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Got Ideas? The Minnesota Idea Open Wants Them

Ideas change the world, but not everyone has a way to make their ideas a reality. Hence the Minnesota Idea Open, which provides an annual opportunity--dubbed a Challenge--for Minnesotans to rack their brains for ideas to help sustain a vibrant community that's good to work and play in. This is no academic exercise: Three winning ideas will get $15,000 each in grant money, and two more will get $5,000 apiece. A nonprofit, proposed by the contestant or selected by the Open's sponsors, will use the money to put the idea into practice.
This is the third year for the Open, which is sponsored by One Nation, based in the state of Washington, and three affiliates of Minnesota Philanthropy Partners: Minnesota Community Foundation, the Multicultural Endowment, and Facing Race. (Many other organizations throughout the state help spread the word as well.)

The theme for this year's Challenge is "Working Together Across Cultures and Faiths." It was chosen because the sponsors believe that as Minnesota becomes less white and Lutheran and more everything else all the time, understanding between people of different faiths and backgrounds becomes more critical. "For example, 17 percent of the state's population is made up of people of color now, compared to 1 percent in 1960," says Naomi Pesky, director of marketing and communications for the Minnesota Community Foundation. "We've got a lot to lose by not reaching out to people of other faiths and cultures, not least our competitiveness in the global marketplace."

The Rules
Any individual in Minnesota has until March 23 to propose an idea (online or by phone, e-mail, or snail mail) to help address these issues. Judges selected by the Open's organizers will then decide on the best five ideas, and between May 15 and May 25 anyone in Minnesota can vote  to choose the top three. The winners will be announced May 26 through June 8.
Unlike in other competitions, ideas that don't win the Challenge don't necessarily lose. They all stay visible on the Open's online platform, and that visibility often pays off. "In both previous Challenges, several ideas received funding from other sources, and several people have independently moved ideas forward," Pesky says. The first two Challenges generated more than 500 ideas, and more than 12,000 Minnesotans voted on the winners.

A Water Winner
Last year's winner (the theme was water issues) was Peggy Knapp, director of programs for the Freshwater Society. Her idea was to start Minnesota FarmWise, a program that would recruit older or retired farmers to help other, newer farmers to farm in a more conservation-minded way "to protect and restore Minnesota's waters." Knapp explains that the Freshwater Society and the National Park Service have spent the last year exploring an enormous amount of research to determine where in the state to target their first efforts and learn what relationships they need to build in order to get the program off the ground.
Laying the groundwork takes a long time, Knapp explains, but winning the Open made it easier to commit to the process. "As a nonprofit, one of the barriers to doing work is funding, and this funding has allowed us to be a little more courageous and try something different," she says. "We're using the grant as seed money, because we have to go at the pace that plants grow."

Holly Dolezalek's last article for The Line discussed the results of a Knight Foundation survey of what we value in our cities, for our January 12, 2011 issue.
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