This is a guest blog by Darrell Kipp, a friend of mine and a well-known figure around here. He was asked to give a short bit of advice at a conference in Big Sky and when I read it, I thought it was so good, I asked to print it here.
Philanthropy ain’t just a fancy word. It is a way of life. A lifestyle where rejection and reward wear the same coat. It can be as surreal as waiting to catch a flight home with a quarter-of-a-million-dollar check in your wallet, and just enough cash to buy gas at the other end to get back to the reservation. It can demand extreme patience and conjuring. It can prompt one to move one’s desk (hoping for a change of luck) across the room after receiving over forty rejection notices replying to carefully composed query letters; then moving it back again when the rejection count approaches one hundred. Today my desk appears to be misplaced against an entrance door and visitors questioned the odd location, but this is where -- in desperation -- I pushed it the day before a large national foundation finally informed us of a major grant award. The desk sits askew, marking the long awaited day, and there it will stay. My advice is to make sure everyone knows where the good luck spot is within the office.
As a stalwart professor of the English language, my use of the colloquialism “ain’t” is in fact purposeful. It is my way of saying that nothng is as it’s supposed to be. There is no correct way, better way, or The Way in philanthropy circles. Granted there are signs to be observed -- or ignored -- but always keep the word “fickle” present in one’s vocabulary and state of mind. Also remember that one of the fallacies of all time is assuming that simply getting a grant will fill the coffers. A grant application can often turn out to be worth only slightly more than the paper it is written on. Likewise, while a response to a query letter means a knock on the door has registered, that might be a cheap thrill quickly ended upon reading the enclosed rejection notice. Rejection is best summed up as the body/mind crash occurring when the fair damsel rejects one’s offer to dance; or in her case, when no one asks. Treat rejection letters as a part of the mechanics of making a contact and accept that with it comes the adage, “If you don’t ask, you for sure get nothing.” My solo piloting of one of Piegan Institute’s major funding campaigns brought in several million dollars, and while this may be construed as a boastful statement, it also must be mentioned that a huge and replete collection of rejection letters and phone calls came with the effort.
Let me digress back to the notion that philanthropy ain’t just a fancy word. Philanthropy does have a set of rules, but many program officers aren’t any clearer as to what they are than those seeking funding. I break it down to this: philanthropy is a little two-piece heart locket, the kind where the pieces when put together form a complete heart representing love, caring, sharing, goodwill and partnership. The foundation is one piece and the fund seeker is the other. One has money, the other a dream and workers. Together they form a tangible unit seeking solutions to the many ‘what ifs” nonprofits deal with. Notice that both pieces are equally important. Half a locket is no locket.
Approach program officers and foundation boards with a sense of equal status. Although there are times the atmosphere is intimidating, it is important not to negotiate from a beggar’s point of view. It is recommended one be clear of mind: possess an abundance of pertinent information supporting one’s request. Present what is needed clearly and concisely, with an attitude of developing a partnership or, even better, a friendship. Speak from the heart to what is needed; nothing more, nothing less.
In our first major fund-raising campign, we actually turned down offers of small grant awards, knowing they couldn’t get us to where we needed to be in five years. Where we needed to be in five years dictated what we asked for, and what we accepted. We were building a private school with all the attributes of ambience and structure appropriate to what we deemed as a solution befitting our children. We pushed aside offers to renovate an abandoned house because we knew you can get what you want and not just what you need. What we wanted was a beautiful, well-designed, furnished private school on ten city lots, landscaped with trees and lawn and surrounded with a dignified wooden fence. This private school is now the home of our tribal language, The Blackfeet Language, maybe its last home, so it was our collective wish to make it a place worthy for our language to be nurtured and revitalized. We needed five million dollars to make it so. Car washes, raffles, and bake sales wouldn’t do, so we went out into the world to get it. Also, we put our hearts, minds, every ounce of expertise, labor and planning into mustering the very best we could into our program.
Our town sits in the middle of a county listed as the 35th of the hundred poorest in the United States of America. Our family income average is the lowest in the country, so we knew our community could not provide the funds we needed. although their generosity was never questioned. Our tribal government offered ample moral support, but was overwhelmed with the needs of our growing tribal populace. The writer Charles Bukowski wrote, “I do not glorify poverty, nor do I apologize for it.” We do not apologize for being without financial resources, but speak only about solutions and assume foundations should know poverty exists on the Indian reservation.
We took the high road and today we are glad for doing so. We now have, for the first time in fifty years, children able to speak our language again, and a permanent place for future generations to do so also. Today, our school is lauded as the model of tribal language revitalization nationwide and countless tribal delegations visit year round to adopt the model. We share everything with them, every “how to” we know of, every trick in the book, so they might succeed like we did, because fifteen years ago the Native Hawaiians did so with us. Our version of sharing, networking, non-competitiveness, and a spiritual alignment led us to formulate the following rules.
Never beg for what you must have to meet your needs, but know for sure what your real needs are.
Think in terms of how your work will revitalize your tribe, not just your program. Building a new and beautiful school without government funds was important to us because it proved it can be done by impoverished communities and, most of all, it is a noticeable improvement in our run-down town.
Never ask permission to begin a revitalization movement. Get the few who share your dream and go with them. Don’t elect boards and don’t subject willing helpers to some archaic hierarchical model of management. School board, tribal council, and advisory board management models often are the only ones Indian communities are familiar with. Your organization should avoid replicating these models because they are contentious and often self-destructive. A three-person board, the legal minimum for a nonprofit, operating on a group consensus, can provide a more effective and fluid nonprofit management model.
Never debate with outsiders the important issues your dreams address.
When the naysayer arrives, tell them to leave you alone and send them off to play bingo.
Learn through process and action how to succeed.
Last of all, show, don’t tell. Show with tangible results what your group can do. Don’t be going around “telling” everyone what you are “going” to do: just do it and let the results speak for your group.
There were only a small number of us in our original chartered group twenty years ago. The first thing we did, although we had no money, was to hire a Certified Public Accounting firm to handle our financial records and keep us in excellent standing with the IRS. This is our hallmark today, and probably one of the most important factors in our securing grant awards. Also, with strong program documentation the gossip mongers who like to throw around the words “indictment, fraud and mismanagement” are effectively silenced. We made it clear to our people that we are not mercenaries or exploiters of our tribal language.
Make friends of your critics and lifelong friends of your acquaintances.
A reservation nonprofit without a “hot” mailing list is neglecting an integral part of its existence. The list should only include people who have visited the program, been a participant in an organizational activity, or in some way shown an interest in the work of the group. A well-maintained Guest Book is a key factor in gathering the names of potential donors. Put your affluent community friends on the list and if they fail to respond, go to their house and demand to know why they are holding back. Your minimal goal is a thousand names of national, regional and local people considered friendly enough to assist without lengthy entreaties. Remember those are people with whom your organization has a personal relationship and they will donate significantly more than some purchased set of names or people contacted by a hired fund-raising company. Once a year send them a personally signed letter with a picture and return envelope. Maintain this list ritually and try to expand it every year.
Today our buildings, land and equipment are debt-free. We rely more on the donor list and the small grant awards we once set aside. In the past twenty years my life has been an integral part of our private nonprofit fulfillment of our dream of revitalizing our tribal language. There have been countless rewards and setbacks, but I praise the Creator for the guidance, blessing, and good fortune we enjoy.
Today I join you so we hopefully can share what works in our Indian communities. We are not of the mainstream and we are not on the radar screen of the majority of foundations. Many of the inherent precepts of modern day philanthropy run counter to Indian ways of giving, sharing and asking for hep. Yet I learned through experience that the basic concept is an honorable one and dealt with the incongruities while maintaining a respectful adherence to both over the years. Nonprofit organizations can do a great deal to fill in the gaps and voids left by overburdened tribal governments. They are an excellent way for community people to acquire what they truly want and need. Indian communities are also shamefully underserved by the philanthropic community and only we can change that.
I wish you all the luck and good fortune in our endeavors because our dreams are powerful and only we as Indian people can make them truthful realities.
Darrell Robes Kipp
Big Sky, Montana