaged in for at least the last 15 years in central and eastern Europe, becoming more involved in coordinating volunteers. Gaalswyk is also a doula, trained to assist in childbirth, and said that work may bring her into jails and prisons to assist incarcerated women give birth.

As Gaalswyk looks forward to her own future, she has given a lot of thought to the future of the organization she helped start. She sees continuing challenges in developing and maintaining young talent in rural Minnesota and learning how the next generation of donors wants to become involved.

"We need to think about how the next generations will want to engage in community building, in economic development, in giving back," Gaalswyk said.

"The generation of baby boomers that are moving out, we need a lot of young leaders to pick up where the others are maybe leaving off," Korf said.

As for Gaalswyk's advice to young people who might find themselves passionate about philanthropy?

"You really have to get to the heart of who you are, what your strengths are, what you care about, and follow that. Then, you find the energy and the strength to do the hard things to make it happen."


Initiative Foundation timeline

• 1986: Incorporated as Central Minnesota Initiative Fund; First McKnight Foundation grant received.

• 1987: Started business financing program.

• 1995: Launched Community Partners grants and training.

• 1996: 10-year anniversary-total assets $13.9 million, 10 employees.

• 1997: Certified by the U.S. Treasury Department as a Certified Development Financing Institution.

• 1999: Changed name to Initiative Foundation; launched Healthy Lakes and Rivers Partnership program training.

• 2000: Moved to current location in Little Falls.

• 2001: Healthy Organizations Partnership program kick-off event.

• 2002: Began statewide Early Childhood Initiative and became Volunteers In Service To America program sponsor.

• 2003: Began Initiative Quarterly magazine.

• 2006: 20-year anniversary-total assets $40.7 million; 25 employees.

• 2009: Launched Inside-Out Connections initiative for children of incarcerated parents.

• 2011: 25-year anniversary-total assets $43.1 million; 21 employees.

• 2012: Launched Thriving Communities Initiative program.

• 2012: Launched Financial Resiliency through Social Enterprise.

• 2013: Launched Early Childhood Dental Network.

• 2014: Launched Aquatic Invasive Species program.

• 2015: Launched Emerging Leaders program.

• 2016: 30-year anniversary-total assets $61 million; 25 employees.


CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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