Something new that I’m seeing as a result of the pandemic is that a number of private foundations are now helping communities tackle the digital divide and digital inclusion issues. Today I want to talk about a foundation that has been effectively addressing these issues for years. The Blandin Foundation from the small town of Grand Rapids, Minnesota has been a powerful influence in promoting and furthering rural broadband in the state. I’ve known the folks at Blandin for many years and have seen first-hand how their work has benefitted rural broadband in Minnesota.
The Blandin Foundation was created in 1941 with a gift from Charles K. Blandin. Mr. Blandin started his career as a roving newspaperman and eventually came to own a successful paper mill in Grand Rapids. The foundation was created to benefit the area around Grand Rapids, but over time grew to work with rural issues around Minnesota.
The direction provided by the founder was to undertake work that would lead to the ‘betterment of mankind”. The foundation originally concentrated on leadership training, and over the year, Blandin has trained over 7,000 local community leaders and 600 tribal leaders around the state on leadership skills. The foundation saw that one of the best ways to help local communities was to help local leaders develop the skills that would make them more effective.
As the foundation worked with rural communities, they realized in the early 2000s that broadband had become an integral component of the solution for almost every problem that rural communities were facing. Blandin branched out from leadership training and in 2003 began to tackle the lack of adequate broadband in rural Minnesota.
Blandin’s most effective tool has been using grants to create two-year partnerships with communities that want to solve broadband gaps. Blandin provides matching grants of up to $75,000 to tackle a wide range of issues associated with broadband.
One component of these grants provides $25,000 to help pay for a broadband feasibility study. These studies have specific goals of identifying the cost of building a broadband network using a range of technologies. The studies also look at market demand to help estimate how many people in a community might buy broadband if it was available. These studies have proven to be extremely useful since they are used by communities to talk with potential ISP partners. ISPs find the results of the studies to be useful since it answers the basic questions the cost of construction and the potential revenues that might come from a given community. I know of dozens of examples in Minnesota where the feasibility studies have led to ISPs seeking grants or directly building broadband networks in communities.
Communities use these grants in numerous other ways. I talked to Bernadine Joselyn, the Director of Public Policy and Engagement. She told me that communities are resourceful and often use this single grant to fund over a dozen initiatives associated with finding better broadband. This document shows the kinds of local initiatives that are funded by these matching grants.
Blandin doesn’t just hand communities the grants but works with them to effectively use the funding to find real solutions. Blandin works closely with communities as they implement grant programs. For example, every grant comes with up to 32 hours of technical assistance to help communities understand the technology and complexities of broadband.
Blandin also has an ongoing mission to educate the public about broadband. They hold periodic webinars that delve into broadband topics. They have an annual broadband conference where communities can meet others who are looking to solve the same problems. They write one of my favorite broadband blogs that looks at topics specific to broadband in Minnesota.
I know from experience that Blandin has made a big difference in Minnesota. There are numerous communities that now have better broadband that came as a direct result of the grants provided by Blandin. I know that many of the foundations that are now looking at broadband issues are seeking a way to be effective. They could learn a lot from the approach taken by Blandin and the successes they have had from working directly with communities.