In remembrance / Philanthropy / Philanthropy and the State

A Small Grant Can Go a Long Way: Building Support for Native American Governance

Editors’ Note: Michael Lipsky tells the story of a small Ford Foundation grant, made by Norm Collins in 1986, that led to the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and paved the way for Ford’s Honoring Contributions in the Governance of American Indian Nations awards program. This post was written as a tribute to Collins, who died in December and whose photo is featured on the HistPhil homepage banner accompanying this post.

Discussion of the contributions of philanthropy to U.S. society tends to focus on large initiatives with clear, dramatic impacts. Examples include the Green Revolution, the 911 emergency-response system, the Public Broadcasting System, and community-development corporations.

But small grants can make a difference, too. A small grant can unleash creativity in a timely way. It can provide strategic support to entrepreneurs, organizers and intellectuals. One such grant has represented for me a powerful example of how grant makers can make a difference with limited funds.

In 1986, Norm Collins, then the Director of the Rural Poverty and Resources program at the Ford Foundation, recommended a $35,000 grant to Harvard University to allow two young researchers to study the factors influencing the economic development of American Indian nations. The proposed grant fit into Norm’s personal and organizational agenda. Trained as an agricultural economist, he had spent the larger part of his career working for Ford in India, focused broadly on advancing the Green Revolution that promised to improve farmers’ productivity and reduce poverty in rural populations. In his subsequent New York assignment he focused on rural poverty in the United States, among other things. American Indians, rural but also urban, are by far the poorest group enumerated in the American census.

The grant called for sociologist Stephen Cornell and economist Joe Kalt to spend the summer interviewing tribal leaders. Their objective was to make sense of why some tribes had vibrant economies while others struggled.

There are over 570 American Indian nations in the United States. Some are economically successful. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, for example, is a commercial powerhouse employing thousands of workers, Native and non-Native, on a fragmented land base. Other tribal nations experience deep poverty even though their land base is much greater, and they are endowed with coal, uranium, timber or other sources of potential wealth.

As is widely known, the history of the United States’ treatment of American Indians is one of betrayal and neglect. Historically self-governing (recognized as such by the Constitution and subsequently by the courts, Congress and executive orders), in practice the American government dominated Native nations. It rewrote treaties to its advantage, experimented with despised assimilationist policies to the detriment of Indian culture, and imposed policies on tribes in such critical areas for self-government as revenue generation, law enforcement, education and housing.

However, at the time of the Ford grant the tide was beginning to turn. Federal legislation of 1975 allowed tribal governments to assume responsibility for administering federally-funded programs run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribes were beginning to take responsibility for administering health clinics and schools, developing their own court systems and police departments, and implementing business development plans originating with Native leadership. Instead of relying exclusively on federal employees to run programs on their behalf, tribal governments were training and hiring their own professionals and tailoring programs to meet the unique needs of their citizens.

Tribes that took ownership of public programs administered on tribal lands, led by entrepreneurial leaders with visions for long-term sustainability, seemed to do particularly well. In contrast to economic development models that emphasize such factors as access to markets and endowments of natural resources, Cornell and Kalt concluded that Native nations tended to thrive when they controlled and administered programs and resources that affect their well-being. This transformation of sovereignty, from nominal to robust, was the key to tribal economic success.

Cornell and Kalt maintained that the exercise of sovereignty was not only a powerful political claim; it was demonstrably a necessary factor in the improved economic performance and well-being of Native nations. They also identified three other attributes of successful tribal development: effective leadership; strong governing institutions that helped maintain stability in the face of personalized tribal politics; and institutional development consistent with tribal cultural practices and notions of legitimacy.

Building on the research funded by Ford, Cornell and Kalt established the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The Harvard Project sought to make these findings accessible to tribal leaders and others through Project publications, and through seminars and consulting. They trained scores of Kennedy School students, both Native and non-Native, to work with tribes as part of the School’s program to engage students in analyzing issues for governmental “clients.” And they shared their findings with future tribal leaders—in particular Kennedy School students of Native heritage—through an annual seminar on “nation-building.”

One of the students who participated in the Harvard Project’s applied research was Andrew Lee (Seneca). After completing an MPA degree at the Kennedy School, in 1996 Andrew came to work as a Program Associate in the Governance and Public Policy program at the Ford Foundation, where he was assigned to work with me.

At the time, my portfolio as a grant officer at Ford included support for its flagship awards program for “Innovation in American Government.” Since 1986 the Foundation had supported a program at the Kennedy School which each year identified the best examples of government problem-solving in the United States. The program initially celebrated the originality, commitment and administrative competence of state and local officials. Later it expanded to include federal programs.

Initiated during the Reagan years, the program was an early example—one of a very few in American philanthropy—of grant making to affirm the importance and competence of American government at a time of growing public skepticism and distrust of it.

A few years before Andrew Lee arrived at Ford, colleagues working in field offices outside the U.S had begun to promote high standards and expectations for newly empowered sub-national governments by making grants consistent with the approach embodied in the U.S. Innovations awards program. A 1991 law in the Philippines had given municipalities duties for which they had little experience. In Brazil the 1988 constitution had assigned newly empowered municipalities with unprecedented responsibilities. In South Africa the end of apartheid meant that local governments would have to provide public services to all members of society when previously only public services in white communities received adequate attention and funding.

Ford programs in these countries, with variations to be sure, were structured on the model of the Innovations program—an annual awards competition for the best examples of government achievement, vetted by a committee of distinguished people recruited by a well-respected national institution, with extensive promotion of the awardees’ accomplishments. The awards program design offered a way to disseminate information about new approaches to policy making, while holding up for public approval the best examples of government achievements.

In the context of these developments, about three months into Andrew’s tenure, we conceived the idea of a competitive awards program emphasizing the achievements of Native nations in exercising sovereignty in creative and effective ways. We sounded out Cornell and Kalt to assess their interest in administering a program that would  follow the formula we considered central to the success of the “Innovations” model.

Launched with a grant to Harvard in 1998, Honoring Nations (short for Honoring Contributions in the Governance of American Indian Nations) took its first steps to shape a narrative of tribal government successes that emphasized the clear connection of successful new policies with the exercise of sovereignty by empowered Native governments. Andrew Lee became the first director. (Andrew recently completed his term as the Chair of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s Board of Trustees, and continues to serve on its New York Board of Directors.) His able successors also identify as Native: Amy Besaw Medford (Brothertown) and, currently, Megan Minoka Hill (Oneida Nation, WI).

Honoring Nations honorees are selected and its policies guided by a Board of Governors composed of distinguished Native Americans—tribal leaders, attorneys specializing in representing Native American interests in U.S. courts, university professors, college presidents, non-profit executives, finance professionals, and others. (In 2003, after leaving the Ford Foundation, I became the exception, as a non-Native, when I accepted the Board’s invitation to join.) Its current Chair is Regis Pecos (Cochiti), a former Governor of his Pueblo, a co-founder of the innovative Santa Fe Indian School, and a long-time Chief of Staff to the Majority Leader of the New Mexico House of Representatives.

Among the first awardees was a Nez Perce program that undertook to administer federal policy for wolf recovery in Idaho when state officials refused to do so; and a Cherokee waste recycling program in North Carolina that also served two counties adjacent to tribal lands. More recent awardees include fundamental constitutional reform at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma, and the state-of-the-art health aide training initiatives of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Since its inception, Honoring Nations has recognized and disseminated the stories of over 130 tribal initiatives—in constitutional and judicial reform, education, natural resource conservation, law enforcement, mental health and substance abuse, economic development, and the many other areas to which American Indian governments are dedicated.

The stories of Honoring Nations winners provide the bases for publications and curricula developments. Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development (Miriam Jorgensen, ed., 2007), for example, sifts the evidence from the various award winners to provide guidance to tribal nations on constitution-building, court reform, tribal policies supporting citizen entrepreneurship, administering governmental services, and other government functions.

Still going strong after more than 20 years, the next Honoring Nations winners will be announced and celebrated in October 2021, at the Annual Conference of the National Congress of American Indians in Sacramento, CA. The date reflects the need to postpone program activities during the current pandemic.

A significant expansion in the scope of the Harvard Project occurred in 2001 when Steve Cornell moved to the University of Arizona and helped start a sister program: the Native Nations Institute (NNI). NNI specializes in developing curricula and offering courses on nation building and tribal administration. The Institute’s name reflects its commitment to engage with Indigenous people around the world. Its 2020 winter term program on Indigenous governance, for example, includes students and faculty from First Nations in Canada and Aboriginal peoples in Australia, as well as participants from Aotearoa (New Zealand), American Samoa, and Mexico.  (In contrast, the Harvard Project conceptualizes its work as primarily lifting up the potential of American Indian Nations, as its name implies.)

One measure of the resilience of a philanthropic initiative is whether it can secure funding after the original funder’s interest has run its course. Honoring Nations confronted this challenge in 2008 when the Ford Foundation, winding down its investments in celebrating government achievements at home and abroad, announced that a new grant to the program would be its last. But funding for Honoring Nations continues, now primarily through the Bush Foundation of St. Paul, MN.

Over the years I’ve heard Joe Kalt and Steve Cornell talk about the small grant they received decades earlier to let them ride around one summer in a beat-up car talking to tribal leaders about their nations’ economic development. Norm Collins made a bet years ago, followed up with additional grants, and helped start keystone institutions which are still making their marks on the world.

-Michael Lipsky

A former professor of political science at M.I.T, Michael served as Program Officer and then Senior Program Officer at the Ford Foundation from 1991 to 2003. His publications include Nonprofits for Hire: The Welfare State in the Age of Contracting (1993), with S.R. Smith, and the award-winning Street Level Bureaucracy (1980, 2010). He has been a member of the Board of Governors of Honoring Nations since 2003.

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