A community changemaker

Minneapolis Foundation CEO Sandy Vargas reflects on organizationÂ’s successes

When reflecting on her work leading The Minneapolis Foundation, Sandy Vargas singled out the organization’s focus on education as a point of pride.

“One of the proudest accomplishments I’m happy about is our work trying to transform education,” she said during a recent interview.

Vargas recently announced plans to retire in June after serving as CEO and president of one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations for nearly a decade.

The foundation, which administers more than 1,200 charitable funds and has awarded more than $850 million in grants, is celebrating its centennial this year.

She has been lauded for raising awareness about the region’s racial disparities in education, employment and the civic sphere. The foundation’s RESET campaign has focused on solutions to closing the achievement gap and supported successful efforts to improve educational outcomes in public district and charter schools.

The foundation has also been an early funder of the Hiawatha Leadership Academy, a network of Minneapolis charter schools that is considered one of the state’s most successful schools. It serves many students from low-income families.

“They have leadership that truly believes that all children can learn,” she said. “It’s child and family centric. It puts the children and the families in the middle of the picture.”

Besides education, the foundation has focused grant making on programs promoting economic vitality, civic education, community health and the environment and conservation.

Norm Rickeman, chair of the downtown-based foundation’s board of trustees, called Vargas “an energetic and passionate advocate for everyone in our community, especially the underrepresented.”

“A true community connector, she is a champion for school reform, jobs and civic engagement,” he said. “… We are profoundly grateful for her contributions — she leaves a legacy that will continue to impact this community for many years to come.”

The foundation has also seen significant growth in donations and grants during Vargas’ tenure. The foundation has experienced a 23 percent increase in the number of donor advised funds since 2007 and a doubling of annual grantmaking during her tenure — from $37 million to more than $80 million.

Before Vargas became CEO and president of the foundation she served as Hennepin County administrator and held other posts in city and state government.

As part of its centennial celebration this year, the foundation recently held a futurist conference that drew more than 1,500 people to learn about innovative ideas tackling the community’s biggest challenges. It also teamed up with Nice Ride Minnesota on June 27 for the #NicestDayEver — a fundraiser for Free Bikes 4 Kidz. The foundation pledged to give $1 to the nonprofit for every ride logged that day. Cyclists ended up taking 5,613 trips — a Nice Ride record.

The Minneapolis Foundation also organized a 48-hour art marathon in the IDS Center’s Crystal Court featuring local artist Shawn McCann, who created a 3D painting of the skyline on the court’s floor.

As for upcoming work, Vargas is focused on a project gathering feedback from communities of color on issues and concerns.

She said it’s critical for community leaders to work together and listen to one another in order to make progress on the biggest challenges facing the city.

“None of us can do this work alone. We have to collaborate and we really have to connect with each other to align our efforts,” she said. “Let’s allow communities to lead and really use our best resources for facilitating that.”

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FYI …

To learn more about The Minneapolis Foundation, go to www.minneapolisfoundation.org.