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Our History

train1Although the eight states in the Northwest Area Foundation’s service region are contiguous, it’s history, more than bonds of population or geography, that connects them. These states – Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon – were once served by the Great Northern Railway, founded by James J. Hill. In 1934, Hill’s son Louis W. Hill established the Foundation “for charitable, educational and scientific purposes which contribute to the public welfare.” The philanthropic nonprofit was created to promote economic revitalization and improve the standard of living for the region’s most vulnerable citizens.

During our first 50 years, the Foundation operated as a traditional grantmaker, awarding short-term grants in a wide range of categories ranging from the arts to medical research to agriculture to poverty reduction.
In 1997, the organization’s leadership initiated an extensive review of the service area and operations. We recognized that a disproportionate number of our region’s states include communities facing persistent and devastating poverty, even though the region also contains some of the nation’s wealthiest and fastest-growing cities. As a result, in late 1998, we embarked on a bold experiment – to focus on a single poverty-reduction mission, and to do so in a way that allocated a significant portion of the Foundation’s resources directly to communities, often through newly created organizations.

In the following decade, the Foundation devoted more than $200 million to this mission, and in doing so experienced a range of success and challenges. As planned, after several years, we evaluated this approach, and after considerable reflection and research, Foundation leadership adopted a new strategic plan in 2008. Today, we support the work of proven or promising organizations, entities that have either a demonstrated track record or are poised to do innovative or cutting-edge work moving people out of poverty and toward sustainable prosperity.

The Foundation’s current strategic plan seeks to answer one fundamental question: How can we most effectively use our assets to reduce poverty and advance sustainable prosperity in our service region? Our commitment to support the work of organizations deeply rooted within their communities is a primary expression of our role. Another is building conversations and relationships that promote innovation and the sharing of practical lessons learned.

We fully understand, however, that the wise deployment of financial assets is not enough. Our society’s social needs are urgent, large and growing. According to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data, the last full year for which there are figures, 15-percent or 46.5 million Americans live at or below the federal poverty threshold.

Because poverty is complex, building sustainable prosperity demands integrated approaches, diverse perspectives, and the ideas and energies of partners in the public and private sectors. It is why we are committed to building strong relationships with nonprofits, peer funders, civic and business leaders, educators and policymakers; relationships that will help low-income people build better futures for themselves and their families, and which will yield lessons to share.

Our vision of the future lies at the heart of our work. We see a region whose rich culture of engagement and opportunity makes its eight states prized places to visit, to invest in and to live, where all residents have a fair chance to live free of poverty. Ultimately, we build our work and invest our assets based on the belief that prosperity is possible for all.

Founder: Louis W. Hill