When it comes to initiatives to improve life in Native communities, the investments that are direly needed are often not the shiny, exciting ones that make headlines. Instead what’s needed is the back-end structure, the technical, operational aspects that lay the groundwork for greater things to happen. First Nations Development Institute recognizes this need and provides essential training and technical assistance to tribal organizations throughout Indian Country. As a result, organizations like Dakota Wicohan in Morton, Minnesota, are accomplishing feats that may not be shiny and exciting but are every bit as crucial to their missions.
Investing in the Internal
Eileen O’Keefe, program director for Dakota Wicohan, says that establishing a fundraising and donor management structure was key to her organization’s future, but getting support for such an operational cost has always been a challenge. “Without direct outcomes and a demonstrated impact, it doesn’t necessarily make a good story for funders,” says O’Keefe. “It’s not exciting, external work. First Nations knows that, as small organizations, we need to build that internal capacity.”
Dakota Wicohan is a non-profit cultural resource center focused on the celebration and transmission of Dakota cultural lifeways, art, and language. The organization is a long-term grantee of First Nations and has received seven grants over the last eight years through both the Native Youth and Culture Fund and the Native Arts Initiative. As part of this funding, the organization has received two Supporting Native Arts Grants that provide for training and technical assistance from First Nations during specified grant periods.
The training and technical assistance began by having O’Keefe’s team complete a comprehensive questionnaire regarding operations, capacity, and programmatic infrastructure. “They asked us what we wanted, what we needed, and what was the most important,” she says. “From there they really drill it down to the main items and what you could most benefit from.”
For the first funding session, they decided to concentrate on board training and project management. For the next session, they moved their focus to individual donors and fundraising. To help them build this essential framework, First Nations arranged for nonprofit experts at Melvin Consulting PLLC to partner with the leaders of Dakota Wicohan.
One expert was Eileen Egan, who calls on her experience in individual giving to provide technical assistance to nonprofits and tribal nations to help them reach their full potential. On this project, Egan worked with Dakota Wicohan to create a fundraising plan and select a donor database with electronic marketing capacity. “She looked at where we were hitting, and where we could improve,” says O’Keefe. “That meant looking at fundraising broadly, not just at foundations, but how we were connecting with individual donors.”
Egan felt what was needed was a framework or structure.
“For Dakota Wicohan, the answers are right there in the community. They have a talented team and knowledge,” Egan says. “But by working together we could create more intentionality, including an identifying an online marketing tool so they could reach new levels in fundraising, expand their individual donor base of champions, and progress toward their mission. The training and technical assistance provided the resources needed to step back and consider where they want to be in five years and how they can diversify revenue streams to lessen their reliance on a few sources.”
The plan for Dakota Wicohan involved investing in the technology to organize and streamline their development operations and better reach and engage with potential donors. Egan’s team helped acquire and set up donor management software, transition their records, and train Dakota Wicohan on its use.
“We are a small non-profit, so most of our resources were spent running programs. We weren’t actively accessing our funding sources or cultivating our donors,” says O’Keefe. “We used to have a couple lists here, and an Excel spreadsheet there.”
Egan’s team helped them establish processes and identify opportunities, as well as evaluate and elevate the things the organization was already doing for marketing and outreach, such as its website, newsletter, and social media.
Imperfect action versus perfect inaction
Dakota Wicohan has dived into the new fundraising plan and embraced the training, and is now learning about the full power of the software. O’Keefe says that in addition to the technical assistance, they’re gaining lessons in confidence and intentionality.
“A lot of times, we would get overwhelmed or would hold off making a decision because we would be operating in an area, fundraising, that was entirely new to many of us,” she says.
One quote that is embraced by First Nations President and CEO Michael E. Roberts and resonated with O’Keefe is by Harry S. Truman and it really resonated with O’Keefe and her team: “Imperfect action beats perfect inaction every time.”
“I think we’ve drawn a lot of strength from that,” says O’Keefe. “It stops us from getting paralyzed, but to keep moving ahead. We can do this.”
The training and technical assistance from First Nations is just wrapping up, however, the organization is already seeing results. O’Keefe says they’ve seen a 5% increase in the number of new donors, many coming from California and other states in which Dakota Wicohan had not expected it was having an impact. There has also been an increase in monthly sustainer donations as well as nationwide exposure to the organization.
O’Keefe says her team has been able to implement their overall fundraising efforts in a more concentrated and systematic way, making sure they’re ready for certain fundraising timeframes and events, and being much more deliberate. In addition, the planning has opened the doors for future development goals including planned giving.
“We’re been able to do so more than we thought, and First Nations has been so generous and helpful,” says O’Keefe. “We’re taking baby steps moving forward, but there’s more on the horizon, and with their support, we know we can get there.”
It is true that fundraising strategies and donor management software are not shiny and exciting, and they’re not tied directly to outcomes that are moving the needle in Indian Country. But they are part of the everyday actions that can be perfected so that Native organizations can move the needle themselves. They are key factors in empowering tribal groups like Dakota Wicohan. And they are directly in line with First Nation’s mission to invest in and create innovative institutions that strengthen asset control and support economic development. This is indeed exciting and shiny, and First Nations is proud to be a part of it.