Giving Interests: Education, libraries, environment/conservation, human services
If a "Giving Hall of Fame" were ever established in Minnesota, Elmer L. Andersen would certainly be a charter member. For more than six decades Andersen gave to the state in countless ways — as a citizen, government official, philanthropic and community leader, and CEO.
Charitable giving was part of Andersen's life from an early age. "I think that giving is closely related to religion, and having been brought up in a church home it was just taken for granted," he said. "My mother was a volunteer church worker, and she instilled in us that we should serve however we can."
Andersen kept those values with him when, in 1941, he bought a controlling stake in a small, struggling St. Paul glue company called H.B. Fuller. He served as the company's president for most of the next 30 years, building it into a global adhesives industry leader. From the start Andersen instilled in H.B. Fuller an unusual philosophy that did not stress maximizing profits at all costs, but instead placed a high value on treating employees well and on giving back to the communities in which Fuller operated.
"The main value of a corporate foundation is to make a commitment to be a 5 percent company," said Andersen, referring to giving 5 percent of profits to charity, "and to be a model to the employees. They can be proud of their company if it is giving, and it might lead them to think that they could do something on their own."
Andersen also gave back to his community through exemplary public service. As a state senator from 1949 to 1958, he championed legislation on fair employment practices, the state's first civil rights bill, and special education. As the state's last two-year governor, from 1960 to 1962, he led the cause of creating new parks, an effort that eventually led to the establishment of Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota.
Andersen's love for the environment and passion for education and books carried into his growing philanthropic endeavors after he left the governor's mansion. He and his wife, Eleanor, established the Elmer L. and Eleanor J. Andersen Foundation in 1957, with a donation of H.B. Fuller stock. Through the foundation they funded the work of many education, environment, arts and human service groups, as well as numerous libraries.
"A personal foundation is an ideal way for a small businessman to control his company, increase his personal cash income and set up a base for future giving," Andersen said. "And you can achieve your own purpose as well as serve a bigger purpose — I've always found that to be a nice arrangement.
"A foundation can also provide stability when times are good and times are bad. It's really kind of cruel to build up expectations by a few years of giving and then suddenly stop. Everybody needs long-range planning and steadiness."
The Andersens' foundation has been a longtime, consistent contributor of many large grants to a university horticultural library named in their honor. But Andersen said he loves to give the small grants as much as the large ones.
Along with his own foundation's work, Andersen was involved in many other philanthropic efforts during his lifetime. He served on the board of trustees of the Bush Foundation in St. Paul from 1970 through 1982, the last eight years as president, and as a trustee and president of a university foundation.
Andersen also served as a University of Minnesota regent from 1967 to 1975. In 1999, he gave the university more than 12,000 rare and precious books from his personal collection that were appraised at more than $760,000.
Looking back on nearly a century of life, Andersen had some simple advice for others wanting to make a difference. "If you want to save attractive land for public use, or get a piece of legislation passed, or organize your giving, start something," he said. "People can do great things if they just begin.
"Every person is different. There are things to be done in this world that maybe only you can do. And if you don't do them with your special talent and special make-up, they just won't get done."