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Potlatch Fund brings philanthropy to tribal communities

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WELLPINIT, Wash. – A group that gathered at the Wellpinit Longhouse shared aspirations to preserve tribal language and culture, produce art, music and film, support people in recovery, clean up the environment and enhance the lives of elders, youth and the disabled. The cost of reaching these goals came to a hefty $48 million.

The setting was the Journey to Successful Fundraising, a two-day workshop on grant writing presented on the Spokane Indian Reservation by the Potlatch Fund, a Seattle-based organization dedicated to increasing philanthropy in Indian country. The program will be offered in more than 25 Northwest Native communities this year.

Justin Finkbonner, Lummi, and Colleen Jollie, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, showed participants how to request the funds they need from wealthy private foundations.

“There are people that make so much money they have to give some away,” Jollie, a Potlatch Fund board member, said.

The federal government gives tax breaks to those who donate money to worthy causes, but only approximately 50 cents of every $1,000 disbursed by foundations has come to Indian country, historically. A group of Northwest Native leaders formed the Potlatch Fund in 2002 to change that. Within two years, they received backing from 25 foundations and tribes. Since then, more than 900 people have been trained to write grants.

Sheila Flett intends to apply what she learned on behalf of the Flett Foundation, a Native-run nonprofit that aims to prevent teen suicide.

“We are passionate and committed to enhancing the quality of life for reservation youth and their families,” she said. The goal is to build recreational trails with interpretive signs about historical events that occurred on the Spokane Indian Reservation. When that’s done, they want to develop skate parks in three communities.

Other projects of the day included an art center, Head Start building improvements, a therapeutic horse ranch, archaeological site preservation, documentary filming and more.

Grant writing is competitive, but Finkbonner encouraged the group.

“It’s manageable, so take it all in stride. People do get funded.”

The workshops cover details on planning, budgets, reporting and evaluation. The Potlatch Fund also teaches how to set up nonprofit organizations and offers follow-up support. The results are impressive. Eighty-five percent of participants submit proposals within six months with about 80 percent funded. Workshop graduates can get their feet wet by applying for small grants administered by the Potlatch Fund, which supports Native artists, community initiatives and emerging leaders.

Chester Brown is a musician and songwriter seeking funds for studio time and promotion. He expects what he learned to open doors, and his enthusiasm was indicative of others who attended.

“They are trailblazers,” he said of the Potlatch Fund. “I was very pleased with the training.”

Finkbonner observed that trailblazing leadership is characteristic of Northwest tribes.

“This came about through tribal leaders who attend ATNI [Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians],” he said.

Part of the work entails brokering relationships between Natives and the foundation leaders who don't ordinarily rub shoulders. Funders say they don't get many requests to support American Indian causes, and a study issued by the Potlatch Fund shows they harbor some myths about Indian country. For instance, many assume federal funds and casino profits cover all the needs. Others are reluctant to support programs where they are unfamiliar with legal structures and protocols.

The study, "Philanthropy in Indian Country," also found that rather than organizing themselves into grass-roots groups and becoming nonprofit organizations, people in Indian country generally expect tribal governments will respond to needs. When groups do spring up, members are often unaware that foundation money is available or how to request it.

Relationships and storytelling form the core of successful proposals, Finkbonner said. That and putting data in formats the funding partners require. But even after jumping through many hoops, submissions are rejected because foundations receive more than three times the requests they can support.

“Don’t take it personally,” he said. “You are going to pour your heart and soul into this. If your proposal is rejected, call the funder and ask what you should do differently next time.”

The Potlatch Fund was created in the spirit of the Northwest Native potlatch, a tribal tradition of sharing good fortune. The practice was banned at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it an impediment to assimilation.

The Potlatch Fund is convinced corporate philanthropy is a resource worth pursuing to enhance quality of life in Northwest Indian communities. To learn more, visit