Best Kept Secret
The Aberdeen Area Community Foundation and Perpetual Support for Aberdeen

Best Kept Secret

Since 1984, the Aberdeen Area Community Foundation has made over 100 grants totaling over $260,000 to support a wide range of nonprofits and charitable activities in the area. Photos are courtesy of Patrick Gallagher and Elizabeth Varin.

Sometimes, it’s been called the best kept secret in town,” Heath Johnson said about the Aberdeen Area Community Foundation, which he chairs. “We do a lot of good here, but we need to be better about tooting our horn—so we can keep on doing good.” And maybe you’ve heard from them in their current campaign to raise funds in order to do more good.

Established in 1984, the AACF has made more than 100 grants totaling over $260,000 to support a wide range of nonprofits and charitable activities in the area. But some of its origins remain a bit of a mystery. According to the Foundation’s website, it was created “to receive and administer a gift from a local businessman. The particulars of that first gift are lost to history.”

Attorney Dennis Maloney served as the first Foundation president, and Julie Johnson, an attorney in his firm, helped prepare the organizing documents (and later joined the board). Neither could say much about the original funding. It seems more important that Julie Johnson recalled why the AACF was created in the first place. “Community foundations were becoming important,” she said, “and we realized that Aberdeen didn’t have a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to raise funds for community improvements.” So, the Chamber of Commerce and the Aberdeen Development Corporation agreed to set up an organization to do that. Thus, the AACF was born.

The people entrusted with shepherding the new organization included community leaders such as Aberdeen Mayor Delphine Janusz, Brown County Commissioners Chair Merrill Rix, and Chamber of Commerce President and Harms Oil owner Duane Harms. They were original members of the board of directors along with other Aberdeen notables. As later news stories would note, however, the Foundation was dormant for several years. Maloney said there were limits on what they could give money to, plus “some organizations were looking for more money than we had to give away.” It didn’t totally hibernate. There was at least one fundraising gala in the early 1990s, but results weren’t reported in the paper.



In the late 1990s, the Foundation rebooted, which Maloney credits to the late Carl Anderson, of the Anderson Agency. In 1998, when Barb Harms was the Foundation president, the Foundation aligned with the South Dakota Community Foundation (SDCF). It became an early partner in SDCF’s community savings account program for local community foundations and took advantage of SDCF’s professional money management and administrative support. In addition, when the Foundation raised $100,000, the SDCF provided a challenge grant of $50,000.

The AACF’s assets are endowed with the SDCF, meaning they are permanently restricted, and AACF spends a percentage of the overall value on grants every year. This principle ensures the fund’s perpetuity as a resource for charitable activity in Aberdeen, as the assets remain intact to grow and to increase the value of each year’s spendable portion.

With that initial fundraising goal achieved and the challenge grant in the bank, the Foundation … took a break. In reality, it seems the board elected to continue raising funds at a less aggressive pace, let the assets grow to increase grant making capability, and award occasional grants.

In about 2010, a fundraising effort led by the late Al and Bette Sandvig and the AACF’s board of directors helped to more than double the Foundation’s assets to its current level of roughly half million dollars. Under the endowment principle, that has allowed the Foundation to make grants of more than $20,000 a year. The SDCF contributed another $50,000 challenge grant to that effort.

The AACF is governed by a local board that over the years has included many active community leaders. In addition to Heath Johnson, the current board includes David Sandvig, Vice Chair, Robert Fouberg, Secretary, Don Kainz, Treasurer, Megan Biegler, Matt Harr, Steven Lust, Bea Smith, and Hannah Walters.



Since its inception, the AACF has made grants of over $260,000 in the Aberdeen area, most of which has been awarded since 2013. Since 2020 alone, the AACF has made more than $100,000 in grants to more than 25 Aberdeen area nonprofits and charitable causes, ranging from education and youth activities to health, human services and COVID needs to economic development.

In recent years, AACF supported construction of the new Aberdeen Area Humane Society shelter, a new stage floor for Aberdeen Community Theatre, a new community center for Fallout Creative Community, Presentation College’s Diversity Club’s celebration of Native American Heritage Month, medical equipment at Horizon Health, and startup costs for the Aberdeen chapter of Sleep in Heavenly Peace.

In addition, the AACF recently made a significant grant to the Aberdeen Family YMCA’s project to expand the Glenna and Rod Fouberg Child Development Center (both Foubergs were involved in the Foundation). The Y’s CEO Mike Quast appreciated the support, “Being able to say we have the support of the community foundation allows us to turn to other people and say look at this investment we’ve received from them. They believe in this project. That means a lot.”



The current board of directors launched a new drive in 2022 to double the current assets up to $1 million, which would allow total annual grants of around $50,000 per year. The SDCF has generously offered another challenge grant of $50,000 if AACF raises $400,000. Board members have been out in the community soliciting support. “The goal is in sight,” Heath Johnson said in late 2022, “but we still need help getting over the top. We think we make a significant difference in the community for a wide range of nonprofits and charitable activities, and we’re designed to be around forever. That’s a great investment in Aberdeen!” //



If your organization is interested in applying for a grant from the Aberdeen Area Community Foundation, the best place to start is the AACF website: The site contains information on how to apply, including a downloadable application form and grantmaking guidelines, as well as descriptions of past grants made in the community.



In addition to its own grants, in recent years the AACF was directly involved in recommending or initiating another $440,000 in grants to the area from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Aberdeen Fund and the South Dakota Community Foundation, which also supported a range of purposes.

In 1998, the Knight Foundation and Knight Ridder, which owned the Aberdeen American News, committed to permanently fund the 26 cities in which Knight Ridder owned newspapers. In 2004, they created the Knight Aberdeen Fund in the SDCF to provide permanent support for the Aberdeen area. Over time, the AACF board took on an advisory role for Knight in identifying and recommending projects for funding. Since its establishment, the Knight Fund has made nearly 90 grants totaling more than $1.25 million, including nearly $300,000 since 2020.

Recently, a significant amount of funding has supported projects at Northern State University, which is a strategic priority of the Knight Aberdeen Fund. Grants totaling nearly $200,000 have supported the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, the Center for Public History and Civic Engagement, and the Northern Start Up Center. Other recent grants have supported a study of downtown second story housing potential, a center to make technology available to Aberdeen newcomers, murals at Malchow Plaza, and art in downtown store windows.

Separate from the totals above, in 2020, Knight also created the Knight Foundation COVID-19 Aberdeen Fund, committing $225,000 to address pandemic-related needs in Aberdeen. Its first grant was $40,000 to the United Way’s COVID Response Fund. Other grants supported food and youth programs at the Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Club, North Highland Methodist Church, and Bethlehem Lutheran Church, as well as technology upgrades to facilitate remote work and learning at the Aberdeen Family YMCA and Boys and Girls Club.

SDCF has made more than $130,000 in grants to the Aberdeen area since 2020, including three $20,000 challenge grants to nonprofit organizations who set up endowment funds in SDCF and raised a challenge amount. This also included $13,000 in grants that matched AACF COVID-related grants to the Salvation Army, NSU, PC, and Boys and Girls Club.



Some wonder what the difference is between the AACF and the United Way. The United Way’s mission is focused on supporting its 20 or so partner agencies, mostly human service organizations, while the AACF has a much broader mandate to support a wide variety of charitable activities. In addition, most funds the United Way raises each year are spent the same year, while AACF’s funds are endowed to provide perpetual support. The United Way has been described as a community’s checking account, and the AACF the savings account.