The Otto Bremer Trust is a philanthropic organization based in Minnesota which supports socially focused projects and organizations in the Upper Midwest of the United States. Since 2014, the Trust has garnered criticism for its internal restructuring, the unusually high compensation of its trustees, and its decision to consider selling or merging Bremer Financial Corp.
The Otto Bremer Trust was founded in 1944 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. 1 The Trust’s founder and namesake, Otto Bremer, was an American banker and philanthropist who had immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century. Bremer founded the Trust largely to support the civic and economic integration of other and future immigrants into the American economy, to support rural banks, and to support the health of communities with Bremer bank branches in them. 2 The Trust owns and derives much of its revenue from shares of Bremer Financial Corp., the parent company of Bremer Bank, which comprises 86 percent of the corporation’s stock. 3
In July 2014, the Trust’s then-executive director, Randi Ilyse Roth, resigned from her position in the trust without explanation. 4 Afterward, the Trust’s three trustees became Co-CEOs of the Trust. According to a report published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a left-progressive watchdog of nonprofit management, the Trustees appear to have been engaged in inappropriate behavior. For instance, the report notes that in the decade preceding the restructuring, the Trustees’ salaries increased by 1000 percent. 5
In late October 2019, the Trust announced that it was considering plans to sell or merge the Bremer Financial Corporation in order to bolster its funds and increase its activity. In response, the corporation filed a lawsuit alleging that the trustees were acting contrary to the Trust’s foundational purpose, and that the group had hired a banker to approach possible buyers, in that process conveying confidential information without the appropriate approval from the corporation. 67
The trust’s financial activity largely falls into three categories: grants to socially oriented organizations active in Minnesota, North Dakota, and western Wisconsin; investments in organizations intended to both yield revenue for the Trust and further its social objectives; and investments in companies solely intended to yield revenue for the Trust. 8
Organizations which the Trust has made grants to include 180 degrees, Inc, for a project to build a youth development campus; 360 Communities, for spending related to promote self sufficiency among adults in Dakota County, Minnesota; A Chance to Grow, Inc., to support a preschool program for poor children in Western and South Central Minnesota; and Adult Day Services, Inc., to provide transportation assistance for elderly and disabled residents of Beltrami, Hubbard, and Cass, Minnesota. 9
In 2020, it was reported that two Bremer Financial Corp board members allegedly conspired to sell bank shares, resulting in job cuts and branches being shut down, to raise their compensation. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison cited deleted text messages between board members Brian Lipschultz and Daniel Reardon to ask a Ramsey Court Judge to remove the two board members for “lavish spending, hiking up their compensation” and “paying themselves redundant fees.” 10
In February 2021, Bremer Financial Corp voted to remove Lipschultz and Reardon from its board after asking them to resign. The board wrote that the decision was made because of “excessive compensation and spending” and that the two shifted the focus of the trust away from charitable giving. The vote only managed to remove them from the board of Bremer Financial Corp, but they remain on the board of Otto Bremer Trust. 11
- “Otto Bremer Trust.” ProPublica. Accessed May 21, 2020. https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/416019050
- “History: Planting the Seeds for the Good.” Otto Bremer Trust. Accessed May 21, 2020. https://ottobremer.org/about-us/#History
- “Otto Bremer Trust to explore strategic options for Bremer Financial Corporation.” Otto Bremer Trust. October 28, 2019. Accessed May 21, 2020. https://ottobremer.org/news_stories/2019-10-28-news/
- Sepic, Matt. “Bremer Foundation executive director pushed out amid restructuring.” MPR News June 19, 2014. Accessed May 25, 2020. https://www.mprnews.org/story/2014/06/19/bremer-foundation-executive-director-pushed-out-amid-restructuring
- Moor, Kristina. “NCRP CALLS ON IRS TO INVESTIGATE OTTO BREMER FOUNDATION.” National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy. July 30, 2020. Accessed May 21, 2020. https://www.ncrp.org/2014/07/irs-should-investigate-otto-bremer-foundation.html
- Bremer Financial Corporation, et al. Complaint. Second Judicial District Court, Ramsey County, Minnesota. November 19, 2019. Accessed May 21, 2020. https://mms.businesswire.com/media/20191119006119/en/757900/1/2019-11-19_Complaint_AND_EXHIBITS.pdf
- St. Anthony, Nea. “Bremer Financial lawsuit accuses foundation directors of disloyalty in effort to sell bank.” Star Tribune. November 19, 2019. Accessed May 21, 2020. http://www.startribune.com/bremer-financial-lawsuit-accuses-foundation-directors-of-disloyalty-in-effort-to-sell-bank/565184992/
- “Three Way of Investing for Maximum Impact.” Otto Bremer Trust. Accessed May 21, 2020. https://ottobremer.org/about-us/#History
- “Grant and PRI Recipients.” Otto Bremer Trust. Accessed May 21, 2020. https://ottobremer.org/recipients/
- Melo, Frederick. “Recovered Text Messages, Interviews Reveal Tense Efforts at Raising Trustee Pay Through BREMER Bank Sale,” September 2, 2020. https://www.twincities.com/2020/08/30/recovered-text-messages-interviews-reveal-tense-efforts-at-raising-trustee-pay-through-bremer-bank-sale/.
- Melo, Frederick. “Otto Bremer Trust Leaders Are Asked to Resign from Bremer Bank Board.” Twin Cities. Twin Cities, February 23, 2021. https://www.twincities.com/2021/02/22/otto-bremer-trust-leaders-are-asked-to-resign-from-bremer-bank-board/.