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Small Communities & Rural Placemaking Grants

Funds resources, skills and system changes in rural Minnesota’s smallest communities.

As one of the few private foundations in the country devoted exclusively to rural needs, the Blandin Foundation has set a new strategic direction to address increasing disparities facing rural Minnesota communities and Native Nations. Too often, these disparities reflect place (where we live), race (who we are) and class (economic status), so we have restructured our operations to align with these modern challenges and our founder’s original vision. Charles Blandin believed in focusing on the needs of the rural worker, whose prosperity and dignity enabled the rich and unique culture that makes Minnesota the incredible place it is.

Small communities also are an integral part of Minnesota’s rich, unique culture. More than 84 percent of rural Minnesota communities have a population of under 5,000. Yet our smallest communities have struggled for years to provide basic services and keep community spaces safe and welcoming. Investment from state, federal, private, and philanthropic sources no longer meet rural needs. Since 2009, local government aid (the state aid that balances tax bases to provide access to core services regardless of zip code) has fallen 38 percent below inflation. Just 3% of philanthropic dollars in 2019 went to Minnesota’s smallest communities.

The need is even more acute across the three Native Nations (White Earth, Leech Lake and Red Lake). Data profiles of each reservation (2013-2017 ACS Data, via Mpls Federal Reserve Bank):

Data points from this:

  • Income: Median income of AIANa (American Indian Alaska Native alone) in Red Lake is $34,200; White Earth is $27,975; Leech Lake is $32,937.
  • This compares to median income of $40,315 in the US for AIANa and $57,652 for all of the US.

To better address urgent rural challenges, Blandin Foundation has refocused our efforts on the areas where we can make the biggest difference: community wealth-building, rural placemaking and small communities.

What is the Small Communities Grant Program?

In a nutshell, it is funding resources, skills and needed system changes in rural Minnesota’s smallest communities.

Our Small Communities Grant Program is a pilot program focused on reaching small, often overlooked places, and providing funding for the resources and skills they need to solve community issues. It is one important way we can improve community well-being and begin to reverse decades of fiscal policies and practices that have harmed rural places and the people who live there.

The Small Communities Grant Program will build on the pride rural residents feel for their communities. Rural connection and interdependence can be powerful community forces. When people work together to solve community issues, they create trust, ownership and buy-in which again translates to success with completing projects and initiatives, and ultimately strengthening the community. Activities funded by our Small Communities Grant Program should drive positive economic, physical, and social change in a rural community.

The Case for Small Communities

Studies demonstrate that activities that strengthen small communities can lead to changes in a new direction of hope and vision for the future. One objective of the Small Communities grant program is to gather data from partners’ activities to inform rural practice and impact more deeply.

Blandin’s Value Framework

Build Rural Capacity

Strengthening the resources and skills rural MN needs to address community problems and opportunities. We are focusing our funding and programming on strategies that produce measurable, sustainable outcomes in our three impact areas and those that can demonstrate coordinated, regional impact.

Build Connection

Enabling can-do communities that are rich in people-to-people connections and generate opportunity at the individual, community and state levels. Connected individuals stay healthier, are happier, achieve higher education, improve their job outlook and are more likely to have long-term economic upward mobility. Connected communities thrive amidst change, both unintended (disaster, economic uncertainty) and proactive (future-forward community initiatives).

Focus Areas

Small Communities Grants will be made in the following three categories listed. This does not imply applicants submit proposals based on the examples outlined below. We are interested in your own creative ideas to move small places forward.


for a small communities initiative

  • Evaluate a community’s assets and potential with broad participation
  • Plan for initiatives and public spaces and amenities that contribute to wellbeing and increased livability
  • Planning events, community arts and culture initiatives, sovereignty
  • Research to support planning


executing a small communities initiative

Implementing community initiatives, including events,
discussions and gatherings

Creation, enhancement or revitalization of indoor and outdoor physical spaces, such as:

  • Community gathering and ceremonial places
  • Community centers
  • Downtowns/Main Street projects
  • Repurposing buildings
  • Redevelopment
  • Addressing brownfields
  • Libraries
  • Revitalization and capital improvements
  • Parks and trails

Capacity Building

building small community skills and attracting resources

Build the skills and resources of a community or organizations to drive positive economic, physical and social changes

  • Grant-writing assistance
  • Technical assistance
  • Consulting expertise, including inter-generational knowledge sharing
  • Leadership skill-building
  • Research to support skill and resource-building
  • Collaboratively changing how systems work and the outcomes they produce

Outcomes We Seek

Proposed projects should impact one or more of the following objectives and should include a description of how your organization will measure progress toward those. It is acceptable to measure “what happened/what’s different” (qualitative data) along with or instead of “how many or how much” (quantitative) because impact in small rural communities is often challenging to demonstrate with numbers only.

Bring about positive, visible change in the community, including increasing community/leadership engagement, planning, nurturing community pride and revitalization. Possible metrics:

  • Visible community change in structures or enhancements
  • New construction
  • Beautification
  • Increased civic engagement
  • Survey results showing increased pride in place

Engage in productive discourse around issues affecting small, rural Minnesota communities, including race, class, gender, and other self-identified divides. Possible metrics:

  • Notable signs of a more connected, engaged and less divisive community, including possible survey results, social media tenor, examples of new community cohesion, policy changes or advocacy.

Prepare for the future by enhancing community aesthetics and amenities, cooperating with neighboring communities for mutual benefit, and laying the groundwork for future development. Possible metrics:

  • Visible community change in structures and amenities
  • Established partnerships with other communities or partners
  • Local business and job growth
  • Completing professional development and skill building and training opportunities


This pilot program has $2 million in total funding available to benefit the Northwest Initiative Foundation region including the three Native Nations sharing this geography: Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Red Lake Nation, and White Earth Nation. We expect grant awards will range from 20,000 to $150,000 each.

Organizations must meet Blandin Foundation’s eligibility criteria, the focus areas above as well as these requirements of the Small Communities program:

Partners we seek can be from municipalities (cities, townships), Native Nations, nonprofit (501c3 tax-exempt organizations) for communities under 5,000 in population.)

Eligible activities from the focus areas above include:

  • Planning/research to inform and develop projects and systems aligned with Small Communities program outcomes;
  • Pilot/demonstration projects;
  • Community engagement that elevates the perspectives of the population to be served and focuses on developing collaborative regional partnerships;

Projects/programs should address one or more of the following. These items may be part of how proposals are evaluated and rated.

  • Address a known community need and/or issue facing its residents.
  • Show evidence of cross-sector community engagement, including among people who do not normally participate.
  • Advance community-identified development priorities.
  • Address systemic barriers through new or continued partnerships; implementing projects that are sustainable, innovative, scalable and/or replicable; increasing the capacity of the community to engage in, plan or facilitate activities.
  • Show evidence of leveraging other monetary and non-monetary support (pending and committed funds and in-kind support).
  • Demonstrate innovation in process and/or product (e.g., address a new idea in a new way) by the community.
  • Collaboratively change how systems work and the outcomes they produce.

Schedule & Deadlines

Milestone Date
Request for Proposals Release Friday, January 12, 2024
Letter of Interest Due Thursday, February 15, 2024
Full Proposal Invitations Sent Friday, March 1, 2024
Full Proposals Due Monday, April 1, 2024
Funding Decision Monday, April 15, 2024
Announcement to Grantees Monday, April 22, 2024
Grant Agreements Sent Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Contact Information

Questions? Please contact a member of the grants team at

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