Potlatch Fund: Tapping a Civic Impulse to Strengthen Native Communities

Potlatch Fund is a grant­making foundation and leadership development organization that serves Native communities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. It supports diverse Pacific Northwest Native communities by providing grants up to $10,000 focused primarily on culture, art and language revitalization, and preserving traditions.

“To understand our work and impact, you have to understand the historical and cultural context in which we operate,” says executive director Dana Arviso. “Some of the challenges our communities are facing are due to a history of federal policies explicitly designed to relocate and tear our communities apart. The inequities are vast.”

To understand our work and impact, you have to understand the historical and cultural context in which we operate.
— Dana Arviso, Potlatch Fund

But, Aviso emphasizes, they are not intractable. Potlatch Fund—which takes its name from a Chinook Jargon word that describes a system of social sharing and cultural celebration—has made great strides in building support for the community-based organizations it funds.

A significant number of its grantees have, with Potlatch support, grown their budgets and revenue. “We’re seeing more organizations starting to apply to larger funding sources. It’s not that they don’t need our grants, but that they feel they can leverage [larger grants] and intentionally decide to leave our resources for other native organizations.”

Another marker of success in capacity building: In 2006, more than half of all grantees needed significant help from Potlatch just to complete their grant applications. In 2015, over 90 percent of applicants applied without help. This indicates a clearer understanding of the processes and requirements to successfully apply for grants from any funder.

In early 2016, Potlatch Fund finished a strategic planning process to bring new dollars into the communities it serves. They were spurred in part by data showing that for every dollar of philanthropic money only 3 to 5 cents goes to Native communities.

As a member organization of Native Americans in Philanthropy, Potlatch educates foundations on the historical and cultural context of grantmaking in Native communities. “We create relationships between mainstream philanthropy and our communities,” says Arviso. “We are working to get more foundations to join the circle of funders that have made a deep commitment to funding in our communities.”


Blending the Traditional and Contemporary

Potlatch draws attention to some of the critical issues in Native communities by getting back to tradition—and by blending these traditions with contemporary approaches and technologies.

In 2012, Potlatch launched a focus on preserving Native languages that are at risk of being lost along with the last generation of fluent elders. Many of these languages are oral and not written, and some communities are using their grants to create written dictionaries and pronunciation guides, often with the help of technology. Innovative approaches include training young people to use iPads to interview elders and create a recording and transcription of the language. Other grantees use apps to create digital storybooks celebrating the languages.

Since it launched in 2013, the Language Education & Preservation grant  has provided over $60,000 in support.

It will take more than one generation, but we are becoming whole and vibrant communities again.
— Dana Arviso, Potlatch Fund

A second major area of grantmaking is designed to restore Native art to its central place in community and culture. Here too, Potlatch supports a blending of innovative new technology with deep-rooted tradition. “Restrictions on some of the natural resources we’ve traditionally used in our art, such as cedar bark, have created problems. So we encourage artists to explore new machines, methods and materials. Our microgrants help purchase the supplies.”

Each year,  Potlatch supports and Inter-Tribal Canoe Journey that celebrates diverse traditions and educates younger generations. Potlatch works with larger foundations to bundle and re-grant to canoe-building and cultural projects selected by a committee that comprises community members.

“Our work in art and language preservation is rebuilding connections so that people of all ages—elders, middle age, Native youth—are connecting to each other and also back to traditional practices. It will take more than one generation, but we are becoming whole and vibrant communities again.”