The NDN Collective is a national organization dedicated to building Indigenous power. According to their website, the NDN Collective is on a mission to “build the collective power of Indigenous Peoples, communities, and Nations to exercise our inherent right to self-determination, while fostering a world that is built on a foundation of justice and equity for all people and the planet.”
We interviewed NDN Fund Managing Director Nikki Love and Nick Tilsen, President and CEO, to learn more about their pillars to defend, develop, and decolonize on behalf of their passion to empower Indigenous communities. Read on to learn more about their important work:
1.) First, tell us about you, and how your work led you to your current role at NDN Collective. Why are you excited/inspired about your role, and the work you are doing with NDN? What is unique about your organization?
Hi, I’m Nick Tilsen. I’m Oglala Lakota, and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. I’m a father of four, and the President and CEO of the NDN Collective, a national organization dedicated to building Indigenous power. The NDN Collective is an ambitious, systemic effort to empower Indigenous communities.
We are an Indigenous-led and practitioner-driven organization, taking our lived experiences as organizers, community builders, and changemakers to help other Indigenous people implement projects that will dramatically shift power to the same Indigenous communities that have been historically disempowered and disenfranchised. To achieve this dramatic shift in power, we’re building the largest Indigenous-led philanthropic fund that as ever existed in the history of philanthropy. We’re also building a national CDFI dedicated to development financing and addressing access to capital issues for larger intensive capital projects in Indian Country– “Indian Country” is one way that Native American people in the U.S. refer to the interconnected community of Indigenous people throughout the country.
What is unique about the NDN Collective is that both our philanthropic work and investment work are directly connected to Indigenous movement building work. Indigenous people are on the frontlines of some of the most pressing issues facing humanity. We are on the frontlines of the climate justice movement, on the frontlines of a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels, and on the frontlines of the racial equity movement. What we’ve built at NDN Collective is an extension of that overarching movement, where our philanthropy and investments continues to be in direct relationship with the most pressing issues affecting Indigenous Peoples today.
We believe that it’s very important for the future of the nation to have Indigenous-led and people of color-led philanthropic and financial institutions that have deep relationships with their communities. It is the wave of the future for Indigenous and POC to reclaim their power, and in order for us to address white supremacy in philanthropic and investment spaces, we have to reorganize the historic imbalance of power. To do this, the people that are closest to the pain have to be closest to the decision-making power, and that’s what NDN Collective is working to achieve.
Boozhoo/hello, I’m Nikki and was hired to help establish NDN Fund to channel over $100 million in investments to Indigenous-led development and projects. I am a mother of two little ones. My husband and I are both from the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and reside in Minneapolis. My life’s work centers on empowering Native Nations and people to create communities and economies that reflect their values and priorities.
My entry point was creating a credit union and financial programs to support the needs of my community. While we helped strengthen the reservation economy by building the financial independence and capability of our individual tribal members, I quickly saw that the greater systems and structures surrounding capital access were deeply flawed and did not serve us or other Native people and entities.
Before joining NDN Collective, I spent over two years at the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis in research and policy around access to capital issues in Native communities. This further entrenched the realization that traditional systems and capital markets do not truly serve Indigenous communities or do justice to the nuances of working in hundreds of distinct communities. A diversity of flexible and patient capital is needed to provide the right types of financing for the individual project and community. Since development in Indian Country is more than transactional, capital alone isn’t enough. NDN Collective, through its ecosystem approach, is going to extend access to individual capacity building services and resource networks, providing a much needed pipeline of support from ideation, to financing, to evaluation so that communities themselves are part of building resilient, regenerative, and self-determined futures.
We are making it possible to reshape and rethink the entire capital flow for projects, with a mindset of abundance, a generational mission and purpose, and the tools and relationships to forge new models that rest on Indigenous knowledge and systems. In carrying out this mission, we are moving beyond broken systems to explore new systems and practices. I’m excited and honored to be included in this work!
2.) The mission of NDN Collective is to equip Indigenous Peoples with tools needed to be architects of their future. What kind of tools do you provide the community you serve in order to accomplish this mission?
The sole purpose of NDN Collective is to invest in Indigenous self-determination. That is the bedrock from which we do all of our work. By investing in Indigenous self-determination, we are investing in building power among Indigenous people.
We currently have a round of grants investing in community-based renewable energy projects to frontline Indigenous communities that are in the process of a just transition. We’re providing technical assistance and capacity building with the creation of both short term and long term plans with organizational capacity building alongside these grants. Some of our capacity building grants are for communities to explore and define some of their community goals, which will inform the capacity that needs to be built.
In the long term, the NDN Fund will be able to lend to these projects. By 2020, NDN Fund will be offering loans for community enterprise, infrastructure, etc. NDN Collective is committed to using blended capital solutions as a mechanism to build the capacity of Indigenous communities while lowering the risk of projects. This will help prepare Indigenous communities and Nations to take on investments and loan capital in order to accomplish their goals. We help take communities from idea, to funding them to build capacity, to an action plan, to a product that we can actually help them to get investment into.
NDN Collective is developing a number of different access points and resources for the communities we work with, such as fellowship grants and funds for pre-development and specialized services to align the right capital stack and consultants for each project. With a paucity of experts in these areas, tribes and Native organizations often pay non-Native firms and consultants exorbitant amounts of money to navigate this space for them. NDN Collective, through its extensive network of partners, helps shorten the learning curve for Native Nations, organizations, businesses, and communities in doing large-scale development in a way that honors Indigenous ways of life and regenerative economic principles.
It shouldn’t take decades to capitalize a project. It shouldn’t take hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to source the best partners, developers, and consultants for a project. NDN Collective and its NDN Fund are a conduit for the social and professional networks that most Indigenous people lack access to. Indigenous communities and funders alike agree that this is a game-changer. We can retire the current notion of “business as usual” in the currently flawed, cumbersome, costly, and inefficient way most investments are made in Indian Country.
3.) Can you share a significant success story that NDN collective recently celebrated that demonstrates the essence of the work you seek to accomplish?
Because we are an organization made up of practitioners, activists and organizers who are actively fighting the fossil fuel industry and on the frontlines of movements, and we also do grantmaking and impact investing, in order to measure NDN Collective’s success you have to see the impact of both sides of our work in that way. Overall, our work aims to “Defend. Develop. Decolonize.“ By that we mean defend Indigenous lands, rights and communities, develop sustainable solutions for the future, and decolonize in the manner of reestablishing our connection to the natural world, to our original teachings as Indigenous people, and consciously disconnect from the harmful residue of colonialism.
Our successful campaign and lawsuit to stop the anti-protest legislation in the State of South Dakota, which would have criminalized frontline organizers and activists fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, is one recent success in the realm of defending Indigenous lands and futures. We launched a campaign and legal strategy to challenge that law, and we succeeded. The law was changed, therefore protecting constitutional rights and frontline activists and their ability to organize against the fossil fuel industry unencumbered. Within the past month, we also made a successful trip to the Navajo Nation, meeting with several chapters where solar projects are taking place and partnered in utilities scale, and community-based strategies, capacity building and grant making where these renewable energy projects are taking place. This is our ecosystem at work, where we’re battling the negative things that our impacting communities and the Earth while developing scalable investable solutions that drive real impact into Indgienous communities directly.
4.) At NDN Collective, what are some of your metrics of success?
Our Theory of Change at NDN Collective is that by investing into Indigenous self-determination, we create a more just and equitable world for all people and the planet. Indigenous communities are the poorest communities in America, we have some of the worst health disparities and the lowest economic mobility. What we’re creating is an ecosystem to change those. While we’re creating tangible metrics of creating jobs, building a culture of health, getting away from carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, we’re in the process of determining metrics for things like fighting climate change while increasing the amount of renewable energy, changing the economic conditions in Indigenous communities, and closing the income inequality gap.
Really, we’re working to drive economic impact and drive revenue into these communities so jobs can be created and infrastructure can be invested into, doing things that contribute to building a better quality of life and in a way that is equitable.
At NDN Collective and NDN Fund, we are looking beyond the usual Western-derived indicators of success. We are looking beyond the next five years, twenty years, and considering how we impact generation after generation to ensure that we are engaging in practices and financing developments that are truly regenerative, resilient, equitable to people and planet, and strengthen the Indigenous locus of control.
Our metrics framework, which is under development, is not just looking at short-term signs of success but systems-changing outcomes, like what is the % growth of new private investment across Indigenous communities? What is the state of philanthropic partnerships in Indian Country (are we helping move the dial as less than ½ percent of all philanthropic dollars go directly to Native Nations or organizations)? Did NDN Fund financing lead to an increase in fresh water access for our people?
All of our staff has been involved in metrics design and evaluation at some level, because the effort to decolonize the way we think of evaluation design is a communal undertaking.
5.) What do you wish more people knew about the communities you serve? How can SVC Members help you achieve your mission?
I wish that people knew about the resilience, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurialism that exists throughout Indigenous communities. We believe that Indigneous communities are hotbeds for innovation, creativity, and social impact. One way that SVC can help is first in knowing about the innovation and creativity that exists, and then to actually create ways within their investor circles to prioritize and set benchmarks for investment into America’s Indigenous communities.
All too often, underserved communities and individuals live within a paradigm of scarcity. The same is true for the organizations serving them. However, there is an abundance of opportunity here, especially as Native Nations can serve as anchors and catalysts for rural America. While for some lending and investing are considered mystical or risky, the reality is that development on tribal lands is low-risk and often carries unique benefits via tribal sovereignty, i.e. tax benefits. In fact, there are such widespread misperceptions of doing business in Indigenous communities, that I welcome a future blog or newsletter opportunity to “Debunk the Myths of Doing Business in Indigenous Communities.”
Research demonstrates that capital demand exists for large-scale investment into Indian Country. There is the potential for over 250,000 more Native businesses and billions of dollars in sales. On reservations, there is potential for $300 million annually in mortgages (thousands of homes for those in overcrowded conditions and opportunities for Native people to return to their homelands). Investments into these new businesses and housing developments create economic and social benefits for reservation communities, including job growth, better health outcomes, and higher educational attainment. Money has the potential to rejuvenate Indigenous economies—but only if our people are empowered to determine how capital is deployed and used. Federal research substantiates that better outcomes are achieved when Native Nations have control over money, i.e. when the federal government allowed tribes to implement their own housing programs.
SVC members can become critical partners and allies in this work by extending their networks, resources, and investing knowledge with NDN Collective and NDN Fund. We would leverage these resources towards building a scalable model for attracting large-scale capital for renewable energy, community development, infrastructure, and social enterprise. Reimagining the future is a co-designed process and we encourage SVC members to get involved.
6.) What excites you most about being a part of the SVC Community?
NT: We are excited because it seems that the SVC community is open to shifting power and making investments into Indigenous communities, which is why we’re a part of the community. However, we have yet to see if the SVC is going to put that desire into action. There’s a challenge before the SVC community, whether this network is going to meet that opportunity and that challenge, is yet to be determined. The SVC community has to envision Indigenous communities as true partners for social change.
In the past, the world of philanthropy and investment has only given Indigenous communities enough to fail. There is an opportunity here to do it substantially different, at scalable levels that has never been done before.
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