Lee Newspapers: First lady forms nonprofit to fund initiatives

Montana’s first lady is forming a nonprofit foundation to fund her initiatives that include helping children with literacy and math and sciences, as well as completing the planned renovation of the governor’s residence.

Susan Gianforte recently established the Treasure State Foundation, which is in the process of getting 501(c)3 status from the IRS.

Gianforte said in speaking with first spouses around the country, they described their initiatives and said that they had foundations to support them.

“(I thought) that would be just a great way to get some resources through a charitable organization to initiatives I was interested in,” Gianforte said last month.

It’s the first such organization in Montana to help first spouses work on issues they want to address. The foundation will accept personal and corporate donations, and most of the money raised to date has come from two governor’s balls held around the holidays.

The foundation is set up so it’s not tied to Gianforte specifically but whoever is the governor’s spouse, so the next spouse can make it their own. Funds will also transition with the foundation.

The board includes Gianforte; Betti Hill and Lorna Kuney, who has served as treasurer for several GOP candidates and will have a treasurer role for the foundation.

Gianforte said she picked a focus on reading and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, because she’s seen how literacy and a good education has changed her life, her own children’s and others too.

“I think it’s just critical for children to be able to read and be prepared when they get to school to be ready to learn,” Gianforte said, adding that her professional background is in the STEM realm.

Gianforte has undergraduate and graduate degrees in mechanical engineering, as well as an MBA. She’s held numerous positions in the engineering and tech arena with companies around the country, including as controller during the beginning of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman. She also handles the finances of the Gianforte Family Foundation, of which she is a trustee.

When it comes to reading, Gianforte said literacy creates access to all kinds of opportunity and further learning.

“When a child learns to read, it’s a light bulb going off and the world just opens up,” Gianforte said.

One of the resources Gianforte aims to tap is the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program that mails children from birth to age 5 a book every month.

She’s been in touch with a number of the affiliates already in Montana and wants to expand to a statewide program.

On the STEM initiative, Gianforte’s main push will be to get in front of kids and encourage them to to consider math and science courses to see if it appeals to them. She’s already spoken to girls’ coding groups and participated in a science olympiad and said kids have been excited to learn the first spouse of Montana is an engineer.

“I want students to know that it’s out there and that it’s a really great option if they have interest in math and science, to really consider pursuing that,” Gianforte said.

Reading and STEM are “foundational to kids having the opportunity to thrive as they grow and mature,” Gianforte said. “It just made a huge difference in my childhood and having a good, strong foundation as I went into high school and then into college so that I was prepared to be successful.”

Another focus of the nonprofit will be the renovation of the governor’s residence, which hasn’t had a major overhaul since it was built in 1959, Gianforte said.

The Legislature appropriated funding in 2019 but said it couldn’t be used until 2021, and by the time the process started the cost of the work had increased.

“Prices have gone up … so there is a shortfall for the construction and I think the Treasure State Foundation for a limited short-term project could help fill in the gap so that more money doesn’t need to be appropriated,” Gianforte said.