Kevin Walker has always been a true believer in the work of community foundations. And though he wasn’t at Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF) back in 1997 when the South Dakota Community Foundation (SDCF) was awarded more than $470,000 to support an effort to build a network of Community Savings Accounts across the state, the gift makes perfect sense to him today.
“You know that saying, ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for?’” he asks from his office in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he has led NWAF as president since 2008. “South Dakota Community Foundation’s Community Savings Account program is a beautiful expression of that notion. It places a bet on the idea that communities themselves have the assets and ideas to build a brighter future. And it positions the Community Foundation as a partner and catalyst for that self-determination.”
Since NWAF’s gift 20 years ago, Community Savings Accounts (CSAs) have been established in 77 communities, totaling $33 million in endowed gifts. CSAs have their own local boards to both raise funds, and award grants. “There’s really no substitute for people having a voice in the decisions that shape their future.”
NWAF has chosen to pursue that aspiration in part by recruiting a diverse board of directors, including four Native Americans. South Dakota’s own Zach Ducheneaux chairs NWAF’s nominating and governance committee. They also live that belief by constantly listening to—and learning from—their grantees. It’s a topic, he says, that he could talk for days about.
“Some of the efforts we support work great—we learn from those successes and we share them. Other efforts don’t work out. That’s part of life, and we try to remind ourselves that if we never fail, we’re probably not trying hard enough. That goes for our grantees too,” he notes. “We look for people with vision and tenacity about what a self-determined future might look like.”
He goes on to talk about the South Dakota organizations that NWAF has partnered with in his nine-plus years at the foundation, including SDCF grantee Cheyenne River Youth Project. “We all know there’s a deficit-based way of looking at Indian Country that can break your heart—that story is the one the mainstream media tells when they pay attention at all,” Walker says.
“But there is another story. We see a rising generation of young leaders who are determined to build a thriving future for their families, communities and Nations. I think everyone interested in investing in the future of South Dakota should look more carefully at opportunities to be part of that journey in Indian Country. I’m convinced that investing in the future of Native communities is critical to the future of the entire state.”
NWAF serves a region that includes eight states and 75 Native Nations. It’s a vast and diverse territory that stretches from the prairies of Minnesota to the forested coastline of the Pacific Northwest. And NWAF’s mission is just as big—to help people get out of poverty, and stay out, by building their assets.
“We believe prosperity is possible for all. So yes, we spend a lot of time with Native organizations, but we know that the tribes’ rural neighbors often want the same things for themselves and their families that our Native partners want,” Walker says. “It’s the same things that you and I want for ourselves and our families and our communities. It’s about self-determined prosperity: thriving on your own terms, in a state and a nation where we support one another’s dreams rather than tearing one another down. That’s how we think, and that’s how we try to fund.