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First Nations Development Institute channels money into Indian country

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) is technically a non-profit, rather than a foundation, but it sometimes acts like a foundation, and often acts as an intermediary for other foundations, using its 20 years of expertise to direct their money deep into Indian country.

First Nations has partnered with the Ford Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, the Carnegie Corp. and the MacArthur Foundation, devising programs with them and re-granting their money to support areas including international Indigenous rights, Indian agriculture and Native forestry.

But it isn't stopping with getting outside philanthropy into Indian country. It now wants tribes to start their own giving programs.

FNDI actually got its start through foundation money, when a $25,000 seed grant from the Ford Foundation in 1980 gave direction to the dreams of Rebecca Adamson, an Indian advocate (and Indian Country Today columnist) who wanted to help Native people achieve economic self sufficiency.

The New York-based Ford has remained a major partner, granting more than $3 million to the Institute in just the past couple of years in a wide range of awards. It has given First Nations many grants for its international Indigenous rights efforts, to endow FNDI's Eagle Staff Grant fund, to help tribes certify forestlands, to aid tribal community development, and to help individual Indians open IDAs (Individual Development Accounts).

Besides Ford, First Nations' 20-year report lists another 90 foundations it has received money from.

In a couple of representative efforts among those dozens of other foundations it has worked with, FNDI has teamed up with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Michigan to fund two rounds of Native food program grants, totaling several hundred thousand dollars.

And in another effort, with the help of the Washington-based Fannie Mae Foundation, First Nations devised a Native financial literacy course that so far has produced 18,000 workbooks and more than 30 sessions that have taught the course to more than 500 potential trainers around the country.

First Nations not only re-grants money it gets from foundations, Adamson said, but it also uses those grants to draw matching money from other sources.

The Institute has a deep interest in Indian philanthropy and not just in how best to tap outside capital for deserving Indian projects. It is also an advocate for Indian giving, in addition to receiving.

And, according to Adamson, an Eastern Cherokee, it is just on the verge of helping a casino tribe start up its own foundation.

The non-profit has an initiative called SNAP or Strengthening Native American Philanthropy, directed by Joe Linkevic.

SNAP not only assists tribes that have cash from casinos or other ventures to develop their own philanthropic programs, but it has studied the IRS code on tax status. It offers several publications in the area, sovereign philanthropy workshops, and a sovereign philanthropy list-serve, which it has developed in conjunction with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission's Spirit of the Salmon Fund.

First Nations also for many years published a quarterly newsletter, called Indian Giver, devoted to Native philanthropy. That publication will be merged into the journal Native Americas, which FNDI will be involved in publishing.

Why the emphasis on tribes starting their own philanthropic efforts? "Our whole mission has been about retaining control of tribal assets," Adamson said. Tribes generating revenues need to get ahead of the curve on this, she warned - or watch states control the money as part of gaming compacts. This has already happened in Oregon and Wisconsin, she said.

And while generally there would be no tax impact for tribes, tribal individuals donating to these foundations should be able to get tax deductions for their contributions, Adamson said.

Through its granting and re-granting programs, First Nations often looks like a foundation. But it also has a loan progam, which it runs through a unit called First Nations Oweesta Corp. First Nation Oweesta has loaned money to Native groups interested in achieving a CDFI certification (community development financial institution) from the federal government.

Other Indian country non-profits, like the Hopi Foundation and the Two Feather Foundation, have used the "foundation" term. "We could probably say First Nations Foundation and be okay," said Adamson. "We look like a national community foundation. Our community is defined as Indian country."

But then she qualified, "better put quotation marks around 'community.'"

For more information about First Nations Development Institute go to its website at: www.firstnations.org