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How We Learn: 7 Ways We Keep Up with the Fields We Fund

We often liken our grant making to investing. We seek a social return (rather than a financial one) and this differentiates us from mainstream investors. However the rest of the process is similar. We must find good ideas and organizations in which to invest. We frequently ask ourselves how we can be better informed and more knowledgeable about the areas that we fund. We have a number of sources. All of them are necessary. None are sufficient.woman writing in a journal surrounded by other people

  1. Institutional expertise

We try to attract and recruit Board members who have specialized knowledge. Our mission is education and we have several career educators on our Board and some are experts in the specialized areas of our grant making for people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples and the underserved. We employ consultants with expertise in the area that we fund. The Foundation also retains specialized knowledge from 25 years of experience as a grant maker in education.

  1. Continuing education

We regularly attend meetings and conferences, review literature and seek out and listen to experts in the field of philanthropy and education. We belong to or follow organizations such as The Center for Effective Philanthropy, Florida Philanthropic Network, Exponent Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Education, all of which provide us with rich and excellent content. We discuss and write about what we have learned.

  1. Listening to grantees and prospective grantees

We ask people what they need rather than tell them. A decision to make a grant to an organization implies trust and alignment of interest. Our grantees actually do the work of serving students. It follows that they are usually in a better position to understand what is needed than we are.

  1. Building and valuing relationships

We view the philanthropic enterprise as a partnership and we employ a personal and businesslike approach. We go to see our grantees and their students and spend time people at a graduation receptiontalking to them. We tend to make multi-year grants, which allows us to know them better. We negotiate written grant agreements, which spell out the Foundation’s obligations in addition to those of its grantees. All of this is intended to level the playing field between the Foundation and its grantees and to engender mutual respect and trust.

  1. Evaluation

Useful evaluation is elusive and definitive evaluation is a myth. But try we must. We ask grantees to report annually and to link their results to Foundation mission and strategy. Grants are frequently reviewed by third party evaluators. Each evaluation is unique and we use different third party evaluators depending upon the subject. For example, we use First Nations Development Institute when evaluating grants serving Indigenous Peoples. Sometimes an evaluation is performed by our grantee under the guidance of a third party. For example in 2014 An Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida designed and oversaw a process for The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind to conduct an evaluation of each of its programs funded by the Foundation. Evaluation is meant to help our grantees to improve and promote their programs and to enable us to gauge the effectiveness of our grant making and inform future grant decisions.

  1. Communication

We use a comprehensive website and social media to reach grantees and potential grantees. Our Facebook (please visit and like us if you haven’t already) highlights grantee news and achievements and the news and achievements of others in the field. We alsostudent standing and speaking to other people
produce a newsletter and a blog, in which we advocate for the Foundation’s mission and
discuss our grantees’ work and the issues of the day. Foundation grantees such as Eye to Eye and the American Indian College Fund are regulars on Facebook and have been published on our Blog. By facilitating and engaging in these conversations we increase our connection to the field and therefore our knowledge of it.

  1. We encourage and entertain unsolicited grant inquiries

We learn a lot from grant inquiries and proposals, even those that we do not accept. Regularly we are pleasantly surprised to learn of an organization that is doing great work in an area within the Foundation’s mission and strategy. For example, Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, Providence St. Mel School and the Statler Center at the Olmsted Center for Sight all do excellent work that is closely aligned with the Foundation’s mission and strategies. Each of them came to be Foundation grantees through unsolicited inquiries.

Nova Scotia Beckons

Native Women: Leading the Way

There are some great things happening in Indian Country – the Indigenous communities in the United States. And Native women are leading the way, especially when it comes to business and entrepreneurship, asset building, credit and finance, and the creative economy. Tanya Fiddler, Elsie Meeks, Tawney Brunsch, and Lori Pourier represent a small sample of brilliant, long-time Native leaders working on some of the hardest issues – and in some of the most difficult locations – and finding success.

For 25 years, the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF) has invested in the efforts of Indigenous communities in the U.S. to develop their economies. JSF’s strategy is to focus primarily on education – in the case of Native communities, in entrepreneurship and business education at tribal colleges and universities and Native-serving education institutions.  We also invest in Native leadership by supporting the efforts of Native non-profits working in economic development.

As it so happens, JSF has invested in the organizations led by these awesome women – and has seen positive change as a result.

JSF supported the efforts of Tanya Fiddler when she was the Executive Director of the Four Bands Community Loan Fund on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Through Four Bands, Tanya helped to support business creation, financial education, and Man with baseball cap reviewing paperwork with a woman assisting himasset building on one of the poorest counties in the US.  And when she recently took the lead at the Native CDFI Network, JSF provided support for the work of this relatively new group that organizes and supports the increasing number of Community Development Financial Institutions in Native communities.

Elsie Meeks has been instrumental in the Native CDFI movement from the start as the one-time executive director of the Lakota Fund (now the Lakota Funds), the head of the First Nations Oweesta Corporation, and now back as the chairperson of the Lakota Funds. two women speaking at a conference boothElsie took her knowledge and experience to lead many national efforts and represent
Indigenous peoples on the U.S. Human Rights Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Northwest Area Foundation, and now with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. JSF provided support at a critical time for the Lakota Fund.

The Lakota Funds is now led by Tawney Brunsch, a no-nonsense leader focused primarily on her community, the Pine Ridge Tawney BrunschIndian Reservation in South Dakota – and state/regional issues that affect her community. She also founded the Lakota Federal Credit Union (LCFU) four years ago and now serves as
the chair of the board. The Lakota Federal Credit Union has served the Pine Ridge community – again, one of the poorest in the U.S. – for more than 30 years and continues to make a difference in this community through business lending, business and financial education, credit repair, savings, and now working on housing. JSF provided an equity grant to the LFCU helping to provide consumer credit capital for this community – LFCU now has more than 2500 members.

Lori Pourier heads First Peoples Fund (FPF), a 17 year old national Native non-profit Lori Pourierworking with culture bearers and artists in Indigenous communities. Lori is a leader in the field – not just for Native arts and culture – but arts and culture period. She is the go-to person for the “creative economy” in Indian Country. FPF provides professional training workshops for Native artists and works with NCDFIs to train business coaches on how to work with Native artists. FPF also provides fellowship for Native artists to help them grow and improve their businesses. JSF supported FPF to expand their efforts to work with Native artists.

One of the many attributes I admire about these amazing leaders is their collaboration and partnership efforts. They all work together on many initiatives and recognize that supporting one another with their communities, with the tribal/state/federal government, with other partners, and with funders elevates all of their efforts. Tanya, Elsie and Tawney all work together on the South Dakota Native American Housing Coalition to provide not only much needed housing on reservations but helping to create jobs in housing construction. Lori and Tawney are currently working to expand training and financial products to Native artists – and expand financial services to the community – through a “Rolling Rez Arts” van that also serves as a mobile bank.

Having worked in philanthropy for many years now, I know that many foundations do not have experience in Native communities, feel that it is too risky, or do not fund “special population groups.” These four women have worked for many years on some of the riskiest ventures, in some of the most difficult communities – and have been successful. They are having an impact not only in their communities but across Indigenous communities – and beyond. Investing in their leadership and their organizations is a good bet.

We at JSF would be happy to talk with other funders interested in funding Indigenous communities and share our experiences with you.

Honoring Donor Intent

It has been 25 years since the Foundation was established. How do we honor the intentions of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, the founders who endowed it?Theodore R. and Vivian Johnson

Honoring donor intent does not mean honoring the status quo.

We honor donor intent by discerning and instilling its underlying values. The lives and careers of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are instructive. Both had university degrees, which was unusual for their time. Mr. Johnson also went to night school and obtained an MBA. Education was a necessary asset in his career and is not surprising to see it as the centerpiece of the Johnsons’ philanthropic work and of the Foundation.

When Mr. Johnson started with UPS in 1923 it was a relatively small company with 300 employees. Over the course of his career UPS grew exponentially. It provided a valuable service and created enormous wealth in the process. UPS was privately owned and senior executives were given the opportunity to purchase stock, which Mr. Johnson did at every opportunity. By 1951, Mr. Johnson’s stock in the company had appreciated to the point that he was able to retire.

After retirement Mr. Johnson resisted the conventional wisdom to diversify his financial assets and he kept most of his company stock. UPS continued to expand and flourish and by the time that Mr. and Mrs. Johnson reached their 80s, the value of their stock was sufficient to endow a Foundation. Mr. Johnson’s experience with UPS is powerful testimony to the free enterprise system and the opportunities that it provides. It seems natural that belief in this system became a basic value of the Foundation.

Theodore JohnsonMr. Johnson had the humility and the wisdom to realize that, when he went to work for UPS in 1923, he appeared at the right place at the right time, and that this fortunate event was largely responsible for his career success and personal wealth. With the realization that he and Mrs. Johnson had been more fortunate than most, came the understanding that some people are less fortunate and have fewer opportunities for growth. Thus was developed the fundamental tenet of the Foundation: to use the wealth made possible by their good fortune to help deserving people who had not been as lucky. This is the value of helping the “underdog”, which runs through everything that the Foundation does. Scholarships are not reserved for the most accomplished students. The distinguishing factor is need.

The emphasis on people with disabilities is a related point. Mr. Johnson recognized that a disability is a matter of luck and a person who has a disability will generally have a harder time getting started in life. Mr. Johnson was himself hard-of- hearing, either from his teenage experience working in a canning factory or from serving in World War I as an artillery specialist or both, and this gave him a personal empathy for people with disabilities. It seems a natural thing for Mr. and Mrs. Johnson to extend the value of helping those less fortunate to people with disabilities.

Mr. Johnson had a soft spot in his heart for American Indians. When asked why he had earmarked a portion of the Foundation for the benefit of American Indian education he simply replied that he always thought that the “Indians got a raw deal.” Again this relates to the idea of using his good fortune to help those less fortunate in the lottery of life.Ted and Vivian Johnson

There is at least one more value of the Foundation that can be traced to its founders, namely pragmatism. Both Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were born in small towns and considered themselves to be practical, conservative people. They did not live lavishly or put on airs.

The idea of helping students who might not otherwise have the financial means to obtain post-secondary education is a noble calling to be sure. But it is also very practical. Helping to educate people with disabilities and American Indians is also very practical. The benefits to the individual and to society are self evident.

In 2002 the Foundation adopted its Mission Statement and Core Values in order to inculcate the ideals and aspirations of our founders. Since then we have developed a theory of change and strategies to inform our grant making to people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples and financially disadvantaged people. As we gain experience, we continually strive to evaluate and improve our grant making process. Our grant portfolio in 2016 is very different from its counterpart 25 years ago, but the underlying intention remains.

Check out our website – in particular the Foundation’s Mission Statement, Core Values, strategies, investment results and grant making – to see how we honor donor intent.

Is Anybody Listening?

Education is the Answer

The Johnson Scholarship Foundation believes that education is the best way to empower people to become more independent and productive. The Foundation funds business and entrepreneurship education because it believes that this will contribute to individual prosperity and the growth of reservation economies. This will not happen quickly but reservation economies are growing, as are college graduation rates for Indigenous People in the United States. This belief has caused the Foundation to invest in the American Indian College Fund (A*CF) and Tribal Colleges.woman working on a small loom

In 1989 the presidents of Tribal Colleges in the United States created A*CF. The object was to raise money from the private sector for scholarships and support of Tribal Colleges. Since that time A*CF has grown into the largest charity serving Indigenous People in this country.

In the United States there are presently 35 accredited Tribal Colleges, which offer certificates, diplomas, associates degrees, bachelors’ and masters’ degrees. Most of them were founded in the 1970s and 80s and are located on Reservations in various areas of the
country. The oldest is Dine College (1968) on the Navajo Reservation and the newest is Ilisagvik College (2011) in Alaska. Together the Tribal Colleges educate about 17,000 students every year.

The Johnson Scholarship Foundation has granted over $19 million to programs that serve Indigenous Peoples, most of it for education. The Foundation began investing in the American Indian College Fund in the early 1990s.

Later in the 90s the Foundation created the Tribal College Entrepreneurship Scholarship program and began selecting and Christian Weaver Nancy Jo Houk Bob Lorence Cherly Crazybull Sharon Wood King Jordan Jamie Schwartzdirectly investing in Tribal Colleges. This program has continued to the present day and, through it,the Foundation grants over $500 thousand annually in scholarships for Indigenous students to pursue studies in business and entrepreneurship.

The Foundation has also partnered with several Tribal Colleges, universities and with A*CF to create endowments, which provide permanent capital to fund student scholarships for the study of business and entrepreneurship.

United Tribes Technical College Spring Graduation on May 8, 2015The tagline on the American Indian College Fund website is “Education is the Answer.” This embodies the mission of the Tribal Colleges and the effort to achieve social justice and a higher standard of living for Indigenous People. “Education is the Answer” also resonates with the Foundation’s mission and strategy.

A*CF can channel donations into general college scholarships or for specific areas of study. It has
a large and talented staff and its work is highly rated.  Check out the American Indian College Fund website.

The website contains a list and map of America’s 35 Tribal Colleges. These colleges have a great task and most of them also have a great need. Visit them online and learn their stories. Education is the answer!


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