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Native Currents: 'Sum certain' of good works, The Forest County Potawatomi Community Foundation

[Editor's note: This column by Indian Country Today Washington correspondent Jerry Reynolds first ran in the Summer 2003 edition of Native Americas, the quarterly policy journal of hemispheric indigenous issues published by First Nations Development Institute.]

Uncertainty has reached into many sectors of the American economy these days, destabilizing some of the underpinnings of daily life, and philanthropy is no exception. Investment portfolios, the source of most philanthropic grants, are in a holding pattern at best and consequently many foundations are deciding "who to hold and who to fold" among their grantees.

But at least one exception to all this exists in the small but growing realm of tribal philanthropy where the Forest County Potawatomi Community Foundation - a direct subdivision of tribal government that is funded by the tribe out of casino earnings and solicits no other donations. It is a rarity in one other respect: it is a "sum-certain" foundation. The tribe provides it with $3 million annually. Of that, $2 million is earmarked for the elimination of poverty through economic development grants in the poorer neighborhoods of Milwaukee, while the remaining $1 million supports Native issues, the environment, health care, and other matters in the four counties surrounding Milwaukee.

Giving to charitable causes is done on the basis of "what comes in" in the way of proposals, according to Raejean Kanter, the foundation's executive director. Still, the regular, dedicated sum lets everyone know that funds will be there to support their ongoing needs.

"We are blessed here because the tribe has been so good in its support," she added.

That support has now gone out to more than 200 charitable organizations in greater Milwaukee or on the reservation, among them Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers, Sojourner Truth House (for battered women and children), Literary Services of Wisconsin, and the Milwaukee Public Library Foundation. In addition, the tribe's casino donates heavily in and around Milwaukee, and the tribe itself makes multi-million dollar payments to city and state government. The tribe supports education with only one project, but what a project: a $27 million annual gift to the Indian Community School in Milwaukee.

Altogether, these grants and the tribe's annual donations have associated the Forest County Potawatomi Community Foundation with good works in the public mind - a noteworthy feature of grantmaking and one of the tribe's motivations for doing it.

One of the tribe's best "branding" devices cultivates this association over the holiday season. Long before Christmas was celebrated in this country, Native tribes held pow wows and feasts to warm the mid-winter nights. The Forest County Potawatomi celebrate the holidays with a "Miracle on Canal Street," a function of the tribal casino that is overseen and administered by the community foundation. Over a period of months, the tribal casino directs a portion of its profits on designated games of chance to charities chosen in a publicized drawing. Each of the selected charitable organizations is then adopted by a local media outlet, which in turn advertises the casino games as revenue-generation for the charity. In this way the public is encouraged to play games of chance for charity. On a set day during the holiday season the amount generated for each is announced with fanfare, and stories are told of services rendered by "Miracles" past - that is, of what the organizations can do with the donations amounting to more than $40,000 for each of 18 organizations last year. After nine years running, the occasion has caught on locally to the point of being called "Miracle season" by some.

The marquee project of the Forest County Potawatomi campaign against poverty is its ongoing support for getting low-income working families to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit at tax time, a step that returns thousands of dollars to eligible families - a miracle one might say they've earned, like the nearby tribe whose hard-won survival into a season of miracles won't let it forget the distress of others.

Miracles must always have their place, alongside planning and purposeful action, on any serious agenda for public welfare. But in point of fact, it seems that the tribal executive council concerns itself less with the more popular forms of charitable grantmaking, and more with the comparatively thankless details of difficult change at the level of households and the street.

Of course, one charitable cause is as good as any other, but special mention must be made of the tribe's efforts to alleviate regional poverty. Under Chairman Harold G. Frank, the tribe has gone well beyond charity and good works in its attempts to make inroads against poverty, the social problem that necessitates such charity and so many good works in the first place. The day a regional economic system as a whole begins to prosper is the day people within the region begin to move out of poverty. The Forest County Potawatomi tribe has made this systemic change one of its charitable priorities.

This is due in part to the tribe's small population, which makes it somewhat easier - compared at least with much larger tribes - to meet the needs of the membership before extending its largesse to others. But it is also because the tribe is flat-out "unbelievable in its forward thinking," as Kanter phrased it.

Recently the tribe expanded its largesse in a way that has forward thinking with regional implications written all over it. By signing a so-called "open-ended" gaming compact with the administration of state Gov. Jim Doyle, the tribe secured a 25-year window of stability. That will make expansion of its gaming operations much more feasible to the all-important financiers.

In return, the tribe has agreed to increase its payments from gaming to the state by $78 million over the terms of a previous compact, helping the whole state overcome a $3.2 billion budgetary shortfall.

And it has agreed to give up "zone exclusivity" for its casino, opening the door to other gaming operations in the vicinity. Whatever the ultimate business purpose of this somewhat surprising concession, the Forest County Potawatomi have clearly stated one charitable purpose on a regional scale: to assist the nearby Menominee Tribe in establishing a casino operation.

This and other tribal gaming agreements with the Democratic Doyle administration have galvanized Republican lawmakers in the state. Egged on by rhetoric from former four-term Republican governor Tommy Thompson (current Secretary of Health for President Bush) to the effect that he would have wrung much more tribute money out of tribal casinos than Doyle has done, Wisconsin Republicans have made headway on a number of retaliatory measures that would dock other tribal income sources - the tribal share of cigarette sales under a tax agreement with the state for insistence. A number of such measures are now playing out in the state legislature.

But the Forest County gaming agreement is already signed, sealed and delivered, though with an amendment that seeks to preempt a Republican rulemaking measure - the amendment, signed by the governor and the tribe, commits the tribe to binding arbitration imposed by the governor if the tribe refuses to negotiate regulatory issues every five years and any other contract issue after a term of 25 years.

Political turmoil notwithstanding, the Forest County Potawatomi commitment to good works hasn't wavered. Most recently, the community foundation has made donations to - and through its generosity with regional contacts, laid much of the groundwork for a First Nations Development Institute "Wisdom of the Giveaway Conference" on Native philanthropy, held in Milwaukee.