Mardag Foundation Marks 50th Anniversary

The life and legacy of founder Agnes Ober is celebrated as a compassionate philanthropist whose impoverished childhood inspired a lifelong commitment to giving

The Mardag Foundation, a force in supporting the vibrancy and needs of Minnesotans in the East Metro and greater Minnesota, today announced the celebration of 50 years of giving. Since its founding after the death in 1969 of Agnes Dagmar Elmer Ober, who knew deep poverty as a child, the Foundation has invested in programs of importance in her life. Support has been given to 1,104 organizations through 3,035 grants. Through 2018, more than $69 million in grants have been made.

On its golden anniversary, the foundation is honoring its founder for her quiet generosity and enduring commitment to helping communities and people in need. It is also celebrating her visionary philosophy: Ober provided that her descendants be allowed to direct foundation grants to the pressing societal needs of their generations – and not be limited to areas supported at the time the foundation was created.

The daughter of German immigrants, Ober was born in St. Paul in 1887. Overcoming a childhood marked by poverty, the loss of her mother and adoption at age nine influenced Ober’s commitment to philanthropy.

Agnes’ life and fortunes changed dramatically after her adoption by James and Katherine Elmer, and later with her marriage to St. Paul businessman Edgar Ober, who was an early investor in 3M. “Both my grandparents were deeply involved in giving back to the state that had given them so much. Yet it was my grandmother’s volunteer involvement, paired with her love of the arts and music, that shaped and continues to guide the foundation,” said Mardag Foundation Board Chair Tim Ober.

Marginalized children, youth and families; seniors with barriers to living independently; building capacity of arts and humanities organizations; and supporting community development in St. Paul are among the areas that were important to Ober and continue to receive foundation support.

The foundation was established shortly after Ober’s death as the Ober Charitable Trust. It was dissolved in 1992 to improve operating efficiencies and renamed Mardag Foundation, which is the reverse spelling of Ober’s middle name, Dagmar. Today, the family foundation is led by a board comprising third-and fourth-generation descendants and community members.

“Agnes was a woman before her time. She understood that the world would change and so should the focus of her foundation’s grantmaking,” said Ann Mulholland, executive vice president of the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, of which the Mardag Foundation is a client. “Agnes was a visionary who had the foresight to make it possible for her trust document to provide the flexibility that would give future generations the ability to respond to present day societal needs.”

Two Minnesota-based grantees that continue to reflect Ober’s interests are the Parent Aware Pathways Initiative program in northeastern Minnesota, a program operated by the Northland Foundation that serves over 1,500 childcare providers annually, and Mankato’s VINE Faith in Action, a nonprofit organization that serves the needs of over 1,700 older Blue Earth County adults.

“With support from the Mardag Foundation, we are able to offer training, incentives, technical assistance and peer learning to meet the ongoing needs of licensed family or center-based childcare providers,” said Lynn Haglin, vice president of the Northland Foundation, which serves a seven-county area in northeastern Minnesota. “It is rewarding to see how, with the Mardag grants, we can help improve the wellbeing of children and families in our area.”

Helping adults age successfully is at the core of VINE’s services. “With the Mardag Foundation’s support, we are able to offer programs and services to help older adults continue to live independently. They come to us for exercise, to learn English, play a musical instrument or socialize,” said Pam Determan, VINE’s executive director and founder. “The Mardag Foundation is a significant partner and friend to us as we work to enrich lives.”

“Our 50th anniversary is a time for celebration as we mark a milestone and look forward with great anticipation to what future generations will contribute,” said Ober. “Agnes’ great-grandchildren have begun making an impact by bringing their experiences, ideas and energy to our discussions and decisions. And although the Mardag Foundation may look different 50 years from now, what will remain a constant is that the legacy of Agnes Ober – to give generously, enrich lives and help people and communities in need – will remain our guiding star.”

Editor’s note: Find a photo of Agnes Ober, copy of the 50th Anniversary booklet, short movie chronicling Agnes’ life, and a roster of first-round 2019 grantees on the Mardag Foundation website.

About Mardag Foundation
Established in 1969, the Mardag Foundation is the legacy of Agnes Ober. The Foundation provides grants to nonprofit organizations that enhance quality of life, inspire learning, revitalize communities and build capacity for the arts across the state of Minnesota. Agnes’ passion lives on through the work of her descendants who serve on the Foundation’s board. The Foundation is an affiliate of the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation. Learn more at

About the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation

Founded in Saint Paul in 1940, the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation is Minnesota’s largest community foundation and a partner with thousands of donors, professional advisors, nonprofits and community organizations. The Foundation supports more than 2,000 charitable organizations and donor funds and manage nearly $1.5 billion in assets, including F. R. Bigelow Foundation and Mardag Foundation. Visit: