Strategic Approach | December 20, 2023

CEO Kevin Walker: We’ve Changed Our Mission. Here’s Why.

By Kevin Walker     President and CEO, NWAF


A year’s worth of discussion, and 15 years of change, fed into our new mission statement.

We’ve had the same mission statement since 2008. It’s been a potent one, anchoring our core commitment to people and communities living in poverty. But we as an organization have changed a lot over the past 15 years.

So we spent 2023 talking with our staff, board, grantee partners, and others about their thoughts on our work and mission. This gave us the insight to rewrite the mission statement in a way that powerfully reflects who we are now.

Our board agreed and in November approved the new statement. I’m excited about it because of how clearly it points the way forward for the next generation of our work and how justice is at the center of it.

Why change the mission?

Our world has changed profoundly since 2008—and we’ve been changing in response.

For starters, about a decade ago we focused our giving on what we call our priority communities: Native Americans, communities of color, immigrants and refugees, and people in rural areas. In response, we also changed our vision by saying we want the people of our priority communities . . . [to] thrive on their own terms.

Next, in the very depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, our understanding of how change happens deepened and we reenergized our guiding values to be more responsive. They’re now: social justice, courage, grantees come first, listen and learn for change, trust, and heart.

I’m excited about our new mission statement because of how clearly it points the way forward for the next generation of our work and how justice is at the center of it.

As we lived into a closer relationship with our priority communities, we contemplated a strategy that would more clearly center them. This in turn guided us as we implemented a new funding approach two years ago that supports the changes our priority communities seek and their expressed need for justice.

Then this year, the board and I realized that, with all of this change occurring inside and outside of the Foundation, our mission had fallen behind and was long overdue for an update.

Paul Zondo, executive director of African Immigrant and Minority Services (AIMS), left front, and Rep. Hamida Dakane, D–ND District 10, right front, during a discussion at the 2023 NWAF board learning retreat in the Fargo, ND – Moorhead, MN area.

The opposite of poverty is justice.

For me, the most helpful idea fueling our mission statement change was lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson’s insight: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth but justice.” 

For more than a quarter century, we framed our mission on reducing poverty in service of a vision for communities to thrive on their own terms. But grantee partners have repeatedly told us that thriving requires more than material prosperity.

It’s also about connection to place, belonging, and cultural wisdom. Even in material terms, people who might have enough today can find themselves right back in poverty tomorrow if the world they live in is designed to keep them impoverished.

The most helpful idea fueling our mission statement change was lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson’s insight: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth but justice.”

And for our priority communities, the realities they often navigate are full of barriers:  the racial wealth gap, the broken treaties that have left Native nations with shrunken and impoverished reservations, the continuous exploitation of immigrants who are dynamic contributors to our economy, and more.

These barriers are not accidents. They are deliberately baked into the way our country functions. They cannot be overcome by focusing through only a poverty-reduction lens.

In fact, the barriers reflect injustice, and changing them requires a justice lens. That’s why we now name racial, social, and economic justice in our mission statement. We mean to be explicit that justice is our goal.

Araceli Baez, one of the farmers building agricultural entrepreneur skills in rural Minnesota through Sharing Our Roots in Northfield, MN. Photo courtesy of Sharing Our Roots.

We stand alongside changemakers.

The new mission statement says that “we stand alongside changemakers” and fund their work. What do we mean by standing alongside?

It’s our way of pledging not only to provide crucial financial resources, but also to show up consistently and impactfully as an ally, advocate, and co-conspirator with the people who are working every day to lift up their communities. We will use our voice, our networks, our influence, and every other tool in our toolkit. In good times and in tough times, we will stand in solidarity with grantee partners, whose hopes for the future of this region we share.

Changemakers see the chains and name them. Then they work to break them.

And why do we include changemakers?

The term resonated strongly with grantee partners who helped us shape the new mission statement. Changemakers makes it clear that they’re driving real change, not only helping their communities survive within unjust systems.

I often think of a speech I once heard South Africa’s legendary Archbishop Desmond Tutu give to a room full of foundation professionals. Tutu declared, “It is not your job to make the poor more comfortable in their chains. It is your job to help them BREAK their chains!”

Changemakers see the chains and name them. Then they work to break them. Those are the partners we love to work with, learn from, and support.

The Indigenous First Art & Gifts Shop in Duluth, MN, is one way that American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) is building an Indigenous economy that supports culture and healing.

We fund in Indian Country.

Our 2008 mission statement referenced an eight-state region—Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington—once served by the Great Northern Railway, our founding family’s signature enterprise.

But “the Northwest Area” is also Indian Country. The region includes not only those eight U.S. states but 76 sovereign Native nations. The tribal nations were here first. They remain here today. And helping them create the futures they want for their people and communities is at the heart of our funding approach.

For many years now, we’ve devoted 40 percent of each year’s grant dollars to Native-led organizations. Native board members, staff members, and grantee partners have helped shape our thinking and our giving. The commitment is also inseparably connected to the railroad wealth that formed our Foundation in 1934.

So, we wanted to take the meaningful step of explicitly identifying the Native nations in the mission statement. It affirms our commitment to the Indigenous people of this region and that they will remain core to our philanthropy far into the future.

An uplifting moment during a visit to White Earth Nation, MN, in 2023 by (from left) NWAF board members Laura Alvarez Schrag, Joe Eltobgi, and Salome Mwangi; Program Director Karla Miller; Program Officer John Fetzer; and CEO Kevin Walker.

Let us know what you think!

I am very curious to learn whether our new mission statement resonates with people in communities across our region, and with our peers in philanthropy. At the same time, we know that our words, however carefully chosen, are only as meaningful as the actions that back them up.

Do you see us living into this mission in meaningful ways? Do you have advice about how we can do better? We would love to hear from you.

Photo top: NWAF board and staff join representatives from Immigrant Development Center (IDC), Afro American Development Association (AADA), and Ethnic Self-Help Alliance for Refugee Assistance (ESHARA) during the 2023 board learning retreat in the Fargo, ND – Moorhead, MN area.

Author

Kevin

Kevin Walker

President and CEO, Northwest Area Foundation

Kevin spearheads the Foundation’s efforts to shape a future in which all people and communities in its region can thrive on their own terms and live free of poverty. Under his leadership, the Foundation has sharpened its focus on asset building in a set of priority communities: Native Americans, communities of color, immigrants, refugees, and people in rural areas. Read more about Kevin.

Contact Kevin’s office.

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