McKnight_Mekong River

McKnight Foundation

Are you learning from and reflecting on your foundation’s efforts?

For over 60 years, the McKnight Foundation has worked to improve the quality of life for present and future generations. The founders initially focused on supporting local organizations in Minnesota, but global challenges caught the attention of the board members. As they observed the issues arising in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, they decided to broaden their focus to include international giving.

In 1983, McKnight created a grants program to assist refugees living in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. Over the next twenty-five years, the Southeast Asia grants program evolved to focus on improving the livelihoods of the most vulnerable people in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In 2011, the program – and the Foundation itself – was at a transition point.  A key consultant to the Southeast Asia grants program was leaving and the second generation of the family was also handing the reins to the third generation. 

As the board began transitioning, they wondered how best to preserve the institutional memory of the Foundation.  McKnight wanted future leaders of the Foundation to understand and learn from the history of the grantmaking program – how it responded to emerging needs over time, and how key decisions were made by the board.  They hired The Philanthropic Initiative to research and write the story.   

We conducted interviews with staff, board members and consultants, reviewed the Foundation’s files, and researched the historical context in which the program operated. Ultimately, we produced a comprehensive report that the McKnight Foundation can use and refer to for generations.

“We take the business of learning from what we do seriously,” says Jane Maland Cady, International Program Director.

A regular part of the McKnight Foundation’s decision-making process is reviewing inflection points in their programs, and asking what they’ve learned from their grant making that could be applied in their new areas of focus.  The Southeast Asia program history provides just that.

Jane finds the history useful in orienting new board members and staff.  At this point in the McKnight Foundation’s history, some people who have been on the board for 30 years are leaving. New people are joining.  Jane says in the absence of an historical document, some people find it tempting to share stories about the Foundation’s activities that don’t reflect the full story.

“I think it’s important for any foundation or organization to leave a legacy,” Jane elucidates. “As people leave, to really understand where something has come from and where it could go, I think capturing the agreement of that institutional memory is really important.”

“We’ve found the Southeast Asia program history so helpful, that we hired The Philanthropic Initiative do our East Africa program history too. Now we’re working with them on a third report to chronicle our Collaborative Crop Research Program. Capturing the institutional memory of the Foundation is important to us.  It leaves a legacy for this family foundation.”