Tribal Government & News

George discusses the power of Tribal philanthropy

By Danielle Frost

Tribal philanthropy and the new relationships it has created among Oregon and Washington Tribes, as well as their surrounding communities, was one of the topics discussed during the Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington Conference: Grantmakers as Changemakers held at Spirit Mountain Casino on Wednesday, Sept. 26, through Friday, Sept. 28.

Grand Ronde Tribal Council member and former Spirit Mountain Community Fund Director Kathleen George was one of four guest speakers at a Wednesday afternoon breakout session, “The Power of Tribal Philanthropy.”

George also serves on the Spirit Mountain Community Fund Board of Directors.


The Tribe was a premier sponsor of the event with Community Fund employees doing most of the organizing, which took up much of the past year. The three-day conference included full days of networking, breakout sessions and evening events.

“It is wonderful to be back with my peers in the philanthropic community,” George said. “I had the honor to serve as Community Fund director for several years. Potlatch is a social contract of giving among Tribes and is a deeply rooted value in all of our communities. It is always important to me to recognize that the role of being invested in the community is a deeply rooted tradition.”

In addition to George, other guest speakers on the panel were Coquille Tribal Community Fund Administrator Jackie Chambers, Siletz Tribal Charitable Contribution Fund Administrative Assistant Denise Garrett and Cowlitz Indian Tribal Council member Karissa Lowe.

Panelists were asked questions ranging from memorable partnerships to the challenges of managing a philanthropic fund.

George told attendees, mostly nonprofit grantmakers from Oregon and Washington, about how Tribes struggled in the recent past to even be federally recognized, and how the ability to have casinos has allowed them to give back to the local community and other Tribes in need.

“All of our Tribes have experienced the worst of federal government policy, but there is lots of hope and rebuilding now,” she said. “It is good to take a moment to remember these hard times. We now have a wonderful opportunity to invest in a lot of communities and affect a lot of lives.”

Spirit Mountain Community Fund was launched in 1997 and since then has funded 2,570 grants totaling $76.5 million to local nonprofits and other Oregon Tribes.

“A few years after the Community Fund was going, we decided to invest in the other Tribes through our Tribal grants program,” George said. “There are many ways in which we interact and connect with other Tribes, but this allows us to partner with our sister Tribes in a way we would not normally.”

George said a few memorable Tribal grants over the years included helping the Burns Paiute Tribe keep its youth center open and providing a bus to help teens from the Warm Springs Tribe attend summer credit recovery sessions so they could graduate from high school.

“Those really felt like important investments,” George said. “In Warm Springs, they were really excited about the program because high school graduation rates in Indian Country are very, very bad for a number of reasons. Having a back-up bus option for these kids made all of the difference. That was huge to people out there, who live in a very remote area without taxis or bus service. … Those two partnerships felt very powerful to me.”

George noted that a negative impact of having a Community Fund is the perception that the Tribe has “loads of money.”

“At times, people think if you are able to share with others, you must be filthy rich,” she said. “Our Community Fund was built into the foundation of our casino, but there have been times where the Tribe has been met with doubt because we have the money to give away to others in need. … If you visit Grand Ronde, you won’t find any mansions, but what you will find is adequate housing, which looks a lot different than what you would see 35 years ago.”

She said that things that have changed over time are streamlining processes to make fund applications more accessible and simplifying applications so that less time is spent filling them out.

“This way, more organizations can follow their mission and spend less time securing grants. … Also, we don’t ‘hide the ball.’ We tell applicants very clearly what they need to do to apply,” she said.

George said one question that some organizations found challenging was how much diversity they had among members on a nonprofit board.

“Some had a hard time with that, but other nonprofits actually thanked us for giving them an opportunity to have a conversation that they felt they couldn’t have before this time,” George said. “It’s also nice to challenge our own thinking about the impact of our investments. This is a time of growth and change in our communities.”