When Governor George S. Mickelson asked Bernie Christenson to start a Community Foundation for the state of South Dakota in 1987, Christenson quipped that he wasn’t even quite sure how to spell ‘philanthropy.’ But he still said “yes,” because Christenson knew it would be a legacy that would make the Governor proud, and transform the state for good.
“George was a good man,” he says, thinking about those first days raising money for what would become the South Dakota Community Foundation (SDCF), which has grown from an initial investment by the McKnight Foundation of $3 million to assets of $275 million today. “I said ‘yes’ simply because George asked. I was in my second term in the legislature, and the Governor knew that I wasn’t interested in measuring my life by what I did politically.”
When Christenson became SDCF’s first executive director, he had never asked anyone for money. So he went first to a friend, and one of the most philanthropic individuals in the state, Dale Larson. “He was really kind to me,” Christenson recalls with a similar fondness he has, to this day, for the late-Governor Mickelson. “Dale just asked me how much I wanted. I didn’t have an answer. I learned to have an answer from that point forward.”
And forward did Christenson move—and quickly. With the support of friends like Tom Adam, lead counsel for SDCF for more than 20 years; Dwayne Butt, who offered accounting and financial advice; and donors like Paul and Muffy Christen; Christenson was able to grow SDCF into a respected, recognized philanthropic leader in the state and country.
“And then there was Stephanie Judson,” Christenson recalls. “My wife was an elementary school teacher and knew Stephanie from her school days. ‘She’s a smart gal. Grew up on a farm. She knows how to work,’ she told me. We hired her first as an executive assistant. Best decision we ever made. She is absolutely the right person to be leading SDCF into our next 30 years.”
Christenson says SDCF has realized more good across the state than he thinks even Governor Mickelson would have thought possible. “I think he’d be busting his buttons to see what has happened from his initial idea. I think he’d be so proud of the work that has happened over the past 30 years.”
For Christenson, who has since retired but is still quick to support SDCF whenever he can, SDCF is the true definition of philanthropy (which, by the way, he knows how to spell today). “Philanthropy represents everything that is good in our state. So too does the Community Foundation.”