Carla Fredericks, CEO of the Christensen Fund

When Carla Fredericks started as CEO of the Christensen Fund in January 2021, she joined a very short list of Native leaders at major foundations.

It’s a small club, particularly among private foundations with assets in the hundreds of millions or above. One of Fredericks’ few forerunners—and perhaps the first-ever at a large private foundation—was Dr. Kathy Annette, a member of the White Earth Band of Chippewa who previously led the Minnesota-based Blandin Foundation, according to Erik Stegman, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy. A select group of others lead larger community and health conversion foundations.

The appointment of Fredericks, who is an experienced lawyer and an enrolled citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, was particularly notable because the San Francisco-based Christensen Fund is one of a very small group of foundations in the United States that focus squarely on Indigeous communities—a mission she has helped to hone.

Fredericks brings a globe-spanning resume that ranges from work on land rights with the Maya peoples of Southern Belize to supporting the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Domestically, she’s served in key roles around some of the most well-known national conflicts over Native rights and representation.

For instance, Fredericks was counsel to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in its effort to push against the Dakota Access Pipeline. She also led efforts to organize a group of investors representing $630 billion in assets under management, which helped convince the Washington Commanders (previously “Redskins”) to change their team name. She has also taught law and has a long list of published studies and papers to her name.

It was Fredericks’ role in the Standing Rock case that made it clear that “philanthropy is really a major player in areas that affect Indigenous peoples” and that she wanted to guide those decisions, she told me. “We’re always on the other side of the table,” she said. “It was really interesting to me to think about what it would be like to be on the other side of the table and to open that door.”

I recently spoke with Fredericks about her work at the foundation, the funding landscape for Indigenous communities and her recommendations for her peers. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Christensen Fund is known as a leading and stalwart funder of Indigenous communities. Yet you are the first-ever Native American to lead the fund. What do you think is the significance and opportunities that come with that?

I’m really encouraged the Christensens took this step. There’s really incredible and strong leadership across Indigenous and Native communities. But philanthropy needs to widen the aperture a little bit to understand that that leadership is translatable to these positions, too. That’s what Christensen did in hiring me. They really understood that my body of work was going to help them get to where they wanted to be in terms of their strategy and being in right relationship with Indigenous communities.

They’ve always had Indigenous people on the board, including in leadership positions on the board. It is a family foundation. I’m only the third non-family leader. A really good example that they’ve set is having family involvement without having the family in power. They really do respect the independence of the foundation, and bring voices into the foundation in leadership of the communities that they serve. They see this—and I see this too—as kind of the next phase of their work.

What do you want to add, change or cease at the foundation? How do you hope to change or evolve the Christensen Fund?

Most foundations are built on this really interesting Western model of leadership that’s based on two things. One, the tax code sets up foundations in such a way that it is immediately suspicious of the foundation’s motives and actions. So you have boards who kind of have internalized their fiduciary obligation based on something that’s pretty negative. As a companion to that, there is this Western leadership model that has this idea of the “dynamic savior leader.” It’s very hierarchical, that’s how that relationship should flow within the organization and the staff.

This is one of the first opportunities I’ve had in my life to be really, really disruptive within an organization. What I’m really excited about is bringing forth a leadership and governance model that really is based on our values, our commitments and trust. What that would mean is, we’re really elevating our staff at every single “level” to leadership roles within the organization and adopting a project-based approach to our work. The board is really digging deep and thinking about what their role should be vis-à-vis the staff and the communities that we serve.

For a long time, really organically and without the label, we’ve been practicing a version of trust-based philanthropy and trying to do the 2.0 version of that, where we’re not only trusting the communities with our resources, but we’re really looking to them to lead in terms of setting our agenda and strategy. I’m really excited about turning the whole paradigm upside down at every level.

It’s not a matter of being an organizational strategy nerd, because I’m not. It’s a matter of, these are my values as an Indigenous person. This is how Indigenous communities organize themselves. And the Western patriarchal model of leadership and organizational behavior does not serve Indigenous people or marginalized people. It’s actually built to do quite the opposite. If that’s in place for us, we need to do everything we can to interrogate and dismantle it.

You have worked on some fascinating projects at the intersection of finance and human rights, including creating a private equity fund with First Peoples Worldwide and helping to organize investors pushing to change the name of Washington’s football team. What are your plans for Christensen’s endowment—and what are the opportunities for other foundations to leverage their assets for the benefit of Native communities?

What’s really clear to me is that when you have a significant pile of resources, you also have a significant responsibility to make sure that those resources are aligned with human rights and sustainability. Endowments are sitting there kind of underutilized at a lot of foundations. Shareholder advocacy work by foundations is very slim. Foundations tend to want to do impact investing and have not engaged as much as they could with shareholder advocacy. Pension funds and religious institution funds have really led in this area. Foundations would be well-served to really look at that. Christensen actually adopted an investment policy statement last year that seeks to align our investments with our purpose. We’re in that process right now.

This work goes all the way back to the anti-apartheid movement. When we did the Dakota Access Pipeline case study on how the share price was affected by the social unrest, the only other case study that existed was around the anti-apartheid movement and the impact in South Africa. Now, economic sanctions are on everyone’s mind because of what’s going on in Ukraine. I think it’s a really powerful lesson. Economic punishment is probably the most effective driver for change that we have other than war, right?

There have been historic developments for philanthropic funding of Indigenous communities recently, such as the $1.7 billion pledge at COP26 for land rights that Christensen joined. But overall commitments are still small, with the funding by large U.S. foundations for Native communities totaling just 0.4%, according to Native Americans in Philanthropy and Candid. What do you make of the current state of affairs between philanthropy and Native communities?

We’re at a real inflection point. It’s getting better. But as it gets better, you can see what the impact has been of it being so repressed for so long. The impact of that is a real lack of infrastructure in Indigenous and Native communities to actually receive resources at scale. So the $1.7 billion, if you think about where that money is going—and there’s a lot of concern about this, rightfully so—the entities that that money could go to as a practical matter are somewhat limited. That’s a scale investment and there aren’t scale containers to receive that investment.

Containers are being built sort of to respond to the investment, which is not really a recipe for sustainable success. What we’re trying to do at Christensen [as part of the pledge] is advocating for the communities that we serve and for the approaches that we think are going to work, as well as trying to see how they can be refined to better service the Indigenous movement. There are processes that are moving forward, like America the Beautiful or 30×30 in the U.S., that cannot happen without tribal nations at the table.

It’s about building infrastructure. If we’re honest with ourselves, the reason that there aren’t big fund containers sitting around for Indian countries is because no one was investing in them for years and years. We need to put some resources into building the field out. The same thing applies to impact investing: Everyone has all this kind of dry powder on the sidelines and they want these incredible projects at scale. It’s like, well, there’s some work we need to do first. So even though someone might want to make a $3 million PRI investment, he might need to commit some grant capital to actually make that happen. And just really being clear about the history, about the impact of that history, and how we’re gonna make it right.

As funding rises, are there any cautions you would issue, opportunities you would emphasize and/or general guidance you would share for funders just entering this space or considering doing so?

It really does boil down to relationships. That’s an easy thing for people to wrap their heads around. Some of the conversations around equity and inclusion can get a bit technical, a bit removed from people’s day-to-day understanding of their work. One thing that’s really core to any Indigenous governance or value system is inter-relationality—with each other, with the plants, with the animals, with the cosmos, with the creator. We understand the world in a very relational way.

Are you coming into the relationship with a motivation that you’re not sharing? With a true understanding of the community that you’re working with? With an open heart and mind that is focused on listening—or wanting to test and confirm your own assumptions? Are you listening with an open mind and not thinking about what you’re going to say? These are things that, for Indigenous people, we’ve been taught by our parents, by our grandparents, and, frankly, disciplined if we didn’t do that. That’s how we’re approaching things. We’re always thinking about the relationship. If you’re always kind of cross-checking there, I don’t think you’re going to go wrong.

Parting thoughts?

One of the things I notice is that philanthropy thinks of itself as a sector. It sort of offers itself to the world as a business. What I’m seeing is that there’s so much willingness to reimagine this work as heart work and spiritual work. People shouldn’t be afraid to engage with the work in that way. If this work is done from a place that’s rooted in the heart and the spirit, that doesn’t delegitimize it.

My read is that people are maybe a little afraid that if they shy away from strategy or highly tactical approaches, that somehow their work won’t be as legitimate. I think the opposite is really true. The legitimacy of philanthropy is the selfless act of giving away resources and redistributing capital to others. That’s a beautiful thing—and we shouldn’t layer in things that aren’t as beautiful and have those things be of greater importance.