Opinion

Charitable Contributions Fuel the Fair

Why and how does the Minnesota State Fair Foundation raise money?

Charitable Contributions Fuel the Fair

You may have heard or seen the advertising that asks you to consider a charitable donation to support the Minnesota State Fair Foundation. That request seems at odds with the wildly popular admission-based event.

During its 12-day run, the Fair drew a record 2,046,533 visitors in 2018. My family institutes a strict all-cash budget at the Fair, lest dollars drain out of our wallets uncontrollably as we try new foods and take a spin around the rides. We spend most of our time checking out the chickens and the cows and, of course, people-watching. Why does the Fair need more money?

When I called Mary Chung, executive director of the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, she was not surprised by the question. She patiently explained that without charitable donations, many of the Fair’s offerings would fade away and the aging infrastructure of the fairgrounds’ historic buildings would crumble. Here’s what I learned.

The annual Fair is operated by a quasi-state agency, the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, first organized in 1854 to “encourage agriculture, horticulture, stock breeding, manufacturing, and other industry.” The society’s board is composed of delegates representing the state’s 87 county fairs as well as statewide associations involved in agriculture, horticulture, and education.

If you want to fall down a rabbit hole of Minnesota history, the society’s annual reports dating back to 1887 are freely available online in its digital archives. (There is not a separate organization called the Minnesota State Fair.) The society doesn’t receive state funding. The last time it received any public funding was 70 years ago, Chung says.

During World War II, military aircraft propellers were manufactured in the Hippodrome, but the alterations made to house the operation ruined the building. It was torn down in 1945, and it took the federal government four years to pay the society for the damages.

The Fair’s buildings and 322-acre grounds require significant upkeep; many of the buildings on the fairgrounds were built in the 1930s during the Works Progress Administration (WPA). But shoring up deteriorating infrastructure is not the only reason that local citizens formed the State Fair Foundation in 2002.

The Fair Foundation funds special projects. Photo: Bjorn Hanson

The foundation has broader objectives, including keeping the Fair affordable, enhancing its programming, and improving visitors’ experiences. “If you think about it,” Chung says, “the Fair is Minnesota’s largest and most accessible cultural organization.” She cites the Fair’s exhibition of Minnesota artists, the hours of free music filling multiple venues, and educational programs on topics like animal husbandry, watershed protection, crafts and cooking, and many other subjects. While admission fees, rentals, and sponsorships cover much of the Fair’s operating budget, the foundation’s contributions of about $1 million to $1.5 million a year provide for some key enhancements. In 2018, the society’s annual operating revenue was $56 million, with 94 percent coming from the 12-day Fair.

Take the newly renovated Robert A. Christensen Pavilion, formerly known as the Swine Barn, that the foundation unveiled this year. Contributions to the foundation allowed the Fair to complete improvements to the 1936 building, making it safer and more comfortable for visitors. The building holds around 1,200 animals at a time during the Fair.

“We were able to strengthen the biosecurity of that building,” Chung says, adding that biosecurity is a major concern when dealing with that many animals and people. The foundation also tackles smaller enhancements, like placing dozens of benches around the fairgrounds to offer more places to rest. The Fair’s History and Heritage Center is a new building in the West End Market. The foundation has provided $3.8 million to the West End project.

The foundation raises money in much the same way as other nonprofits; its staff and 21-member board actively seek contributions, hold benefit events, and sell merchandise at the Fair. The foundation targets specific projects for directed contributions and also raises endowment funds from donors who want to ensure the Fair’s programming with legacy gifts.

Foundation funding also allows the Fair to develop new programming. A few Fair favorites started as foundation-supported projects, including the Fair’s Giant Sing Along. The foundation supported the large-scale kaleidoscope in the Horticulture Building that invites viewers to examine flowers and plants through its enormous lenses.

“There are so many people who are such experts who are here to educate people,” Chung reflects. “You could never learn all that there is to learn at the fairgrounds in a single visit. This is such an important cultural institution and a place where many communities get together. We need to keep it as affordable and accessible as possible.”

Personally, I’m hoping the foundation will work to make the Fair even more affordable and accessible and reach out to new communities who can help make the Fair even more representative of our state’s diversity. The foundation can help ensure that the Great Minnesota Get-Together is relevant to and inclusive of all Minnesotans.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.

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