At Apex, we’re intentional about building relationships with philanthropically-minded professionals, attorneys, and financial advisors. When our paths cross with someone who’s fun and approachable and as passionate about empowering people and communities as we are, they become a part of the Apex family forevermore.
Mariah Brook is one of those people!
Mariah is a gift planner at the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation. It’s the state’s largest community foundation and has been around 80+ years, with community partners from Warroad to Albert Lea. Last year, the Foundation had its biggest grantmaking year in history, granting over $100M+ to community causes.
The final step in our Apex legacy planning program is to help bring people’s plan to life by working with their advisors and attorneys—as well as foundations that align with their passions—to officially set their plan in motion. Often people have a financial advisor and/or attorney they trust, and we’ll work alongside those professionals to move the plan forward. But many don’t know what community foundations are or how they differ from the national, household-name-type foundations out there…or, why they’d even need to work with a foundation at all.
We wanted to clear up some of those questions, and who better to address them than our friend Mariah? Here’s our Q&A:
Apex: Let’s start with the basics! How did you wind up in philanthropy?
Mariah: At the University of Minnesota, everyone told me “you need an internship.” That idea is, of course, drilled into college students everywhere. I thought, “If I don’t get an internship, I’ll never get a job, I’ll never get married, my life is over.”
So I looked at some local Fortune 500 companies. Throughout the interview process, I realized pretty quickly that the for-profit community was not where I fit. We just didn’t click, and I couldn’t picture myself working in a corporate setting. Then I happened upon a nonprofit fair and met representatives who were doing development work at the Minnesota AIDS Project, JustUs Health, the Guthrie Theater. Here were all these incredible, diverse organizations who were doing good things for the community in their own unique ways and through the support of generous donors. I got so excited about getting to work with people who were being open-handed with their resources. I decided, quite simply, that those were the kind of people I wanted to spend my time around.
So I knew I wanted to be at a nonprofit, and just happened to find an opening at the Foundation. I’ve moved through a few different roles, but I never left! Now as a gift planner, my role is two-fold: I come alongside advisors and clients to figure out what plan makes the most sense for executing philanthropic goals. Second, I work with nonprofits who have their endowment funds invested with us. I support them as they secure long-term gifts and invest those dollars.
Apex: What is a community foundation, and what makes one unique?
Mariah: One big difference is that we actually live in the areas we’re serving. We serve on local boards, our families work and play here, so we have in-depth, on-the-ground knowledge of how to partner organically with nonprofits and donors. Our stakeholders are also community members, so we’re held accountable to making sure the dollars we’ve been given are being invested in what the community really wants and needs.
Some of the big questions we’re asking grantees, when they’re applying for funds, are:
- Who came up with this work?
- Who said this was a need?
- Who is involved in the process of forming how this will happen?
- Who will benefit most from this work?
- Is the work being done by people who represent our full community?
We call this our “Informs, Forms, and Benefits Model” and it really helps ensure that our dollars are going where they’re most needed, power and access dynamics aside. It’s also a great model for letting someone’s legacy live on far beyond them. Many people don’t have a vehicle to endow a fund that truly allows them to make a difference over time, but these kinds of checks and balances will ensure that dollars are directed in effective, equitable ways into perpetuity.
Apex: What should someone look for when selecting a foundation to partner with?
Mariah: I think there are two parts to this question, because nonprofits probably have a different set of needs and criteria than a person or family would.
First off, if an individual or family wants to partner with a foundation, and they’re just looking for a transactional relationship with decent investment returns, Schwab or Fidelity might be a great fit.
But if they want more personalized service, want to involve their family in giving conversations or map out their long-term legacy, or want to simply get more involved where they live. a community foundation—ours specifically—can be a really strong partner.
We hold family meetings all the time. We talk about family values and interests. We can set up one fund that an entire family or group uses, or separate funds to allow some autonomy for different people or subsets. Multigenerational generosity, especially when it’s focused locally, is a really fun thing to be a part of.
As for nonprofits who are looking for a foundation partner, they should be asking what the fees are, and what services will actually be provided by the foundation. Can a representative, like me, come out and meet with your donors? Can you pick up the phone and talk to an actual person? Can the foundation accept complex, non-cash gifts on your behalf? We know that most people’s assets are non-liquid, so nonprofits can have a much greater impact if they can diversify the types of gifts they can accept. Organizations who are set up to accept non-cash or planned gifts, perhaps in partnership with a foundation, can grow their fundraising at a much higher percentage than those that can only accept cash or stock.
Apex: What are some practical ways your foundation can serve nonprofits?
Mariah: First off, we can hold and invest a nonprofit’s endowment. If a donor’s gift is going into an endowed fund that’s staying with us, there’s no fee. We can also do pass-through donations, so if someone wants to gift real estate, crops, or another type of asset to a nonprofit, we can accept that gift, and for a small fee, direct the funds immediately back to the nonprofit. It’s a clean way for them to be able to offer the option of gifting non-cash gifts without having to staff for that.
We also provide educational services. Some organizations have a planned giving officer, and they just use us for investment services. Some utilize us more heavily when they’re launching a new planned giving program or campaign and want help marketing and getting it off the ground. Some just have volunteers and fully tap into our knowledge to lead their planned giving efforts on an ongoing basis. For some, it’s a mix.
Apex: What are the ways your foundation can serve families/individuals?
Mariah: Anyone can open a donor advised fund with us. Donor-advised funds (DAFs) are incredibly flexible and useful, and they’re growing in popularity.
We certainly have local connections, but there’s no geographic requirement that funds stay in the area. Grants just have to go to a 501(c)3 in the United States. Once someone has that DAF set up, we can tailor our work with them to do what they need. For some, it’s purely transactional. But some are really strategic and involved, so we have regular meetings and talk through ideas of how to make a difference locally. We can provide reports/stats on how their giving breaks down into different types of causes, locations, etc. Sometimes people just have money—perhaps inherited or through a business entity—and a cause in mind, and we’ll help them fill in all the details of how to direct their funds.
Apex: What’s changing in philanthropy right now, and how should people be mindful of what’s coming down the road?
Mariah: No matter what changes are happening, people should be thoughtful, have a solid plan, and review their plans often. If the last two years have shown us anything, it’s that life is short and it’s unpredictable. Review your fund agreement, and make sure you know what happens to your fund if you pass away. Think of Prince! Aretha Franklin! They didn’t have a plan, and that was such a missed opportunity, both for their families and for local charitable organizations that they could have made a huge difference for.
Also, tax laws change often, and it seems like there’s always a flurry of estate and philanthropic activity when that happens. Just be in touch with your advisor to make sure your plan continues to take those changes into account and makes the most of your current family situation and goals.
There’s one other trend that’s been interesting: people are actually starting to give less to their kids through their estate. I think they’re realizing that if they’ve paid for their kids’ college, have 529 savings plans for their grandkids, and their kids have good jobs they don’t need a huge windfall from Mom and Dad. They’re realizing it may actually hurt them instead of blessing them! Or if they’re going to give significantly to kids, they might do part of that in the form of a fund in their name, which involves heirs in generosity for years to come.
Gift Planner at Saint Paul & Minnnesota Foundation
As a gift planner at the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, Mariah helps individuals and families initiate and express their philanthropic plan to maximize their giving. She also provides nonprofits the support to start and grow their endowments and works alongside professional advisors to help them achieve their clients’ philanthropic goals. The most rewarding part of her job is watching donors be open-handed with the resources they have and the impact it has on the community. She also loves exploring the people, places, and things that make Minnesota home.