Cherokee Foundation focuses on capacity

Ret Boney

CHEROKEE, N.C. – Since its creation in 2000, the Cherokee Preservation Foundation has been intent on building the capacity of the Qualla Boundary and its Cherokee inhabitants, as well as surrounding counties in western North Carolina.

That goal has become more important in the wake of the recession, which created even more need in an already-struggling area, driving jobless rates in some counties to 20 percent and demand at the local food bank up 300 percent, says Susan Jenkins, executive director of the foundation.

At the height of the recession, the foundation contributed $100,000 to the Recession Response Fund started by the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.

But the economic downturn has put pressure on the foundation, too.

Its grantmaking dollars come from the casino run by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and with gaming revenues suffering during the recession, the foundation’s grantmaking capabilities have been squeezed.

The organization’s resources are down about 12 percent, and its endowment of about $7 million took a hit during the market volatility of 2008 and 2009, forcing 2010 grants down by about $1 million to a total of about $5.5 million.

“It has been difficult, but the difficulty hasn’t been on our part,” says Jenkins. “It’s when we have to tell our grantees that all the money they’ve requested isn’t there.”

With administrative costs already under 10 percent of its budget, there’s little fat to cut, so the foundation is focusing on how to do more with the limited funding it has.

“It’s forcing us and many others to be more strategic and that has been very helpful,” Jenkins says of the recession. “Sometimes you have to be pushed into some things you know you ought to be doing.”

That has meant a renewed focus on fostering greater capacity among grantees and increased collaboration with other mountain-area funders.

“The essence of what we do is capacity-building,” says Jenkins. “The major difference working as an embedded funder is you’ve got to dance with who’s in the gym.”

So Jenkins doesn’t consider a project successful unless the grantee has taken steps to increases its own internal capacity while completing the project funded by the foundation.

As an added incentive, tribal nonprofits that attend Skills Builders program offered by the foundation receive funding priority.

Through the effort, grantees learn about fundraising, communication, project planning and management and financial management.

And the foundation is continuing its involvement in Nonprofit Pathways, a collaborative effort of four mountain-area funders that provides resources for local nonprofits with an eye on boosting internal capacity.

Pathways offers skills training, organizational assessments, and grants to help nonprofits structure and complete structural changes and create sustainable organizations.

“We’re trying to encourage the whole idea of continual learning,” says Jenkins.

That idea of continual learning applies to the foundation itself, and to other peer funders, who through collaboration can improve their own efforts, says Jenkins.

In a region where resources are sparse and scattered, without what she calls the “critical mass” of foundations found in the Triangle and the Triad, funders must be intentional about getting together and sharing what’s worked and what hasn’t.

Earlier this fall, the N.C. Network of Grantmakers convened a luncheon, supported by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, during which grantmakers investing in western North Carolina could learn who’s doing what and how they can join forces to have a greater impact.

“We’re really trying to figure out how we can work with other foundations,” says Jenkins. “Because sometimes foundations that come into the area may not be aware of all the complexity and leadership changes that occur in the community.”

The foundation’s grantmaking capacity is beginning to turn around, she says, with casino income inching up and the endowment recovering some of its lost ground.

But realizing the operating environment may have changed for good, the foundation’s board launched a strategic planning process that is slated to be voted on in December.

A key element in the plan is to find ways to leverage the foundation’s investments, and get a better sense of the organization’s impact on the region.

“This is the new normal,” says Jenkins. “We’ve got to do more with less.”

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