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In this guest blog post, Mary Chung and Shana Zaiser of the Minnesota State Fair Foundation share how one of Minnesota’s most treasured cultural traditions has adapted with optimism.

Ed. Note - The Foundation occasionally offers this platform for nonprofit leaders to share their thoughts on current events. This is a guest blog post written by Mary Chung and Shana Zaiser of the Minnesota State Fair Foundation. To learn more about the foundation and their work in our community, visit their website.

By Mary Chung and Shana Zaiser

Since its inception in 1854, the Minnesota State Fair has been a place where Minnesota has come together to learn, show, experience and celebrate. In 2019, over two million people attended the fair during its twelve-day run. The State Fair is one of Minnesota’s most treasured cultural traditions and collective experiences with a broad audience that mirrors the population of Minnesota, blending young and old, rural and urban, all cultures and races, and people from across the socio-economic spectrum.

In 2020, for the first time in over 60 years and for only the sixth time in its history, the Minnesota State Fair was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also coined the “Great Minnesota Get-Together,” in 2020 getting together was exactly what we couldn’t do. For so many Minnesotans, the news was devastating. For the State Fair and the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, the impact was immense. In addition to not being able deliver its educational, artistic, social and economic benefits to the community, the State Fair also found itself challenged to maintain the 322-acre fairgrounds (and over 100 permanent structures) with a fraction of its staff and revenue.

Finding Joy in The Change

Like so many organizations, the Minnesota State Fair pivoted.

They created Crop Art To-Go crafting kits (if you don’t know what crop art is, be sure to stop into the Agriculture-Horticulture Building next time you’re at the fair), created a State Fair Party-in-a-Box so people could host their own fair celebrations at home, sold branded cups from their inventory, produced online educational content and were even able to host the limited-attendance, in-person Fine Arts Exhibition of Minnesota in the Fine Arts Center.

The largest undertaking though was something completely unimaginable pre-pandemic: the State Fair Food Parade, which replaced strolling the fairgrounds with driving and provided Minnesotans with a safe way to get a taste of the fair.

While there was no question these activities did not serve as a substitute for the real thing, the parades brought a much-needed spark of joy for so many Minnesotans during a challenging year. And while they helped the State Fair get through, this year has affirmed the critical importance of philanthropic support of the fair.

During a time filled with unknowns, the loyalty of donors to the Minnesota State Fair Foundation and the excitement of new supporters has been an inspiration to the employees of the Minnesota State Fair and State Fair Foundation alike.

From Get Together to Give Together

The Minnesota State Fair Foundation is a 501(c)(3) created to preserve and improve the buildings, fairgrounds and educational programs of the State Fair. In its relatively short history (since 2002), the State Fair Foundation has supported over $15 million in capital and program improvements on the fairgrounds. These investments have elevated agricultural education, arts and culture, history and heritage, the environment and education at the fair.

While the Minnesota State Fair Foundation has diverse revenue sources, much of the funding is generated in connection with the annual fair. With no fair in 2020, the Foundation’s ability to support the State Fair during this unprecedented challenge was also tested.

It was ultimately the State Fair Food Parades that provided the Minnesota State Fair Foundation with a truly unique opportunity. With the help of a dedicated group of volunteers, the Foundation was able to double the number of official “Friends of the Fair,” the Foundation’s giving program that offers donors perks as a thank you for their gift. At the Food Parades, new and renewing Friends of the Fair received car flags so that they could proudly display their love for the fair.

Friends of the Fair is just one of the ways that donors can support the State Fair through the Foundation. Commemorative bricks, benches and tables may be placed on the fairgrounds to honor loved ones or celebrate milestones; and donors are able to direct gifts to areas of the Minnesota State Fair they care about the most.

The Foundation strives to accept gifts in whatever way makes the most financial sense for donors and has partnered with the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation to offer people the ability to give through a Charitable Gift Annuity. This type of gift offers donors stability with a guaranteed income stream for life, support for the fair at the end of life, and certain tax advantages depending on financial situations.

During a time filled with unknowns, the loyalty of donors to the Minnesota State Fair Foundation and the excitement of new supporters has been an inspiration to the employees of the Minnesota State Fair and State Fair Foundation alike. It serves as a motivation to tackle near-term COVID-related uncertainties such as disruptions to labor markets and supply chain challenges, as well as the long-term financial effects of the 2020 cancellation that will impact the State Fair’s ability to invest in desired fairgrounds improvements for years to come.

There is optimism as the State Fair gears up to welcome guests to the fairgrounds for the Great Minnesota Get-Back-Together, educating and involving guests at a world-class showcase that is innovative, entertaining and fun.

During those twelve days, Minnesotans will again gather to celebrate the very best of each other. And the Foundation will be there celebrating too, with all of our new Friends of the Fair who are there with us helping to make the fair the best it can be.

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