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Allen family: It was 20 years ago the Foundation began to give

Paul Allen

Paul Allen

Native American communities have again garnered support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, according to an announcement about the most recent round of grants from the foundation on Tuesday (Jan. 31). Fifty-eight grants totaling $6.6 million went to organizations throughout the five states that comprise the foundation's traditional focus: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. Of that total, $1 million went to innovative projects in the region led by members of tribal nations.

Other notable grants in this cycle include $400,000 to create a new school in Seattle’s Lake Washington School District, with a curriculum centered on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and $500,000 to renovate the historic Naval Reserve Armory in South Lake Union as the new home of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). In addition, 30 arts and culture grants in film, theater, visual arts, and music add up to a total of $2.2 million.

But on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the Allen Family Foundation is looking back with particular satisfaction upon a history of giving that has strengthened the ability of Native populations to meet challenges impacting their communities, said William Vesneski, who directs evaluation, planning, and research at the foundation and manages asset-building giving. Since 1997 the foundation has given a total of $10 million to various Native American programs.

One such project funded during the latest round will enable micro-lending from Craft 3 in Ilwaco, Wash., to promising Native American entrepreneurs. Another project with Southcentral Foundation will expand the Family Wellness Warriors Initiative in Anchorage, Alaska, a program aimed at reducing family violence in rural tribal areas, and will finance an assessment of how much the Initiative's main endeavor improves the economic well-being of families involved. An arts and culture grant will provide support for Earthsongs, a radio program created by Koahnic Broadcast Corporation in Anchorage, featuring contemporary and traditional Native American music that is regularly beamed beyond the Pacific Northwest region to 100 stations in 21 states.

The Allen Foundation has no "native philanthropy" program per se, Vesneski said, but projects have regularly come to its attention from tribal communities and from Native-led nonprofits working with those communities. The centerpiece of the foundation's responses has been building relationships of mutuality with the people.

“It's not always a linear process,” said Vesneski. “It takes time to build trust,” especially when tribal nations throughout America and the region were systematically injured and oppressed for so long. “I don't think you can do this work without being aware of that history.”

Foundation staff engaging with tribal groups spend extra time in person with their leaders and members — with “feet on the ground,” and “lots of face time,” Vesneski said. These groups “want reciprocity in the relationship, want to be fully participating and giving us something along the way.” So it's not “the typical 'write-in' approach to [foundation] work,” he said.

“Sometimes philanthropy can be very streamlined, focused on review of the applications, et cetera. We do all that, but we also build relationships that will let us learn from [the applicants].” Native communities are especially active in teaching the foundation “what's working and not working, what will have the greatest impact and what won't. They introduce us to other organizations and communities. They help us build other relationships.”

For example, foundation staff spent two years visiting tribal communities throughout Montana and meeting different tribal leaders there, to inform more fully its giving to Native projects. Of the grants awarded within the state, one to the Boys & Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, an organization with a Promise Neighborhoods approach to improving the lives of disadvantaged youngsters, makes Vesneski especially proud. “It's doing incredible work in serving the youth of that tribe in ways the federal government has recognized as innovative,” he said.

The funds to support Earthsongs are part of a series of grants given since 2000 to that radio program of instrumental music and song, said Jim McDonald, senior program officer for arts and culture. “It's a one-hour show that puts forward contemporary Native voices, and it's broadcast all over the country.” Recently the program's Cheyenne DJ inaugurated an interview series, said McDonald, in which she asks artists to explain what inspires their work. These segments can be very emotional and personal, he said, as he recalled an artist who talked about the effects of family violence in the community on the music.

The foundation's work with Native groups does not differ in kind from its work within other communities, according to both McDonald and Vesneski. The Allen Foundation has always focused on forging close relationships with organizations in the Pacific Northwest, said McDonald. “It's really how the foundation works overall: understanding who we partner with.”

After all, if the goal of philanthropists is to make a community stronger, their connection with it can't be merely top-down. A major theme in contemporary thought about foundation giving is that a community needs to open itself and become willing to be known, warts and all, so that a gift can leverage its strengths. Creating a space in which this can happen requires funders to relinquish some of the power achieved through remoteness and some of the seeming objectivity conferred by impassive checklists. Like all relationships, one between a foundation and the community it wishes to strengthen is fluid and evolving — a living thing and not a rigid science.

Although the Allen Foundation continues to deepen existing relationships with tribal communities — “We're building our presence” — Vesneski emphasized that the foundation's giving profile is and will remain the same. “The Native grants come from, and go into, all the slices of the pie,” including ongoing programs in arts and culture, science and technology, and education.

The foundation's Basic Needs program in the region, for example, will certainly be funded through 2013. “It's a recognition of the continuing impact and lingering effects of the economic downturn, and the family's commitment to the region and the Pacific Northwest communities,” said Vesneski.

“Seeing what's happening with the cuts to human services and the public sector, there is an increasing call upon philanthropy to meet some of that need,” he said. But the public sector will need to step up. “There are not enough private philanthropic resources to fill that breach.”

A complete list of Paul G. Allen Family Foundation grants made during the latest cycle of giving is available online.

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