Our 2018 Impact Report
— Download a PDF of the full report here.
— Read the full interview with Michael Roberts immediately below.
— Read the full interview with Sherry Salway Black below the Michael Roberts interview.
By Michael E. Roberts (Tlingit)
President & CEO
First Nations Development Institute
Why is capitalizing Native communities such an important part of First Nations’ three-prong approach to achieving its mission?
In the early years First Nations spent a great deal of effort investigating the impediments for economic development in Indian communities. One of the themes that repeatedly came up is the lack of capital. Specifically, capital in the form of the following: 1) Debt capital for business and personal credit, 2) Equity capital for business building, and 3) Institutional capital for the building of healthy nonprofits. These supply the enabling infrastructure for the other economic development to happen. First Nations, being a solutions-oriented organization, set out to address some of those missing pieces of infrastructure.
Please define what constitutes capitalizing Native Communities. What are the different ways to achieve this goal?
First Nations has always been a community-centered organization, meaning that we do not believe that we hold the answers for Native communities — rather that we believe that Native communities hold the genius and power to address their own challenges. In the case of the lack of debt capital, First Nations in the early 1980s began working with a small group of visionary leaders on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to address the community’s lack of debt capital. In 1986, this group incorporated the Lakota Fund, the first of what would become many Native Community Development Financial Institutions (NCDFIs). This model has proved to be a much-needed element in Indian Country development. Even more heartening has been the rapid growth of the NCDFI sector. In 1999, First Nations spun out one of programs into its own organization, creating the First Nations Oweesta Corporation. Since that time, the NCDFI sector has grown from a small handful of NCDFIs to more than 75 certified NCDFIs today. And while Oweesta has been an incredible catalyst for this growth, the main driver has been the market demand for debt capital in Indian communities.
On the institutional capital for Indian non-profits, while we have done some, there is still much to do. First Nations recognized early that there were very few resources from private philanthropy making their way to reservation communities. We also witnessed that a great deal of the work that needed to happen might only be accomplished by these same under-funded non-profits who were doing the heavy lifting to create the enabling infrastructure for private enterprise growth (e.g. NCDFIs). Our work on the institutional capital side has taken two tacks – direct grantmaking and advocating for more investment from private philanthropy as a whole. In 1994, First Nations created the Eagle Staff Fund. In the past 25 years, First Nations has made more than 1500 grants to Indian-controlled projects in Indian communities, totaling more than $32 million. Unfortunately, we are too often the only investor in these projects, and even more unfortunate is the fact that we too often show up in the top ten of grants given or dollars given to Indian non-profits by philanthropy.
For First Nations, we recognize that we were an ‘early adopter’ when it came to Indian country nonprofits approaching private philanthropy. And as a result, we have enjoyed a 38-year relationship and have created or become somewhat enmeshed in the philanthropic community as a trusted partner. It is not lost on us that with this familiarity comes a responsibility to tell our philanthropic ‘friends’ and partners that they need to do more when it comes to investing in Indian country. So, a big part of the institution capitalization strategy is to advocate on the part of Indian country for more partnerships and more funding.
Why is it important for Native organizations to have surpluses and reserves to achieve their missions?
It is very rare that Indian Country nonprofits have surpluses and/or reserves. This is unfortunate. The cause of this under-capitalization is pretty easy to identify – private foundations and donors invest in Native organizations at a lesser rate than they invest in other organizations. And First Nations’ research has shown that, in the case of private foundations, they are more apt to fund non-Native-controlled organizations – saying they are serving American Indians – than they are willing to fund Native-controlled organizations themselves. Further aggravating the problems is that the investments in Indian-controlled organizations are usually in single-year grants and are usually for program-specific funding. This leaves these same nonprofits at the whims of year-to-year decision-making and with little opportunity for long-term planning or strategizing. Multi-year grants and general operating grants would allow organizations the opportunity to create modest surpluses and reserves and allow these organizations flexibility and security rather than a year-to-year, hand-to-mouth existence.
What are the greatest challenges Native communities face related to capitalization?
In the past couple of years, First Nations has had the incredible opportunity to lead a constellation of projects looking at both the underlying narrative folks (including folks in private philanthropy) have about Indian people. Coupled with this has been First Nations’ groundbreaking research into the under-investment and disappointing attitude of private philanthropy when it comes to investing in Indian country organizations and causes. This is perhaps the greatest challenge for Indian country institutional capitalization – making sure that when private foundations talking about DEI (diversity, equity, & inclusion) they don’t mean “DEI – definitely excludes Indians.”
What most inspires you about the work being done in Native communities?
The optimism and genius of Indian communities inspires me. I will share that when I was working in venture capital, I was volunteering to serve on the grants review committee at First Nations. I remember a particular week when I had spent a great deal of time with entrepreneurs telling me that they could not possibly survive on the $15 million or $20 million we were proposing to invest in their company. And then I showed up at the First Nations grants review committee meeting where folks were telling us that they were going to change the world in their Native communities for $5,000 or $10,000. It is easy to see which conversation you would want to be part of. What’s truly amazing, and not at all surprising, is that people in Indian communities did and continue to change the world for the people in their communities with their optimism, their resourcefulness and their genius.
Over your 20 years with First Nations, what changes have you seen in working with Native communities? What challenges do communities currently face?
In the past 20 years I have worked with or at First Nations, it would be easy to say that Indian Country has gotten more sophisticated in the organizations it is creating and the projects that they are accomplishing, and the technical talent they are able to bring to a project or organization. But that would be dead wrong. Those things have always been present in Indian communities. What we have witnessed in the past 20 years is an increase in opportunity for those same Indian communities to show all of those things and equally as important is the experience they have been able to build as a result of those opportunities.
About Michael Roberts
Michael Roberts returned to First Nations Development Institute in 2002, and was appointed president by the board in 2005. He previously had served as chief operating officer for the organization until 1997. In the interim, Mike spent five years in private equity, including advising angel investors, working for a $500 million telecommunications fund and for an early-stage Midwest venture capital firm. Mike has worked at Alaska Native corporations and for local IRA councils, primarily in accounting and finance.
Mike serves on the Board of First Nations Development Institute and is chairman of the Board of First Nations Oweesta Corporation. He is also a Steering Committee member of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders Network, and on the Investment Committee for the Three Affiliated Tribes. Mike’s past service includes board positions for Native Americans in Philanthropy and The Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO), as well as on the Advisory Council of the Center for Native American Public Radio, and on the National Advisory Committee for the National Center for Family Philanthropy. Most recently, in 2018, Mike was appointed as one of 14 trustees of the new $266 million Native American Agriculture Fund that was created as an outgrowth of the Keepseagle v. Vilsack case. Its mission is to fund the provision of business assistance, agricultural education, technical support, and advocacy services to Native American farmers and ranchers to support and promote their continued engagement in agriculture. The new Native American Agriculture Fund is the largest philanthropic organization solely devoted to serving the Native American community.
Mike holds an MBA degree from the University of Washington with an emphasis in finance and operations management, and a bachelor’s degree in architecture through the environmental design school at the University of Colorado. In April 2016, Mike received the Asset Builder Champion (ABC) Award, an initiative managed by the Center for Global Policy Solutions and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. Mike was recognized along with fellow awardees Congressman Charles Rangel, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and former Ford Foundation Vice President Melvin Oliver.
By Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota)
Former Senior Vice President
First Nations Development Institute
How do you define assets in Native communities? How do you define asset-building?
Assets are anything that a person, community, nation, or other entity values and derives a benefit from now and into the future. Most people immediately think of an economic asset when asked about asset building such as natural assets (land, natural resources), financial assets (investments), and built assets (houses, businesses, infrastructure systems, schools, health clinics). Assets are so much more, particularly in Native communities. These assets include our people, our cultures and our political status. I think of asset-building as investing in existing assets to strengthen and increase their value and creating new assets to derive more benefits.
As one of the original staffers of First Nations Development Institute, could you tell me why Native asset control was a key focus of First Nations’ mission? What makes this so important today?
Rebecca Adamson, the founder of First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), came out of the Indian-Controlled School Movement that started in the 1960s. That movement, as part of the activism of the 1960s and 1970s, was the start of tribal or Native control of our educational institutions leading to self-determination of tribal governments (legislation passed in 1975), the beginnings of the tribal colleges (first one in 1969) and the emergence of many Native-controlled organizations in the 1970s and 1980s (NARF, NIEA, NICWA, AIHEC). First Nations’ strategies focused on “development from within” and “culturally, appropriate sustainable development” that was holistic and built from our own people and ideas. Previous and existing “development” attempts in Native communities were typically brought in by “outside experts” mostly from the federal government with a “one size fits all” approach. We believed that community leaders knew what was needed in their own communities and just wanted technical and financial support to realize their ideas. After working with communities throughout the 1980s and learning from the people and the work, a framework emerged to better understand development in Native communities. This framework is called the “elements of development” that has as a main strategy the “control of assets” at the individual, household, community, tribe, and national level.
Could you share more about why asset control is different in Native communities than other communities?
It is different because of our cultures, our history and our political relationship with the US government. In the early 1980s, Rebecca Adamson wrote a landmark paper “Land Rich, Dirt Poor” that laid out the history of development in Indian Country, why it failed, and a different approach to development. We “owned” collectively huge amounts of land (about 100 million acres) with significant natural resources and billions of dollars held in trust accounts. Anyone who owned that amount of land with those financial assets should have been fabulously wealthy. Why are we the “poorest of the poor”? To put it very simply, we “owned” these “assets” but we did not “control” them. We did not derive the expected financial returns and other important benefits on these assets because they were managed by our “trustee,” the federal government – and for the most part, managed poorly. Native people have sued to gain control of Native assets as in the case of the Cobell class action lawsuit. Tribal nations have taken back control of their governments and are taking over programs, institutions, land, and other assets previously under federal government control.
Why is the history of asset control in Native communities important to understand?
The importance of asset control is at the heart of all development in Native communities and much work remains. We must guard against losing any of the gains made over the decades. And we must learn from what has been done over the past 50 to 60 years. One example of how important control of our assets is today and the need to be ever vigilant is with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). ICWA was first passed in 1978 to address the 25 to 35 % of Native children being removed by non-Native forces from their parents, communities and tribes. Our people are our greatest asset yet our children, our future generations were being taken from us. Although 40 years have passed, there are continual challenges to ICWA from outside forces today who still want to take our children. Building strong healthy families and communities is necessary for any type of development.
What strategies can be used to promote asset-based development?
Asset-based development strategies in Native communities run the gamut of programs and subject or focus areas. Tribal nations investing in their people for the long term through formal education, mentoring, fellowship, internships, and as needed training efforts is a key strategy. We need people with a broad range of skills, education and experiences to take control of our assets, manage our assets so they increase in value and generate more benefits and return, and help to create or build new assets. This can be in health care, entrepreneurship and business development, language, arts and culture, education, housing, legal, natural resources, finance – you name it, education, experience and knowledge is important. Strategies can be at multiple levels from individual, family, community, tribal nation, to national pan-tribal. At the individual and family and community level, these strategies could include language immersion, financial literacy training, credit building, homeownership training, business planning. Working with individuals, communities, non-profit organizations, business enterprises, and government – asset-based development strategies are needed at all levels.
Could you share with us what types of governmental policies at the various levels of government can help support Native asset control? What has been done? What types of policies still need to be introduced?
Broadly we must continue to change the systems and reform the policies that took control away from tribes and Native people and that keep that control from us and build new systems and policy agendas that support Native control. An example that most people know is the 1975 Self-Determination Act and subsequent Self-Governance amendments that have happened over 40 years and will need to continually be renewed and updated to meet the changing demands of tribal nations. Another example of a national policy change would be the modernization of the trust relationship. It is a unique and important relationship that must continue but be modernized to meet current and future realities. I mentioned the challenges to ICWA earlier – policy development and reform must also happen at the tribal and state level to support tribal rights and put in place the systems to support our children and families. One final example is continuing support for Native Community Development Financial Institutions at the federal level and at the tribal level. This is critical for these organizations to provide so many vital asset-building services.
What is important to know about Native asset control, when funders are considering investing in Native communities?
I believe it is most important to recognize that the programs and efforts that support asset-building strategies in Native communities will take time to have an impact. We need “patient capital” invested in these efforts – long-term investments in the future. There are a number of private foundations who have made a commitment to Indian Country over the long term and much can be learned from their investment strategies. Another important lesson is that no matter what subject area or program is supported by a particular funder, whether it be health, business, community development, art, language preservation, institutional development, youth, education, and on and on – there are excellent organizations and programs doing work in those areas in Indian Country – and likely seeking to build capacity to build and manage assets.
First Nations has been in existence for almost 40 years, what changes have you seen as a result of the organization’s asset building strategy?
First Nations has had, and continues to have, tremendous impact in this area. As just one example, there are thousands, or maybe even tens of thousands, of Native people who have received financial capability training through First Nations’ Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families (BNC) now in its 5th edition. There are hundreds of individual trained as instructors in the BNC so the passage of this knowledge is sustainable. In another example, First Nations has continued to provide the appropriate size capital (grants) and technical assistance/knowledge that helps support the Native nonprofit sector across many areas including youth, food systems, and philanthropy to name a few. Through their LEAD program, these critical Native institutional assets have a continuing source of TA and knowledge. And First Nations Oweesta, a supporting corporation to First Nations and one of the original First Nations programs, focuses on access to capital and credit through development and strengthening Native CDFIs. Also, an original part of the First Nations strategy was research and data – having the necessary information for Native communities make informed decisions. Through the First Nations Knowledge Center, this strategy has been institutionalized within the organization.
What most inspires you about the work being done in Native communities today?
We believed that, as Native people and tribal nations took back control of our assets, over time with the appropriate support, we would do a better job managing them – the increased financial and other returns and benefits that came from effective management of our own assets and building new assets would help lift us out of poverty and forward to prosperity. It sounds simple but it has been hard work by many people, tribal nations and organizations over decades but the results are starting to come in. Our assumption is correct. We are doing a better job managing our assets – and realizing these benefits. More work is needed to lift all towards prosperity.
About Sherry Salway Black
Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota) served as the Senior Vice President for First Nations Development Institute for 20 years and on the boards of First Nations Development Institute and First Nations Oweesta Corporation. After working for the National Congress of American Indians and doing private consulting, she is now focused on board service with First Peoples Fund, Johnson Scholarship Foundation, Prosperity Now, National Indian Child Welfare Association and on the new Keepseagle Fund.