#118 Funding Indigenous Communities Effectively with Geneva Wiki, Citizen of Yurok Nation and Senior Program Manager at the California Endowment

Feb 27, 2023

Geneva is a citizen of the Yurok Nation and also a Senior Program Manager at the California Endowment. Geneva brings her deep knowledge about her community to be an effective philanthropist. She has many important tips and wisdom to share in order to be an effective philanthropist and to show up as your best self when giving to Indigenous communities.  


Episode Highlights:

  • Geneva’s personal journey
  • How to be effective when giving to Indigenous communities
  • Lessons learned and shared by Geneva 


Geneva Wiki Bio:

Geneva Wiki is a Citizen of the Yurok Tribe of northern California and brings extensive leadership experience in Tribal government, education, and philanthropy in rural and Tribal communities. Geneva serves as a Senior Program Manager at The California Endowment, supporting community organizing efforts advancing health and racial equity throughout the State, with a specific focus on community power building within California’s indigenous communities.

Previously, Geneva was the Executive Director of the Wild Rivers Community Foundation and served as the local Initiative Manager of the Del Norte and Tribal land’s Building Healthy Communities initiative. Wiki was also the Deputy Executive Director of the Yurok Tribe and Founding Director of a community-driven, non-profit charter high school on the reservation. Named one of America’s 37 Innovators under the age of 36 by the Smithsonian Magazine, Geneva was also recognized as a National Innovator by the US Department of State, High Country News, and a 40 Under 40 Native leader by Native Americans in Business and Enterprise.

Geneva is married to a Maori, an indigenous New Zealander, and previously lived in New Zealand, working as an Executive Designer with a human-centered design consultancy aimed at improving systems and policies to work better for people and the public good. While there, she was also appointed to the Board of Directors of the National Centre for Social Impact.

Wiki earned a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Washington, and a degree in planning, public policy, and management from the University of Oregon. She currently lives on the ancestral land of the Nisenan people outside of Sacramento with her spouse and three daughters.



California Endowment

Report: Building Healthy Communities: A Decade in Review November 2020


If you enjoyed this episode, listen to these as well:

#62 Amazing Story of How to Fund Indigenous Communities Well with Geneva Wiki, Senior Program Manager, The California Endowment

#74 How Collaborations Help to End Injustice with Nicole Bice, Executive Director, Hovde Foundation

#60 Sybil Speaks: Recap of My Conversations about Diversity Equity and Inclusion in Honor of Martin Luther King Day


Crack the Code: Sybil’s Successful Guide to Philanthropy

Become even better at what you do as Sybil teaches you the strategies as well as the tools, you’ll need to avoid mistakes and make a career out of philanthropy through my new course, Crack the Code!

In this new course, you'll gain access to beautifully animated and engaging videos, along with many other resources.


Connect with Do Your Good


Would you like to talk with Sybil directly?

Send in your inquiries through her website https://www.doyourgood.com/ or you can email her directly at [email protected]!


Full Transcript

Hello everyone, I am very happy to offer you this interview. I did this interview with Geneva Wiki in last season's episode 62. And Geneva is a citizen of the Yurok nation and also a senior program manager at the California Endowment

This interview is very interesting to me, and that's why I wanted to be sure I pulled it out for our February focus on smart funding for indigenous communities. Geneva is working for one of the more traditional foundations in her own community, and it's a really interesting conversation because it's a little bit different from the other two conversations that I shared with you earlier with Eric and Jim. 

Both Eric and Jim are amazing, and they serve as intermediaries, so a whole lot of different funders and donors fund their organization. And then they regrant out money to key tribes, indigenous communities, and nonprofits.

In the case of Geneva, she's working for one foundation, giving to her community, and so I think you'll find this conversation fascinating and informative in terms of a different perspective on how to give funds effectively. So have a listen. 

Thank you, and well, thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here, so I'll introduce myself in the Yurok language. Geneva Wiki 

Greetings, everyone. Geneva Wiki. I am a citizen of the Yurok nation of Northern California and a descendant of the Toluidine people of the Smith River. And I come from the village of Recoi, at the mouth of the Klamath River, in the heart of the Redwood Forest, in very northern California. 

And I'm one of, you know, maybe two dozen Native Americans who work in philanthropy as their profession, and especially in mainstream philanthropy. I am a senior program manager at the California endowment. And for the last several years, I got to live, fund, and work in my tribal homeland of Delmart County, and I currently live in Ashland, OR.

I wasn't planning to work in philanthropy. I come from a long line of activists and tribal leaders, and my family lives in the same place where we've lived since the beginning of time. And we recognize what a blessing and privilege it is to be in our ancestral homelands, and I come from a long line of leaders. 

So, I'm named after my great-grandmother, Geneva Brooks Matts. She was a basket weaver, a language speaker, and a teacher until the end she was an activist. Who put herself in a boat and battled federal agents armed with machine guns and full riot gear to protect our fishing rights? When she was, you know, well into her 70s.

Or my uncle Raymond Matts, who sued the US government in a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court and reaffirmed us as Yurok people in the river, but also reaffirmed our inherent rights to salmon fishing on the Klamath River, which was a landmark case that many tribes across the country were able to use to reaffirm their traditional hunting, gathering, and fishing rights as well. 

And then my aunt, Sue Susan Masten, was the president of the National Congress of American Indians. I am only the second woman to hold that position and the first from California. I was hired to work for her. A brief stint when I graduated from college with a degree in public policy and got to work for her as President of the National Congress of American Indians. 

And so, I ended up in philanthropy. It started before Pinterest in one of those ways that I believe you are aware of, at the right place and right time, I had a shoebox, like a little shoebox, and when I would see things or get excited about something, I would clip it out.

I love that. 

Put it in this shoebox. And as Yurok  People, and especially my family were always taught that if you have rights, you must exercise them and also have responsibilities. And so, I come from this lineage of folks with a big responsibility to give back and to fight for our inherent rights. And, as you may be aware, a policy era was affecting native people at the time. And so, I grew up with that sense of responsibility, all from a very young age wanting to be a good Indian and do good. Is your podcast's name appropriate? 

Well, you're definitely doing that. 

And so, I ended up getting a degree in public policy and noticed in the Europe newsletter that some older tribal members were receiving fellowships from a group of private foundations that had banded together to fund public programs.

Ah, cool.  

Policy fellowships for people of color I wanted to get a master's degree in public policy, but I didn't know anyone in my family with a master's degree. I didn't know how you got a master's degree, so I cut this article out about this tribal member and the. And called the travel office, got his phone number, and cold-called him. And said, "You're getting a master's degree in public policy." I wasn't qualified, but it was. It was too early in my academic career. What did you do? What did you do? How did you do it? 

And so, sort of, from that very first instance of private foundation funding You know, basically paying a fellowship for me to go to graduate school and creating a path for me to go to graduate school there's just been one. This long line of moments in my life where private foundation funding changed the trajectory of what happened to me.

Includes, you know, one of my first jobs out of college. I worked at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School in Washington, DC, because? For example, foundation representatives came to an event we were attending and handed us a brochure. 

Or I was there. I attended a new student orientation at the Graduate School in Seattle and did my little intro, and a mid-career student came up to me and handed me his business card. And I said, "I work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation." I can't tell you anything, but I need you to send me your resume tonight. A week and a half later, I was in New Yurok  City at the launch of the National Early College High School Initiative. 

That's fantastic. 

You know, so this is good. Say there are numerous ways in which that, yeah, philanthropy has really opened doors, brought about change, and created opportunities to get deeper and deeper engaged, which is how I ended up at the California Endowment. I was at work. I started a high school on my reservation. It was.  

Of course, you did.

Right, but you could. The story was getting an internship is difficult. And a high school in Washington, DC, is doing really innovative work. Lay a bunch of groundwork. And then going to graduate school in Seattle and getting involved this early on. Initiative with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

I used it for my degree project, and it worked right after graduation. School and then when it was time to come home. And I worked for my tribe as the deputy executive director of the Yurok  Tribe, and then the community asked me to start a school. And I had all of these experiences that had rightly prepared me for that opportunity. 

So, I was running this high school out of the back of this little old Klamath Market on the reservation, right next to the Travel Office. And it was this, you know, dilapidated old building where half of the time, we didn't have hot water or heat. To make the lights, you need to plug them into, light switches, you know, outlets. Work, and work, and work, and we were changing odds, right? 

We were changing student outcomes, and we were practicing all of the best ideas we could dream up. as a community. In 2005, when we opened, we learned about how a revolutionary, traditional-based education model might work and look.

And so, the California Endowment in 2009 chose 14 communities to invest in for a decade, and the promise was a $1 billion investment across the state. And for your very remote and very poor county, Del Norte County, and in, you know, the most isolated northwest corner of California. 

This was the biggest private investment that our community had known to date. So, the county's "good old boys" approached me and asked if I would come and lead the Community Foundation as the sort of central, backbone organization of this 10-year initiative funded by the California Endowment. And so I did that for the first five years of the initiative. And then when my predecessor left, I was asked to come on board as the funder and work for the California government, funding the building and assisting with the Communities initiative. 

And now for an ad, but don't go away because Geneva is going to talk about how philanthropy can do even better and her advice on how we can improve next. 

You know that for me, having come from running a tribal government and then running my own nonprofit school, working with a whole host of foundations, from the Walton Family Foundation to small private donors to the Community Foundation State funding is provided by the federal government. I learned a lot about what was helpful and not helpful from the perspective of a nonprofit leader, a tribal leader, or a school.

And really try in my role as a funder now to emulate, you know, the best. And really, you know, I lean on my own indigenous values of reciprocity and respect. And, if we believe that power is found in relationships, how do we cultivate meaningful relationships with the communities? And the people, the organizational leaders, for whom we want to work. From the time that I was working at the Community Foundation, which, you know, was sort of on a more level playing field in terms of the power dynamics, to when I did shift my personal relationship shifted significantly as I transitioned to a statewide funder role. There was a lot to navigate, including for my poor husband, who had to find a whole new career path because he was basically conflicted out of any community or tribal work. 

Oh, interesting.  

God bless him. He is a Saint. 

I think one is for me one of the ways I was able to maintain healthy relationships and feel centered in my own values, as well as do this work in a way that felt congruent with who I was as a native person and member of that community, was by feeling centered in my own values. 

There had to be complete transparency and honesty about what was going on. What was possible and what was not possible? So, what I had control over and didn't have control over, and to be as clear as possible about the funding's intentions. 

And I mean not just the theory of change, but really… like at the end of the day, how the California Endowment Functions believes that money will be a vehicle to create transformation and health equity as a funder, and in that, you know, there's that really delicate balance between the community is driving change, philanthropy has its own agenda, and there is a balance between creating enough space for people to dream and the community to dream, so a few things were working in my favor.

One was the California Endowment, which made a 10-year commitment to our community. And so with that, there was permission to try things, and there was no big push that everything had to be perfect out of the gate or that we needed to have it all figured out. No one asked us to create a 10-year plan, but It was really like, "Let's build a relationship." Let's do a root-cause analysis. Let's really use CreateSpace to dream. 

Okay, okay, okay. 

So, the commitment was for our community, the commitment was $1,000,000 a year for 10 years, so it was originally A $1,000,000 commit? We spent, you know, more than double that in the community. And we did create a process in which the community did some dreaming, created a plan, and set some priorities. And it was a logical model. 

I love that. It's great that you're talking about that. But that's exactly what you're attempting. 

By making a 10-year commitment, I believe we created enough trust that the community could then say, "OK, I'm going to commit some time to actually tell you what's real." Most of our grants require some… there are outcomes and indicators that people will report. We really co-develop those with the grantee. with our partner organizations and a lot of them are focused on capacity building. So rather than say you're going to, yeah, change these population outcomes or those sorts of things, 

Important point.  

It would sound like we're going to improve our capacity to apply a racial equity lens to our work. What that might look like and how that plays out is going to be determined by what is right. The set of factors of that group of people, or whatever the circumstances are, so they're… we intentionally try to create more flexibility and responsiveness. 

The other tool is I got to be an embedded Thunderbird in Toolbox. So, for the 14 places that California has invested in for 10 years in this "Building Healthy Communities" initiative, There were 14 Genevans who were embedded in those communities. 

We referred to them as catalytic funders. embedded funders and we knew what our budgets would be, our annual budgets, ahead of time, we knew years in advance, so we were able to see the community and plan. 

So cool.  

We also had some really amazing tools at our disposal, like the ability to make small grants rapidly, so for the California endowment, we have $25,000 or less that we consider our small grant on the side of the transaction, no application or reporting is required. Partner organization and we are able to get those funds fairly quickly and often.

What we discover is that it is not the funding that is required. The tool that will make a difference is when and how that funding is available. So we saw, you know, several $100,000 grants sort of come and go without really making a very big impact. And then we could see something like a very strategic $10,000, $5000, Even just once it was like buying lunch at another time. 

Isn't that totally interesting? It's not always about the amount of money. Yes, absolutely. 

In fact, we actually in the early years we saw initiative a few nonprofit organizations close their doors after receiving funding. Two years, a $300,000 or $600,000 grant. 

And so, the power of those small grants but part of it was that we got to be in the room for the conversations with the partners as they were dreaming, strategizing, and creating plans together. As a result, we were able to be extremely responsive. There was no once-a-year visit or UM; we were very accessible to community partners and in that accessibility, we're able to hold space, so to be able to say like Actually, we can dream bigger, or we can be braver or bold, and we've got your back, right? We're here with you. 

Then 2 in those moments like, "Oh, oh, we can't pull this off because we don't have lunch for the firefighters" the one with the cultural burns? We could say, "Oh, we can." Just buy lunch. Don't worry about it. 


Don't let that be an impediment, and it just gave partners the ability to, I believe, take more daring action knowing they had a partner who would be there to support them. 

There to help them your listeners don't know, philanthropy giving to tribal communities is still dismal. So, it accounts for less than half of one percent foundation giving goes to tribal communities, tribal governments, and tribal LED organizations, and a new report recently came out by the Center for Effective Philanthropy. 

Even within COVID, tribal communities were both the hardest hit and the best able to respond in many cases philanthropic funding for tribal communities did not improve or increase during the COVID pandemic. 

So, there's just so much work to do to help raise the profile of why and how you can give to tribal communities. Also, I believe it is critical that we understand what the barriers are for donors to fund tribal communities and indigenous efforts. 

So, you know, one of my favorite stories from the last ten years of my work was when we first launched and held the Communities initiative. And I told you about it in our previous conversation, where you learned about our private health foundation. Our headquarters are in Los Angeles. Our CEO is a black pediatrician who lives in LA. And as they imagine the "Building Healthy Communities" initiative and what the community might say it would be, the path to health No one in their wildest dreams would have thought that my community and your country in the Redwood Forest would say Forest fires would be the path to health, and yet, of course, that's the first thing our community said when we created enough space to say we can actually tell the truth and talk about what would be like the really big thing that would change and improve our community's health outcomes. 

And for folks who don't quite know about that strike, I feel like there is a lot more understanding about prescribed burns and cultural burns are now better understood than they were a decade ago. Unfortunately, due to the wildfires in the West and other places, but for us as Native people, traditionally we managed the lands in a way that created balance and allowed for the prevention of uncontrolled wildfires, and one of our biggest tools was prescribed forest fires, including landscape burns that created prairies for the big game to come. 

That created opportunities for our sticks, which we use for imported materials such as our baby baskets in which we carry our babies, or our virtual and cultural clothing and regalia, basket caps, and so on, for those reefs to grow long and straight. 

And when neither we nor they do prescribe burning, all of the underbrush, berry bushes, and other plants die, creating a lot of fuel for wildfires to get out of control, and so our community said the first thing we want to do is create a cultural burn, a prescribed burn plan.

And now that that work's been going on for, you know, nearly a decade, the interagency coordination is spectacular, and there is a workforce pathway and an education pathway from elementary school all the way through to, you know, professional master's degree level burn bosses. The indigenous wisdom of how to prevent wildfires is, you know, a gift to everyone. And if we could apply that ancient knowledge in the way we have traditionally, we could really do fire prevention in a dramatic way that would benefit everyone.

A few of the lessons included things we've already discussed, like relationships and being able to build trust, but also being able to create this space to really listen to what the community really needs, and what you know, there are so many problems on the European reservation, especially since we had a suicide epidemic a decade ago. 

There is, an opioid epidemic. Because of a severe lack of infrastructure, much of the reserve frequently lack electricity or telephone service. And there is no broadband access. And so, when we think about you, where do you start? That feels overwhelming. That feels daunting to think about. How would we actually start to tackle the multitude of social and health issues facing people? 

So often, I feel like we should How do we refer to them as poverty Olympics, where we sort of participate? Trying to outdo each other in terms of who has the worst social and health outcomes? And instead, I always love to start with one of my, good mentors at York. I would always start with how rich our community is, how rich we are spiritually and culturally, and how rich our natural resources are.

The fact that we get to live on the Klamath River in the heart of the Redwood Forest? Where the creator created us, there was want for nothing, and so the natural state of being is one of plenty. If you drive through Belmont County now, you will see dilapidated homes.


And crumbling infrastructure, people actively doing meth, walking on the streets, and homelessness and if you looked at the data, it is, you know, the education data and other things. It's not great, but to know that the true natural state of those communities is one of a place of plenty feels like the place to start. 

And to say there are so much strength, wisdom, power, knowledge, and inherent goodness all present here. How do we build from that? And how do we apply all of what's good in a way to make things better? 

I'm just so inspired!


Thanks for all your words of wisdom. Geneva and I just want to thank you for all the work you're doing as well to make the world a better place. 

Yay! Thank you.

Yay thanks.