Sonsteng gift paying dividends throughout community

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Robert Sonsteng

Applications being sought for $26,000 in grants

When Robert C. Sonsteng left an estate worth nearly $10 million to the community his gift was called “transformational.” It is already living up to that billing through foundation grants awarded in the past year.

Sonsteng, a bachelor farmer who lived northeast of Benson in Langhei Township, died Sept. 21, 2014, at the age of 81. From the cash assets of his estate, $2 million was used to establish the Robert C. Sonsteng Foundation.

Another $1 million was given to the Southwest Minnesota Initiative Fund with investment earnings to come back to the Benson Area Community Foundation. An additional $500,000 was invested with Thrivent.

Last month, the Sonsteng Foundation donated $25,000 to the Benson Public School’s Discovery Kids program. It provides day care for children 33 months to sixth grade.

But the good news for the program is that the donation made April 10 during a Benson Kiwanis meeting was just the first of five annual gifts that will be made with the total contribution coming to $125,000.

Those funds go toward meeting one of the most pressing needs for all small town communities throughout rural Minnesota – day care. A strong day care program is a substantial asset for a community trying to attract workers to fill job openings. It also allows parents who otherwise might not be able to find day care to enter the local workforce.

Other substantial grants from the Sonsteng Foundation include annual grants of $50,000 to Swift County-Benson Health Services over the next 10 years for a total of $500,000. The foundation is also providing a $750,000 loan to SCBHS to back its Scandi Haven Village senior living and memory care facility construction.

Benson Attorney Don Wilcox worked with Sonsteng on his estate planning as he neared the end of his life and now serves as the president of his foundation.

“The three primary things for him were the hospital, the school and churches,” Wilcox said in an interview Monday. “That is why we picked Discovery Kids as one of the grants we thought was worthwhile.”

The grants to SCBHS fit the purpose of his foundation while the loan is just another way of investing the foundation’s money, he said.

In just the past year, not including the $50,000 to SCHBS and the $25,000 to Discovery Kids, the Sonsteng Foundation has given away another $80,000 to local organizations, Wilcox said. These grants have been in $5,000 and $10,000 amounts. And, he added, that the foundation is “just getting up to speed with just one full year” of investment earnings being used for grants.

The Benson Area Community Foundation (BACF) has also been making substantial grants to local organizations and is again asking for applications. The BACF includes funds it had prior to the Sonsteng endowment as well as funds from the Dr. R. Galen Hanson Foundation.

It was estimated that the Sonsteng estate gift would increase the amount available each year in community from the BACF and Hanson foundations for grant awards from about $11,000 to $50,000.

In this round of grant applications, there is $26,000 in grant funds available. Another round of grant applications will likely be sought in the fall.

Grant funds must be used to promote: education; quality of life; arts and humanities; recreation; community parks; and the environment. The use must benefit residents in the geographic area of Benson, including Clontarf, Danvers, DeGraff and Swift Falls – the general area encompassed by School District 777.

Applications must specify how grant award funds will help the organization applying improve the community. Organizations must also be a non-profit charitable organization designated as a 501c3 by the Internal Revenue Service or have a secure fiscal agent.

The grant application submission deadline is May 31.  It is anticipated that grant award decisions and notification to award winners will be made in June.

So far, earnings from the Thrivent investment have yet to be used, Wilcox said.  

Another source of revenue for the Sonsteng Foundation is the rental of farmland that has remained with the estate. Steve, Mark, Darrin and Scott Nelson farm the land. The Nelsons were neighbors of Sonsteng and rented the land for years prior to his death.

Steve, Scott and Darrin also serve on the Sonsteng Foundation board along with Ben Wilcox, Don Wilcox’s son and a partner in the Wilcox Law Office. Benson dentist Dr. Tony Hilleren, a neighbor of Sonsteng’s, also serves on the board.

For more information or to obtain a copy of the BACF grant application document or guidelines for grant-making, please mail a request to the Benson Area Community Foundation, Box 25, Benson, MN 56215; email chuckkoenigs@gmail.com; or call Chuck Koenigs at 320-808-9129.

To apply directly to the Sonsteng Foundation for grant funds, a person can either send the request to the BACF or to Wilcox Law Office, 1150 Wisconsin Avenue, Benson, MN 56215.

About Robert Sonsteng

Sonsteng was born in Glasgow, Montana, in 1933. In 1945, when he was 12 years old, his parents moved to a farm in Langhei Township in southern Pope County. He attended school in Benson and in 1951 graduated from Benson High School.

Sonsteng’s brother, Murien, died in June 2013 leaving Robert alone on the family farm. Not long after, however, he entered Meadow Lane’s Golden Living Center in Benson and died Sept. 21, 2014.

The Sonstengs were very frugal throughout their lives, Wilcox said. Robert and Murien, like their parents, spent very little money on themselves. Through the years their assets continued to build helped by the steadily increasing value of their farmland, a period of excellent commodity prices, and because they touched little of what they were putting away.

It took nearly a year to put together all the assets of Sonsteng, who had funds in over a dozen banking institutions, Wilcox said. When it was finally totaled up, his estate was valued at over $10 million.

 

 

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