By Amy Sitze
(Inver Grove Heights, MN) — In 2017, Nanci Lilja did something she says “was totally outside my box and scared me to death”: she took on a new role as president of the CHS Foundation. Funded by charitable gifts from CHS, the foundation supports cooperative education, university partnerships and ag leadership programs.
Lilja, who also serves as senior director, legal and compliance operations, started at CHS in 1979 as a legal assistant. As time went on, she earned her paralegal certification, several advanced certifications, an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree, while taking on roles of increasing responsibility in the legal and compliance department. When a senior leader asked if she’d be interested in the CHS Foundation role, Lilja decided to take a leap of faith and apply, even though it was outside her expertise.
“It was an opportunity to do something that was completely different from everything I’d been doing in my past,” she says. “And it was an opportunity to see CHS from a different lens – how it provides value not only to its farmer-owners, but also to their communities and their families.”
Supporting agricultural communities remained Lilja’s primary focus as she built and strengthened relationships with organizations such as FFA, 4-H, National Ag in the Classroom, MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences) and Agriculture Future of America. In coordination with the stewardship team, she added more rigor to the process of assessing and awarding grants to make sure the results were objective and defensible. The team also crafted a strategic plan with measurable goals for the two areas of CHS stewardship: community giving and the foundation.
In recognition of the strong partnership between CHS and FFA, Lilja was awarded the Honorary American Degree, the FFA’s highest honor, at the organization’s national convention in October 2022. The award recognizes people who have provided exceptional service to agriculture, agricultural education or FFA.
“I felt like our entire team should have been up there on stage,” Lilja says. “The work we do is truly a group effort, and we’re all very passionate about the work we support and organizations we partner with.”
Lilja is retiring from CHS on February 1 after 43 years with the company. She and her husband, Mike, plan to spend time with their four grandchildren, travel internationally and do some RV camping. As she looks back on more than four decades at CHS, she says she’s especially grateful for all the people who encouraged her along the way. “I’ve had so many opportunities to take on new challenges and grow professionally,” she says. “I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to spend my career at a company I love so much and have so much respect for.”