Third Sector Grit

A series on the driving—but often unrecognized—forces behind many nonprofits.

Grit, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is a “firmness of mind or spirit, unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”  The nonprofit sector is great for many reasons, but one of the main reasons for its greatness is what I term, “Third Sector Grit,” which lives out every day in the many stories of unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.  It is a quality that is abundant and at times minimized in the face of “innovation.”

Third Sector Grit is most times not the stories of the sector’s executive leaders; more often it refers to those community champions in each nonprofit who do not have the larger titles but without whom the organization could not move forward.  I would venture to say that the definition of Third Sector Grit is the individuals and stories in each nonprofit that showcase its most valuable asset, the ‘firmness of spirit and unyielding courage in the face of the hardship’ toward fulfilling its mission.

In this series, I highlight individuals who embody the notion of Third Sector Grit.  In a search for individuals, I received dozens of e-mails from around the world nominating individuals.  This time, however, we highlight the Minnesota nonprofit sector, which through innovation and grit has become a model for other states throughout the US. 

The Mini-Apple

Growing up in Minneapolis, the only understanding I had of New York City was obtained either from television or from sweatshirts stating that Minneapolis was the “Mini-Apple.” This marketing led me to understand that New York City was just a larger version of Minneapolis. 

In Minnesota, the culture is commonly referred to as “Minnesota Nice.”  I think this means a number of things for those in and out of the state. According to Wikipedia, “Minnesota nice is the stereotypical behavior of long-time Minnesota residents, to be courteous, reserved, and mild mannered.” A national study by Peter Rentfrow, Samuel Gosling, and Jeff Potter done in 2008 found that Minnesota was the second most agreeable and fifth most extraverted state in the nation, traits these researchers associated with “nice.”

The phrase “Minnesota Nice” rang true almost immediately as I stepped off the train from Minnesota into Penn Station for the first time.  I was coming to New York to spend a year as a volunteer in the housing projects of Red Hook and was picked up by a nun.  As we walked down 6th Avenue to her office I noticed two things. 

First, nobody looked up as they walked and people were rapidly moving from place to place without even looking forward to see where they were going.  It was amazing to see this canvas of synchronized people weaving amongst each other.

The second thing I noticed was people’s lack of interaction.  I said “hi” to those who did look up and made eye contact with me, but I was then greeted with a look of confusion.  The nun who was escorting me forcefully grabbed my hand and said to me under her breath, “Don’t say ‘hi’ to people John! They think you want something from them, like money or drugs.”  I then knew NYC was not the “Mini-Apple” that had been advertised in my adolescence.

I have come to love NYC for so many reasons and truly do think it is the best city in the world. But as I thought about the nonprofit sector over the holidays, I was reminded that Minnesota is one of the best nonprofit centers around.

Nonprofits and Snowstorms

As the recent snowstorm hit the East Coast, my friends from Minnesota e-mailed me about how they were either sick of the news about the East Coast storm or how “wimpy” our area is about snow. 

But as I dug out I noticed a couple of things.  Being buried under snow often brings out the best in people.  There are neighbors on my block whom I have rarely seen. But I helped push someone’s car out or someone else offered me extra salt for my walkway.  My shoveling technique, crafted after many years in Minnesota, was put to good use for the older couple who live across the street. Overall, what I noticed was a rare community experience while snow shoveling which was a frequent occurrence in Minnesota. 

This spirit is why the Minnesota nonprofit sector is one of the best in the United States. Minnesota is either commonly referred to as a model state or has organizations within the state that are serving as a national model. 

During my day to day, I spend a considerable amount of time on the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits website ( and have to believe that most state and national charity leaders should consider this organization when they are looking at where the sector is and should be going.  I would wager that in most nonprofit issues, Minnesota is very likely to have a top performer or model. 

Recent Minnesota Innovations

As I think of all the areas that make up a nonprofit, the one area I rarely speak about is in the usage of technology and communications.  It’s not an area where I have a great deal of expertise, although I use all of the gadgets and subscribe to all the online avenues.  To make sure I am up-to-speed, I pay attention to people like Beth Kanter or organizations like the Benton Foundation.  In December, I happened to notice that the latest technology innovations happen to come out of this great state. 

  • The first was brought to my attention by Ms. Kanter when she reviewed GiveMN, an online effort in Minnesota to help increase online giving in the state.  In their now annual “Give to the Max” Day, this online effort was able to get over 42,000 donors to give over $10 million dollars to Minnesota causes.  What I found most impressive was that donations came from multiple sources, including Facebook, Twitter, E-Mail, Outside Websites and Search Engines. 
  • The second technological innovation is one that has won a number of awards and has most likely has touched your life directly.  The website, CaringBridge, is an organization that provides free websites to connect people experiencing a significant health challenge to family and friends, “making each health journey easier” according to their website.  I can count a number of family and friends who have used CaringBridge to help bring those concerned together. 

Ask me for more reasons why Minnesota is a beacon of nonprofit excellence and my reasons might not be too exact.  At the root level I may only point to the notion of “Minnesota Nice” and the number of months they spend each year helping each other in the snow.

Read more stories by John Brothers.