Funder Spotlight: Swift Foundation

Swift Foundation, which predominantly funds Indigenous-led social justice efforts, is on a journey to reverse the Western-centric paradigm of philanthropy. Through their trust-based approach, they prioritize relationships and listening with grantees. They are continuously evolving their process to better reflect their values of inclusion and justice. As part of our ongoing series on trust-based philanthropy, we sat down with Program Officer Galina Angarova to get the scoop.

Can you share a bit more about the grantmaking approach at Swift Foundation?

We have a grantmaking budget of $2.2 M per year, focused on supporting Indigenous-led and other efforts to preserve biodiversity and advance economic justice. Our emphasis is on Indigenous-led organizations, partnership organizations, and regranting institutions. In terms of our review and vetting process, we are constantly evolving, especially as we strive to align our practices with the needs of the organizations we support. For example, Indigenous communities do not subscribe to the Western concept of linear, project-specific timelines, the same way social justice organizations operate in environments where change takes time and cannot be measured in one-year cycles. This motivated us to make the shift toward more multi-year unrestricted grants. In fact, this year we made a commitment to two 5-year grants, and many three- and two-year grants.

Why are multi-year unrestricted grants a priority for Swift Foundation?

One of the values of Indigenous peoples is the value of lifetime span, that change is slow and it takes several generations to implement that change. It is impossible to achieve any substantive change within a project life cycle. Swift wants to support our grantee partners throughout their life span, across generations. The same way that colonization took place over several generations to establish the current conditions, it will take several generations to reverse the impact of colonization. And how can we best represent that value? Through multi-year general support grants.

How else does Swift strive to reflect the values of the communities you support?

As an Indigenous person myself, I see that a lot of the ways philanthropy operates comes from Western society… Just as there is no such thing as project-specific timelines in Indigenous life, there is no concept of compartmentalized issue areas. There is no separation of health from education, ceremony from food. So our grantmaking must reflect an aligned vision that sees all issues in a more holistic, intersectional way. We’ve had this in our approach for quite a while, but it hasn’t been fully articulated to the public until recently.

We also organize grantee partner meetings, where we provide a general structure but allow our partners to self-organize and identify topics of discussion. We make sure the overall structure of these meetings allows Indigenous values to permeate. We leave a lot of space and time for personal communication, songs, dancing, cultural programs, questions and feedback for the foundation.

In addition to our grantmaking approach, our board and staff is working to implement our investment strategy, which we strive to deeply align with the mission and values of our foundation. We have done so by divesting from the Carbon 200, creating a transitional portfolio to invest in risky but innovative and groundbreaking projects.

How does your board reflect the values of Indigenous communities, especially since the majority of board members are non-Indigenous?

Our board members are constantly educating themselves to gain access to perspectives from Indigenous communities. And many aspects of our work are done in close collaboration with Indigenous people. We have a board member who is an Indigenous scholar and activist, and the foundation has also prioritized hiring Indigenous program officers. We also make a point of including visiting advisors at our board meetings—often grantee partners and/or Indigenous leaders. Having grantee voices at the table allows us to analyze our decisions holistically and come to a more balanced decision that acknowledges multiple views and opinions.

How do you evaluate impact on multi-year unrestricted grants?

To me, ‘evaluating impact’ is a very Western approach, driven by finance and banking. But of course we do want to get a sense of what our grantees are able to accomplish with our support, so we talk to them and require them to submit written reports that we discuss with them. As their work may change due to the context and what they have learned, we listen to how they are going about their work and what is working. Our goal is to enhance and deepen learning and relationships within communities and enable more engagement.

In your opinion, what is the role of trust in philanthropy?

Trust is an inherent human quality that transcends cultures and is an essential component of good relationships. If we’re working together to make change, we must trust each other. 

How does Swift Foundation work to build trust with grantees?

Swift has built most of our relationships over many years by spending time with people, understanding how they work, and what their commitments are. For Swift, mission alignment is also critical, we want to be working with similar values. We get to know them on a personal level. This has always been the strongest and most reliable way to build trust. You establish a bond and it makes it so much easier to work together in the long run.

In addition to this, we have a small pool of funds to support various needs that might emerge outside of our grant cycle. This includes things like travel, translation, or event expenses. Grantees submit a paragraph about the need, and once approved, the grant goes out in 4-6 weeks. The staff can approve up to $5k, and anything up to $10k requires staff with one board member’s consent. This fund allows us to supplement our general support grants with funds that are available within a shorter timeframe, while establishing closer and more trusting relationships with our grantees.

What tips do you have for funders who are interested in taking steps toward trust-based philanthropy, especially in support of Indigenous communities?

I highly recommend connecting with like-minded funders who are working in the same areas you are, to share ideas and lessons toward advancing a shared vision for change. One way to do this is to join the International Funders of Indigenous Peoples (IFIP) and learn more about their four R’s of practicing philanthropy.

In April 2018, IFIP will be holding the inaugural IFIP Learning Institute that I conceived of in partnership with other funders. We will hold the first Institute in New York before the UN Permanent Forum to share experiences in how to promote inclusive and Indigenous-centric values in foundation strategy and practice. IFIP is a great network and the Institute will be a special platform in which to learn. All funders of Indigenous peoples are welcome.

About this blog series: This is part of an ongoing series by the Whitman Institute, featuring foundations that practice trust-based philanthropy, that acknowledge the power dynamics and realities facing nonprofits, and that invite more authentic relationships and communication with grantees. If you’d like to be considered for the series or if you have questions about taking steps toward trust-based philanthropy, email us at contact@thewhitmaninstitute.org.

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