IN THE STUDIO WITH | Michael Roberts, CEO, First Nations Development Institute

IN THE STUDIO WITHMichael Roberts, CEO, First Nations Development Institute

November is Native American Heritage Month. To honor that, 15% of all proceeds from 11/4-11/7 online and in-store sales will go to First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit devoted to supporting healthy Native Communities by strengthening  American Indian economies. 

Courtesy of First Nations Development Institute - Zuni Youth Enrichment Program

Specifically, we are supporting two funds. First is the Native Arts Initiative, which helps perpetuate and revitalize traditional arts and culture in Native communities. Second is the Native Youth and Culture Fund, which enhances culture and language awareness, and promotes youth empowerment, leadership and community building. To better understand the organization and its mission, and why it has earned Charity Navigator’s revered four-star rating for nearly a decade running, we spoke with Michael Roberts, CEO at his office in Colorado.

Courtesy of First Nations Development Institute

It turns out, this is Roberts’ second stint with the organization. He was, as he puts it, employee 10 or 11 when he first joined in 1992. First Nations Development Institute is more than 40 years old; he’s been with the organization for more than half of those years, having rejoined as CEO in 2002. He spent the time in between in venture capital, where startup founders often came to his firm seeking millions of dollars for their startups. By contrast, at First Nations Development Institute, Native organizations were seeking relatively small sums of tens of thousands of dollars. “The stories they told were much more compelling than the ones that the entrepreneurs asking for 25 million were telling us,” he says.

Groups come to First Nations Development Institute seeking funding, and the organization decides whether to grant it, on the premise that local organizations better understand their communities’ needs than a nationwide organization will. “We are very much of the belief that when we let Indians manage their resources in their projects with their cultural values, amazing things happen,” he says. 
As for the funds that will benefit from purchases at Billy Reid, they serve a specific subset of communities within the larger Native community: artists, young people, and more. “Our Arts and Culture Program is investing in people continuing their cultural practices around artistic expression,” Roberts says. “Our Native youth and Culture Program is investing in programs that work with Indian kids and make them feel comfortable in their Indian selves, and inside their brown skins.” 

Toward that end, the organization helps support the 574 American Indian tribes recognized by the federal government. This support goes beyond just money. “Not only do we provide grant funds,” Roberts says, “but we also provide a lot of hands-on technical assistance to our grantees to make sure that they’re successful in their projects.” This support compounds — if, for example, the organization supports an artist in Michigan, this in turn makes it easier to support a similar artist in another part of the country by linking the two recipients. “They learned so much more from each other than they learned from us,” he says. “It’s pretty cool, and people just love each other — people make lifelong friendships.”

Courtesy of First Nations Development Institute - Zuni Youth Enrichment Program

Roberts was also kind enough to talk with the Billy Reid team at a virtual all-hands meeting about his organization, and about history in general. He also encourages customers to educate themselves — there is a thorough list of reading material at the First Nations Development Institute site — to better understand both the history of Native Communities, as well as the present and future. “One of the problems with Indian country is that you have these reservation communities that are, by intent, very isolated,” he says. “You have the government putting people on reservations, with the hopes that they would die, and [it] put them away from infrastructure: transportation infrastructure, sewer and water infrastructure, electricity, broadband, you name it. The intent was not for these folks to thrive. We’re able to link folks to other folks that look like them, act like them, have similar experiences to them, clear across the country — who they probably would have never met had it not been for us. Some pretty magical stuff happens.” 

And thanks to your support, a little more magic can happen this year, and beyond.