Kate Wolford: Our Organizational DNA


William McKnight exhibit at 3M’s Innovation Center

The McKnight Foundation’s founder, William L. McKnight, served as president and then chairman of 3M over a 40-year period. In May, the Foundation’s board of directors visited the St. Paul headquarters of the 3M Corporation. Afterward I received a lovely note from the person who led us through 3M’s amazing Innovation Center. She wrote, “At the Innovation Center, I share stories about the great and lasting impact that Mr. McKnight has had on 3M. To meet Mr. McKnight’s family members and to know that they are hard at work carrying on his legacy makes me even prouder to be part of 3M and our community as a whole.”

As The McKnight Foundation celebrates our 60th anniversary this year, this note reminded me of the power of legacy and of vision. Of course, part of the legacy of William McKnight and his wife Maude are the financial resources that support the Foundation’s charitable purposes. Just as important, I believe, for the Foundation’s impact over so many years is a legacy of enduring values. Thanks to Mr. McKnight’s visionary business philosophy, the value of innovation — specifically of creating the conditions that support innovation — is deeply embedded in the Foundation’s DNA.


Original desk and belongings

In a 2003 Fortune article, “The 10 Greatest CEOs of All Time,” author Jim Collins wrote this about William McKnight: “The early giants of industry tend to fall into one of two camps: Individual innovators (think Walt Disney) and system builders (think John D. Rockefeller). 3M’s William McKnight falls into neither. Beginning in 1929, the bookish accountant fused the two models into something entirely new: a company that turned innovation into a systematic, repeatable process. While you couldn’t predict exactly what McKnight’s system would create, you could predict with certainty that it would create… McKnight was not just a first-rate intelligence, but a genius — a genius whose company was lucky by design.”

Today, The McKnight Foundation uses a robust toolkit that includes research, grantmaking, convening and collaboration, and strategic policy reform to pursue ambitious goals. Our Strategic Framework spells out how we understand the context in which we operate and how we approach our work. As we work on complex societal issues that require cross-discipline and cross-sector approaches, we seek to create conditions that allow us (collectively) to generate new knowledge, and to test, adapt, and spread promising and proven practices. In doing so, we seek to be “lucky by design,” knowing that we will need to adapt based on what we learn through research and implementation data, and as external circumstances change.

If you haven’t already read it, please take a look at our Strategic Framework, and let me know if it sparks any reflections or new ideas for you.

Kate KateWolford_thumbWolford
President, McKnight Foundation