Bringing Strategic Focus to a Vast Region: An Interview with Natalie Camacho Mendoza of the Northwest Area Foundation

Bringing Strategic Focus to a Vast Region: An Interview with Natalie Camacho Mendoza of the Northwest Area Foundation


Jeff Clarke interviews Natalie Camacho Mendoza, board member of the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF). This is the sixth in an ongoing series of interviews with key leaders in philanthropy from across the region and around the nation.

Jeff Clarke: Hi Natalie, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. As you reflect on your eight years of service on the Northwest Area Foundation board, could you talk about who you are, your experience and how you see the world as they relate to the voice you bring to the board in your governance role NWAF?

Natalie Camacho Mendoza: I come from a family of immigrants, farmworkers and railroad laborers. My maternal great grandparents were from Mexico and my father’s family is from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. My family has experienced the American dream. Previous generations experienced poverty and the movement into the middle class due to better paying jobs and home ownership. As a result, my generation had opportunities for more education including higher education.

I am an attorney by profession but have stayed involved in community service by volunteering and working with nonprofit organizations and accepting appointments to government and private sector committees, task forces and commissions since I graduated from college. I have advocated for communities of color and immigrants for 30 years. I started my legal career with Idaho Legal Aid Services providing legal services to low-income people focusing on migrant and seasonal farmworkers. I also experienced working in a private law firm representing businesses. I later started my own law firm where I added Indian law to my practice. As a result, I believe I have a personal understanding of the mission of NWAF. I bring the voice of a person of color, the perspective of a person that knows poverty, my legal training and my experience as a minority business owner.

I also was born and raised in Idaho and know the issues, attitudes and perspective of the Northwest. All of the above motivates me to help NWAF live and meet its mission. I think that this background has served me well as chair of the program committee and as chair of the trustees. In these roles, I feel comfortable reviewing the work and proposals of grantees working in rural communities, communities of color, immigrant communities and Native American communities. I understand the need to create good jobs and increase financial capabilities to increase prosperity. I know that entrepreneurship can increase prosperity and the challenges that exist for minority business owners and those new to entrepreneurship.

How do you and your board colleagues work as a group to keep pace with and think about change in to order govern proactively?

NWAF board and staff leadership have created a collaborative relationship. The board has been active in creating and refining a new strategic framework to meet the overall mission of the organization. The board and staff discuss ideas and work being done in the area of creating prosperity in our region. Board members, subcommittees and staff collaborate to ensure our giving falls within the strategic framework by working together to create a focused system of giving to ensure we have an impact in the communities we serve.

In addition, the board attends site visits, which gives them a chance to meet grantees and observe their work. During board meetings grantees are invited to present and meet board members giving the board more opportunity to directly learn from our grantees about the work being done in their communities and in their field. Board members also have individual development plans as a way to develop their knowledge about our region, our work and to stay on top of change.

Assuming that NWAF’s governance has evolved during your tenure, how has that evolution shaped the perspective and work of the Foundation?

When I joined the board, NWAF was going through many changes. As a result, I was able to participate in learning from the past theory of change yet carve out a new strategic framework for our future giving. This gave us an opportunity to think about every aspect of our organization and how we could align all that we do to drive our mission. Most of my tenure on the board has been helping to refine the strategic framework and develop a new way of thinking about our funding and creating a process to do this.

I am pleased with the work done by the staff and board to refine the strategic framework so as to have as much impact as possible taking into consideration our resources. The board takes into consideration the large area we serve, the makeup of the region rural and urban as well as the communities of color, immigrants and Native communities when strategizing how best to serve the region. The board and staff consider our mission in all aspects of the organization from grants, board makeup, staff development, systems to investments.

As a result of the organizational changes, I believe we have come up with a great starting point to utilize our resources efficiently in a manner to assist as many individuals and communities in our region as we are able. NWAF is an organization that evaluates the work to learn lessons and make changes that are necessary to strengthen our efforts to create prosperity in the region.

Can you describe philanthropy in Idaho? How does your board role and voice at NWAF influenced by what is happening in Idaho and how does NWAF’s work impact Idaho communities?

Philanthropy in Idaho is very local. Where there is collaboration, it is usually with other foundations or entities within the state. NWAF has a large area to serve. We do not have the capacity for program officers to be stationed in every state. So it is important that as a board member I provide intelligence about what is happening on the ground. I believe that nonprofit organizations in Idaho could be helped considerably with the support from not only foundations within Idaho but those larger funders located outside of Idaho as well. We could use a stronger infrastructure to assist funders to engage in the work being done in Idaho, but I see that there are efforts moving Idaho in that direction.

As a board member, I assist NWAF by providing my perspective to staff, identifying challenges and providing intelligence about grassroots efforts being performed by various nonprofits. I provide information about policies that might have impact on our work and the work of our stakeholders.

NWAF is on the forefront of foundations working in Indian Country. We have reached out to Reservation and Urban Indian communities to learn of their needs and to evaluate how we might assist them. I would like to facilitate this as much as I can in the Native communities in Idaho. NWAF has been able to work in several geographical areas of Idaho including provided funding to build capacity within immigrant communities in southern Idaho and support the work of the Latino Economic and Development Center in eastern Idaho. We partnered with a nonprofit in southwest Idaho to assist with microenterprise development and training. We have sponsored convenings to bring together nonprofits, encourage collaboration in efforts to build prosperity and build networks to assist collaboration on issues they have in common. As a board member my help with facilitating relationships only compliments the work staff has done learning about Idaho communities and developing their own relationships. I also hope I have been able to educate others in Idaho about the mission of NWAF.

How does NWAF’s mission resonate with you? Has the combination of the dramatic impact of the 2008 recession on the poor and middle class, the decidedly uneven economic recovery and the acceleration of the concentration of wealth caused you and/or the board to reexamine the fundamental strategies of your mission to help people with low incomes build assets?

I believe in NWAF’s mission. I believe we can have an impact and help communities increase prosperity. Even before the economic downturn, too many hardworking families lived in poverty or were one paycheck away from a financial crisis. Unfortunately, after the 2008 recession, the number living in poverty increased. NWAF continued to refine the strategic framework so we could have as much impact in our region as possible given our size and scope. We decided to focus our funding on clusters of organizations doing work to create good jobs and/or increasing financial capabilities. By doing this, we strive to reach more people in more communities and assist individuals, families and communities to achieve prosperity on their own terms.

NWAF is consistent in describing its place as “an eight state region, a geography we share with 75 Native nations.” Over 40% of your grantmaking goes to advance programs and innovative approaches by Native-led organizations. Can you bring us into this special relationship the Foundation either has or aspires to have with those Native nations in its place? What needs to be done to raise awareness among other community philanthropists about working in Indian Country?

NWAF has committed a percentage of our dollars to Native Americans communities. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to advancing economic, social and cultural prosperity in Native communities. We have been working on our understanding of Native issues. We have included Native Americans on our board and staff to help our organization understand grassroots work, tribal government and to learn more about issues facing Native communities.

Our grantmaking relies on taking the lead from the Native communities. We have taken time to establish relationships in our region. We have hosted convenings in Native communities to learn how to do our work better. We look to the communities to identify their needs and educate us on how we can support them. We have learned that strong, self-determined communities, where everyone thrives on their own terms, are built through generations of work by local people with firsthand knowledge of their own strengths and struggles.

I would like to continue our efforts inviting other philanthropic foundations to join us to establish their own relationships and deepen their understanding of Native Americans communities. I hope that like NWAF, they too will consider giving in the Native American communities in a manner that is respectful and successful for all. As an organization, NWAF should continue to tell our stories and share our learning experiences. I also recommend other foundations prioritize diversity throughout their organizations including board members, staff and leadership. Having Native Americans on their boards and staff is necessary to build knowledge and relationships in Native American communities.

Has your long commitment to mission investing – both concessionary program-related and market rate investments (kudos on your recent commitment to allocate 10% of your endowment!) been successful in your opinion? Has this work pushed you outside of your comfort zone as an institution and allowed you to reframe “impact?”

We have been working on a strategy to improve our effort to include mission investing into our portfolio. We have achieved success in social impact of mission investing. We have strengthened CDFIs and their networks, created and retained more jobs, helped more people gain health and retirement benefits and enhanced community wealth. However, the financial returns from our mission investing have been mixed. Our board, staff and experts will continue to refine our strategy to make sure we can work in the area of mission investing and at the same time meet our commitments to the organization.

This work has moved us from our comfort zone, but again we are trying to ensure that all aspects of our organization meets our strategic framework and perhaps mission investing will be yet another piece of our efforts to have a larger impact on poverty in our region.

I have been inspired by the activity in the area of mission investing and those organizations that have been able to participate successfully. However, I think NWAF still has some learning to do in this area. Perhaps using intermediaries will help us be impactful and increasing returns. I am pleased that idea of mission investing has been raised up as a part of the work of NWAF.

How would you describe the public policy aspects of both the work your staff undertakes as well as that which you fund through nonprofit partners? What stands out in your mind as examples of the most important policy work accomplished by NWAF?

Policy work permeates our strategic framework. Public policy is a means of addressing system-wide barriers to building assets. Systemic barriers are the biggest challenges to achieving shared and lasting prosperity that allows people to get ahead and stay there. We look to assist grantees on the ground with their work identifying policy needs to address asset building. Assisting them with their policy work increases the ability to create prosperity for more people.

An example that comes to mind is NWAF’s work supporting organizations in Montana that collaborated and organized to place the issue of capping interest rates charged by payday lenders on the ballot. The coalition was successful and a law was implemented. Interest rates were capped which lead to a reduction of payday lenders doing business in Montana, thereby reducing the number of low income people being trapped in debt by high interest rates. We also supported a grantee that successfully pursued a public policy change to increase the minimum wage in the state of Minnesota.

Is there a board conversation about and commitment to transparency? If so, what does that look like?

Ever since I have been on the board, transparency internally and externally has been part of the development of NWAF. We created a culture where collaboration is encouraged between staff and the board. A new subcommittee was created to ensure that the board members participated in the creation of our new grantmaking process. The executive committee brings together the leadership of each committee to keep the others informed of the work of various subcommittees. The CEO participates on the executive committee. Each committee includes staff and executive leadership. Board meetings include staff and board allowing them to interact formally and informally. This created an opportunity to educate one another and allows the board to ask staff about their work.

We also changed our governing documents to make trustees board members. Previously they met separately. The change created an opportunity for trustees to be fully engaged in the organization. It allowed board members to establish relationships with the trustees. It enables the trustees to obtain the necessary information they need to carry out their duties to the organization. As to external transparency, NWAF has implemented systems to ensure transparency as is required in our business operations. We also have published lessons learned from our prior theory of grantmaking for our education and to share our experiences with others. We have been strengthening our communication with our grantees and the public. We receive feedback from our grantees to improve our work.

How does the board talk about communication and what, in your opinion, is the role of strategic communication in achieving NWAF’s mission of helping people with low incomes build assets?

Communication internally and externally is important to NWAF. We have continued to discuss, refine and strengthen our communication to educate the public and stakeholders about our mission, strategic framework and targeted funding in the areas of good jobs and increased financial capabilities. Our communications director is present at board meetings to listen to the discussion about the organization and its strategic framework to ensure that we are providing clear communications with the public and our grantees. We have changed communications strategy recently to focus on targeting our stakeholders more directly and seeking quality, interactive engagement with them. We want them to be engaged, understand our work and to know that they are heard and how we are responding.

Communications also affects how we talk about our work. We are currently completing a process that will assist us with developing messaging based on the needs of our stakeholders. We want to be sure to speak about our work in ways they understand and to which they can identify. Internally, strengthening communications is crucial to continue our collaborative culture between staff and leadership and between staff and the board.

How did NWAF decide that an invitation-only grant process would help it best meet its mission? As a board member, how do you ensure that the Foundation is casting a wide enough net through its closed process?

When I joined the board, we were undergoing a great deal of change in structure, staffing, leadership and our theory of grantmaking. Due to our commitments and because the board was moving in a different direction we chose to fund grantees using an invitation-only grant process. As we worked through the process of changing our strategic framework, the 2008 economic downturn occurred. During that time, we continued to refine our strategic framework taking into consideration the changes in the landscape where we do our work.

As we developed our collaborative culture between board and staff and as we continued to refine our strategy to be as impactful with our grant dollars as possible, it appeared that continuing with the invitation only grantmaking process made sense. By doing it this way, it is even more important that the board and staff collaborate, share intelligence and build relationships with grassroots organizations and communities in our region. The board realizes and continuously discusses the balancing of serving a large region yet having a certain amount of resources.

Our strategic framework and process takes into consideration our need to be as inclusive as possible to be as impactful as we can in our large region. NWAF will continue to refine, tweak and evaluate our work to make sure what we are currently doing makes sense to our stakeholders and that it meets our mission.


Submitted by Daniel Kemmis (not verified) on Tue, 02/24/2015 - 1:34pm

What a wonderful interview, from both sides. It made me homesick for the Northwest Area Foundation, on whose board I served for several years. My term overlapped Natalie's for a good stretch, so I know what a treasure she is to Idaho, NWAF and our region. It's especially gratifying to learn more about what's happening in Idaho. Thanks for that, Natalie, and thanks to you and Jeff for a most informative interview. Daniel

Submitted by Sheila Kelly (not verified) on Mon, 03/23/2015 - 9:41am

Thank you for this informative interview. Natalie's insights and NWAF experience privided helpful guidance for us at the Charlotte Martin we refine our strategy and grant making process to effectively address the issues in our 5 state region and support the non profit organizations doing the work.
Sheila Kelly, Board Member