Jim enote, CEO of the Colorado Plateau Foundation
Jim enote, CEO of the Colorado Plateau Foundation

In his long career, Jim Enote has been a museum director, foundation advisor and nonprofit founder. But Enote, who is now CEO of the Colorado Plateau Foundation, says he’s a farmer first.

“That’s what I do first, is grow things,” said Enote, who is Zuni. “And I’ve learned there are many metaphors that come from that work. That’s helped me frame my approach to philanthropy.”

Called by his peers “the CEO who wears irrigation boots,” Enote has overseen the growth of his institution over the past decade into an example of the deep value of Native-led regional funders, rooted not only in their communities’ complexities and needs, but also in their capability to bring forth local solutions to challenges they face.

Only 0.4% of giving from major U.S. foundations goes toward Native communities and causes, according to data collected by Candid and Native Americans in Philanthropy. And rural organizations like the Colorado Plateau Foundation only get a small share of that already tiny pie. Urban populations receive nearly three-quarters of all funding for Native causes. But thanks to a solid list of backers and a steadily growing budget, the foundation has been an important source of support, financial and otherwise, for Native-led work in the region.

“Why can’t we do this ourselves?”

In the early 1990s, Enote put together a funding proposal for a farmer’s cooperative. He had contributed his own money—he was one of the farmers in the group—but more was needed. One interested program officer called to suggest they meet for dinner in Santa Fe. At the restaurant, she told him she liked the proposal and was going to fund it. But as she walked him to his car, he got an unwelcome surprise.

“She reached forward, grabbed my face and she kissed me. My first reaction was, ‘What the hell? That’s not right,’” recalled Enote, who refused the grant. “It taught me a lesson, and it made me think. There are powers out there. In terms of giving, and being involved in the philanthropic process, why can’t we do this ourselves?”

Lacking the capital to start a foundation himself or the knowledge of philanthropy he now possesses, the idea was left to percolate for nearly two decades, but he cites the experience as pushing him toward the idea. Of course, as a young Native man in America, it was just his latest tangle with the dynamics of power and money, not to mention racism. Enote recalled, as a child in 1962, seeing his mother in tears and realizing the public restroom in front of them had a “whites only” sign.

Enote also points to the lessons he learned while working as a land use consultant. Only recently out of university, Enote was quickly in high demand. “I would get offers and calls to do work in Africa, Asia, Australia,” he said. “At some point, I began to question the efficiency of that work.”

The experience cemented the philosophy that now guides the Colorado Plateau Foundation. “You should be investing in somebody locally,” he said. “Help them develop the capacity to do this work themselves, then you won’t have to fly in from the U.S., Canada, and all these other places.”

The Colorado Plateau Foundation’s slogan is “We live where we serve.” Not only do Enote and his staff understand tribal complexities, such as the difference between theocratic and democratic governance, but they have the familiarity that comes from a life lived in the region. “We joke, and we say we know who dated who in high school. We see our colleagues and friends at the track meets, at the flea markets,” he said.

How the foundation got its first funding

In 2008, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation decided to make a five-year commitment to conservation work in the West. The project was modeled after a similar batch of programs in California, with the Colorado Plateau as one of the three target regions.

“It wasn’t entirely clear who in the tribal lands region to work with, how we could limit an investment to five years that would be helpful in the region,” said Walt Reid, conservation and science program director at Packard.

Reid said the foundation considered setting up a fund at a university, but ultimately started by funding the Grand Canyon Trust, whose board at the time included Enote. Together with the Christensen Fund, which was already working in the plateau, Packard funded a gathering of the region’s tribes. Eight tribes govern the lands of nearly a third of the Colorado Plateau: Hopi, Zuni, Navajo Nation, White Mountain Apache, Hualapai, Havasupai, Ute and Kaibab Band of Paiute. The meeting was a success—and Reid was impressed with the depth and breadth of Enote’s relationships.

In 2011, after a few more convenings, Packard funded Enote to put together a concept paper. The vision he proposed drew directly from the priorities identified by the council—and they are the same ones the foundation advances today.

By 2012, the Colorado Plateau Foundation had launched—at that time under the fiscal sponsorship of the Arizona Community Foundation—and started making its grants. Packard recently gave its final grant to Enote’s organization, $500,000 over two years ending in 2021, but Reid is not concerned about the organization’s future.

“Jim is the whole reason for the creation and the success of it,” Reid said. “He’s been able to build up other donors so they don’t run into a cliff. We’re pretty thrilled about it.”

Enote credits the early support from Packard and Christensen with establishing his credibility. “Their standing in the field was very helpful,” he said. “That has opened the doors to other partners and relationships.”

How the foundation supports the Colorado Plateau and its people

The tribal gatherings funded by Packard and Christensen established the four priorities that the Colorado Plateau Foundation still works on today: protection of water, protection of sacred sites and endangered landscapes, language revitalization and sustainable, community-based agriculture.

As it has since its first batch of grants, the foundation advances those priorities through a laser focus on building the capacity of Native-led organizations in the region.

Developing the capacity of local organizations is vital to work in the region, giving them the tools needed to negotiate water policy with federal and state agencies or participate in drafting the language of a bill for a national monument or forest.

Reflective of its budget, the foundation’s grants are small, ranging from just $1,000 to $25,000. Nearly all grants are for capacity building, for issues ranging from succession planning and 990 reporting to leadership development and advocacy training.

Since its inception, Colorado Plateau Foundation has grown from granting $112,000 in its first year to a projected $600,000 in 2020. By the end of this year, it will have given $2.8 million over its lifetime. It remains a pass-through organization, dependent on its fundraising to fund its grantmaking. The uncertainty has to date led the foundation to make only one-year grants, said Enote, but with support starting to build, the team is considering multi-year gifts.

Grantmaking is not the foundation’s only means of support. The team offers coaching for grantees, including bringing them in for what it calls a “learning journey.” With a program officer, organizations outline their own history with sticky notes on a giant sheet of butcher paper, assessing their stage of development. Due to COVID, the process has now moved to Zoom and phone calls.

Before the pandemic, the foundation also held an annual two-day gathering filled with workshops and time for colleagues and friends to connect. For Enote, these gatherings underline the value of his institution’s local focus. Such a gathering would be much harder for a national or international grantmaker to pull off. Taking the time to help organizations interact has paid off this year.

“The pandemic has pointed out that the grantees are connecting and helping each other’s communities get through the pandemic. That has been really especially heartening to see,” he told me.

Enote and his staff still work hard to find new partners each year. But it has assembled a long list of supporters, ranging from national institutions to regional family foundations. Current funders include the McCune, William and Flora Hewlett, Carroll Petrie, Swift, NoVo, Flora Family, Lannan, Henry Luce, Kalliopeia and Wilburforce foundations.

Gradual movement to put grantmaking in Native hands

There’s been a slow-building movement over the last couple of decades among Native communities to create more institutions like the Colorado Plateau Foundation, said Erik Stegman, executive director of Native Americans in Philanthropy. He pointed to organizations like the Hopi Foundation, founded in 1987, and the Potlach Fund, which was formed in 2002, as the long-running innovators and leaders in the space.

Such local efforts help tribes get on the radar of national philanthropy, not only to attract more funding, but to ensure that if it arrives, grantmaking is guided by local knowledge about the needs of the communities. COVID-19 recently underscored the value of that infrastructure.

“When the Navajo community really started to become one of the biggest hotspots in the country, we could easily list one or two of those community foundations that had native leadership,” said Stegman, who is a member of the Carry the Kettle First Nation (Nakoda). “Without those partners, it would have been a lot harder for national funders to spread dollars out to a diverse range of communities.”

The Christensen Fund has been part of that gradual growth. About a decade ago, the foundation began to focus on changing the relationship between philanthropy and local communities as one of its core strategies, said China Ching, director of grantmaking. By shifting how it did its own grantmaking, the fund sought to strengthen Native community leadership and institutions, building their capacity to determine how resources are given.

The fund has supported about a dozen such grantmaking institutions around the world, Ching told me. Grantees include both local and national efforts, ranging from early funding for the White Earth Land Recovery Project founded by Native environmental activist Winona LaDuke to more recent support for both the Seventh Generation Fund, which was founded in 1977, and the recently launched NDN Collective, which has raised more than $30 million over the past two years.

“Oh my gosh, it’s really evolved,” Ching said of philanthropy’s attitudes toward Native communities, adding that there’s lots of work left to do. “Indigenous people are not just a strategy. I think people recognize that they’re agents and actors and leaders in a lot of this thinking. The traction that NDN has gotten is a really good example of that work.”

What’s next for the foundation

After the Colorado Plateau Foundation launched, Enote was able to partner with a few trailblazers, but found that some foundations were “really adamant” that they were going to do direct grantmaking to native communities. Nearly a decade later, his message to funders is much the same, but that thinking has begun to shift.

“Don’t think of us as just pass-through. Think of us as partners. Think of your investment as also contributing to self-determination,” he tells potential supporters. “More funders are seeing the rationale and logic of that.”

COVID-19 has prompted calls across philanthropy and beyond to reimagine what is normal. For Native communities and philanthropy, Enote would like to see a shift from short-term, discrete, project funding to a broader base of support.

“I have worked on many projects in my life. And they have a beginning and an end. I’m more interested in a movement,” he said. “We need more movement building and nation building. A lot of Native people are moving from a generation of sufferers to a generation of nation builders.”

In recent years, as his own organization has moved from emergent to established, Enote has spent more of his time trying to elevate the value of working with Native people, communities and organizations. Lately, that’s meant speaking on a lot of webinars. He’s keen to attract more funding, but wants to see investments motivated by the potential for change, not pity.

“Don’t do it if you think Native people have been done wrong and you want to fix that, like a white guilt kind of a thing, because those sentiments have not got us very far,” he said. “Do it because it makes sense.”