Spent part of the past two days in Duluth at a meeting of all six of the Minnesota Initiative Foundations. These are foundations started in 1986 by the heirs of the 3M fortune to assist rural Minnesota. I am on the board of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, our area's version.

The idea was that each region is different and that having six foundations staffed by people who live in the region would be a better way to distribute money than to have urbanites in an office in Minneapolis bequeath cash to the hicks.

The idea has worked. Each of the six foundations, while still tapping into the McKnight 3M fortune, has developed an endowment of its own--and a style of its own. When one of the foundations comes up with something good, it can be replicated in the others with ease.

It was quickly decided that the biggest need in rural Minnesota is economic development. Thus, the foundations all started giving business loans and assisting businesses in other ways. Helping business is not a typical function of a charitable foundation, so other states have been watching the Minnesota model to see how it works.

There were several good speakers. Former St. Paul mayor George Latimer was delightful. He gave a lively speech which ended with him telling a story about "my dear friend, the long-time mayor of Fertile, Duane Knutson."

Latimer asked if anybody from Fertile was present, and naturally I gave a holler.

Latimer's anecdote was about Duane taking on the mayor of Bloomington in a heated discussion at a meeting of the Minnesota League of Cities. Knutson was appealing to the Bloomington mayor to have a bit of sympathy for towns which didn't have the "genius and foresight of the mayor of Bloomington" to arrange to have an international airport smack dab in the middle of his city.

Afterwards, I asked Latimer about Duane, and he said, "we were best buddies!" Latimer said he learned a lot from Duane over the years.

Today, there was a panel discussion on rural economic development. Former Congressmen Tim Penny and Steve Gunderson were on the panel and gave good presentations.

Interesting points:

--Former Congressman Tim Penny and another speaker argued that agricultural subsidies are misspent, go to the wrong people, and actually may hurt the economies of rural areas. I was surprised to hear this from a person used to running for office.

--Rural Minnesota educational performance is sinking fast.

--The average per-capita income for rural Minnesotans is sinking.

--The population of rural Minnesota is getting old fast and the young are still leaving for the city.

These problems were brought up as a challenge to the foundations.

Former Congressman Gunderson was an impressive speaker. Latimer and Penny spoke off the cuff, but Gunderson was polished. His main point was that government is no longer going to be the force for social change. Nobody in government has a taste for experimentation any more, and much of what the government tried in the past didn't work. Instead, he said, philanthropic organizations are going to be the main agents for progressive change.

He bluntly cautioned the foundations to keep their financial ducks in a row. I have noticed that the Northwest Minnesota Foundation has some pretty high standards of accounting. We spend a lot of time on the board worrying about where we invest money and how we loan it out. Gunderson said, and I paraphrase, "One financial scandal in one of your organizations will taint the work of all the foundations for ten years to come." So, apparently, we are right to make sure every T is crossed.

I have been learning a great deal by serving on the board of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. On a board, you really do very little but ask questions and listen. I find that easy and fun. An occasional free hotel room in Duluth doesn't hurt, either.