Hometown Help: Unique community fund enables town of Ashby to take care of their own during COVID-19 crisis

January 13, 2021

By Jimmy Egeland

Despite a small population that hovers around 500, the people of Ashby, Minnesota are making a big impact in their community. Rallying around the challenges faced by the economic effects of the coronavirus, the Ashby Legacy Fund—the town’s community fund—raised over $52,000 in recent weeks to support more than a dozen local businesses and over 100 families who are experiencing financial hardship. The outpouring of support may seem like a timely endeavor, but in actuality, the Ashby Legacy Fund has laid the foundation for community support far before any news of a global pandemic.

Back in 2018, Rob Nelson, CEO of NorthRock Partners, a financial services firm based in Minneapolis, helped found the Ashby Legacy Fund along with local community leaders with a goal of giving back to his hometown and the community he says helped raised him. Nelson, who also serves as President of the non-profit, looks back fondly on his upbringing, but with one catch.

“Growing up, Ashby was the quintessential American town. The community was tightknit, supportive, and was a big factor in molding me into the man I am today,” Nelson said. “It’s still all of those things and more, but my progression through higher education and entrepreneurship doesn’t happen enough in small towns. I want to show the kids growing up today that there are so many different ways to define success, but the one consistency is getting some type of continuing education after high school. The true importance of college or vocational school wasn’t pushed enough, but based on my parents’ insistence, I pursued it. I want to show the kids of Ashby that they have options and opportunities far beyond what they might expect.”

The goal of the Ashby Legacy Fund is threefold: community initiatives, school programing, and a scholarship program. The first of the three was on full display with the $52,000 in funds quickly raised for businesses and families economically affected by the pandemic, but the education-based goals of the foundation have been solidly in place.

The scholarship program has garnered the most attention in the community. In fact, Ashby has seen an uptick in school enrollment since the announcement of the Ashby Legacy Fund’s initiatives. Each Ashby student receives a rolling scholarship balance for every year they are enrolled in the town’s public school. Starting in first grade, students receive $100, then $200 more in second grade, $300 more in third grade, and so on. A student who graduates and has spent their entire tenure at Ashby Public School will receive a scholarship of $7,800 or more depending on annual support from the community and alumni. Students must meet volunteering and fundraising project requirements to help sustain the fund, while serving the community and building real-world experience. At a young age, students quickly learn the value of hard work and the impact community service has for others as well as themselves.

Heidi Hoff, Ashby Legacy Fund’s executive director, already sees the impact the scholarship fund has had on the town’s children and their parents.

“We make a point to present every child in the school with their ongoing balance each year. It is an amazing experience to see their eyes light up when they see they have hundreds of dollars waiting for them if they stay the course,” Hoff said. “These kids run home and tell their parents that they have a $100 or $200 scholarship and the college or secondary education conversation starts. Getting kids and parents thinking and talking about secondary education and career aspirations early is one of our biggest goals.”

In less than two years, the town has rallied around the very fund that has come to its aid. The Ashby Legacy Fund has raised over $750,000 from generous admirers and advocates of the initiative, as well as both former and current residents who have seen firsthand the benefits of living in the midwestern town. Despite getting off to a good start, Nelson cautions that now is not the time to rest as the fund aims to distribute $250,000 annually into the scholarship program, community support, and school programming.

“Our goal is to have the Ashby Legacy Fund build a self-sustaining endowment, and while I am encouraged with our progress, we are still not close to our goal,” Nelson said. “We are fundraising now more than ever because we are starting to see that this is something that the community is passionate about and is a model any number of communities could follow.”

As far as small towns go, Ashby, Minnesota demonstrates what is possible when it comes to taking care of a community. As a pandemic casts doubt on society’s immediate future, the people of Ashby can sleep a little easier knowing that the Ashby Legacy Fund is providing support to the town now and in the future. To donate or for more information about the Ashby Legacy Fund, you can visit their website at https://ashbylegacyfund.org/.