Early in 1999, seasoned professionals drawn from academia, government, foundations, nonprofit management and organizational development began meeting for two years to plan the development of an organization unique in Montana. They were concerned about how Montana’s nonprofit organizations struggled to accomplish their missions in the face of challenges that were significantly different from their urban counterparts and often required specialized approaches. Like other very rural states, Montana’s communities are distant from one another, with low population densities, and challenged local economies. Additionally, twenty years ago, institutional philanthropy was much more modest in scale, nonprofit management training opportunities were scarce, and the infrastructure to support and advocate for the nonprofit sector was minimal.

The founders of Big Sky Institute for the Advancement of Nonprofits (BSI) envisioned that the organization would develop sustainable structures and resources to assist Montana nonprofits in building their own capacities to effectively carry out their missions and deliver programs and services. To accomplish this, BSI would carry out research, dissemination, education, leadership development and special projects having significant promise to advance the state nonprofit sector. Recognizing the need for new funding to support nonprofit sector growth and development, BSI’s mission was soon broadened to include a strategic focus on expanding philanthropy.

BSI filed its Articles of Incorporation as a nonprofit organization with the State of Montana in 1999, and received its advance ruling from the IRS as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization in 2000. Following its two-year planning and development phase, BSI formally opened its office in January of 2001, with founder Mike Schechtman serving as BSI’s Executive Director. 2021 was BSI’s Twentieth Anniversary, and BSI celebrates two decades of ground-breaking work.

Over its first two decades, BSI has worked at the national, regional, state and community levels in capacity building initiatives that have created new infrastructure to serve the state nonprofit sector. BSI also developed and conducted its own capacity building programs that have strengthened hundreds of nonprofits. Using its headquarters, the community of Helena as its learning laboratory, BSI has pioneered a suite of linked, community-based capacity building programs that BSI, in time, will make available to other Montana communities.

As BSI enters its third decade, we are expanding programs, staffing and funding. New initiatives are being developed to help nonprofits sustainably expand and robustly train their fundraising staff. BSI is also launching a new initiative to develop permanently endowed grantmaking programs in the early childhood development field. The times we live in often present unexpected challenges; that said, BSI’s future looks bright and quite promising.