Something for the Little People

The Twin Cities-based Northwest Area Foundation has a $450 million endowment to use on charitable programs. So why has it been nearly invisible for years?

"My God, it just seems a shame," laments Joe Selvaggio, founder of the social-service agency Project for Pride in Living, and now executive director of the One Percent Club, a nonprofit group that encourages wealthy people to give money to charity. "I think the federal government, or some watchdog organization, should have gotten on them to spend."

What ultimately resulted from the Northwest Area Foundation's years of self-scrutiny is somewhat abstruse. Rather than spreading its money across the philanthropic spectrum, the foundation decided to focus exclusively on eradicating poverty. It also fundamentally shifted its approach to philanthropy. Instead of soliciting grant applications and then deciding which ones were worthy of money, the foundation decided to essentially establish its own anti-poverty programs. By far the most ambitious component of the overhaul is the "Community Ventures" project launched in 1998. Through this initiative the foundation intends to identify at least 12 communities, ranging from poor urban neighborhoods to rural areas hemorrhaging population, and spend a total of $150 million working with them for up to a decade on reducing poverty.

Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, says that the Northwest Area Foundation should be applauded for attempting to transform the lives of poor people. "Tell me the other foundations that have said their mission is to address poverty," Cohen says. But he also cautions that foundations risk becoming isolated from communities--and ignorant of their needs--when they stop accepting grant applications. "It's definitely a practice that everybody ought to be concerned about, where foundations provide most of their money through staff-initiated and staff-controlled programs as opposed to responding to the requests and proposals from groups on the ground."

So far, only four Community Ventures projects have gotten off the ground. These include operations in the rural community of Miner County, South Dakota; a three-county region in central Oregon; and the fledgling north Minneapolis project. Perhaps the most ambitious of these Community Ventures, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, is not tied to any one geographic area. The nonprofit group was created last spring, after more than three years of planning, with a commitment of $20 million over the next decade from the Northwest Area Foundation. The goal of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation is to restore management and ownership of tribal lands to Native Americans. Through government seizures and private deals, the amount of territory in the eight-state region controlled by Indians has dwindled from 81 million acres in 1871 to less than 16 million acres today.

Another significant problem on reservation lands is allotment, whereby parcels of land have been divided over the years among heirs, resulting in no clear ownership. "It's a huge issue on a lot of reservations," says Cris Stainbrook, who left the Northwest Area Foundation last year to become executive director of the Indian land project. "We have some reservations with 3,000 owners on a single 160-acre parcel."

Ultimately the Indian Land Tenure Foundation hopes to operate nationwide, but will need resources well beyond what it's been promised by the Northwest Area Foundation. "We aren't where we need to be to address the issue," says Stainbrook. "We're projecting it's going to take $500 million to $600 million in private investment to get there."


When Stainbrook left the Northwest Area Foundation in February of last year, it appeared that another Community Ventures project was well on its way to becoming a reality in Yakima County, Washington. The project had been in the planning stages for more than a year. In January the Northwest Area Foundation's Yakima team had given a presentation to the grantmaker's board of directors and received accolades. "We took it to the January board meeting and everything looked on track," recalls Stainbrook. "I don't know what transpired after that."

Stainbrook was not the only senior staff member to depart for the Indian Land Tenure Foundation last year. He was joined by Howard Valandra, a community liaison at Northwest Area Foundation, who had been directly overseeing the Yakima project. In April, shortly after Valandra left, residents of Yakima County were informed that the project was being put on hold. Then in August, Stauber visited Washington and announced that the foundation no longer intended to fight poverty in that community.

Yakima County stretches over more than 4,000 square miles in south central Washington. The southern part of the county is dominated by farms producing fruit, wheat, and dairy products, largely tended by Mexican migrant farmworkers. In the center of the county is the Yakima Indian Reservation. Most of the wealth is concentrated at the northern end of the county, in the (predominantly white) city of Yakima. The median household income for the county is $35,000, according to the 2000 census, or about $11,000 less than Washington state as a whole. Twenty percent of the residents live in poverty.

According to the Northwest Area Foundation, Yakima County was simply too divided to mount an effective attack on poverty. "They are really very independent communities and they like being independent communities," argues Stauber. "Cooperation across those communities is fairly unusual. Instead you're more likely to see, at times, a pattern of conflict between those communities."

Residents of Yakima County, who had spent months attending meetings, identifying problems, and discussing possible solutions, were incensed by Stauber's announcement. "You never mentioned to us that we were doing anything wrong so that we could correct it," scoffs David Silva, a community organizer who worked on the project. "We are divided in the sense that we are different, but we have the same needs. Poverty does not discriminate."

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