Learning by Doing: How Grant Requests Are Teaching Me About Alaska

October 19, 2015

Kelsey Potdevin, Momentum Fellow, Rasmuson Foundation

Philanthropy is a complicated business, chock-a-block full of seemingly esoteric knowledge you can't learn any other way than doing it. And though I feel like I'm getting a grip on the sector and my work at Rasmuson Foundation, I still have those rookie moments where I'm stumped by a nonprofit's financial audit or mystified by jargon and acronyms. Thus, when my supervisor asked if I wanted to take part in Philanthropy Northwest's Momentum Fellowship, a program where I would have the benefit of extra training, mentorship, coaching, and a cohort of like-minded individuals, I was very quick to say "Yes, please!"

Before our first meeting in Seattle last month, I read through all the other Momentum Fellow bios. They were all so passionate, so experienced, so well-learned in their respective fields. I felt like an imposter. Fortunately, these feeling of inadequacy did not last long. In fact, they were completely undone when I walked into Philanthropy Northwest's offices after making a mad dash from the light rail to the opening reception. I was instantly met with familiar faces, including Susan Anderson of The CIRI Foundation who in the midst of speaking about how excited she and her fellow board members were to have us there. We felt welcomed in a big way.

Over the next day, I met my fellow fellows. We had all found our way to the Momentum Program on a different path, but we all felt like we were in the right place. I've never met such a warmhearted group of people. All of us have something to learn through this opportunity, and all of us have something to offer. What's most exciting is our potential to foster change in the philanthropic sector over the course of our fellowships and throughout our careers wherever they may take us. We've got a lot of work to do, and I think I speak for all nine of us when I saw we're ready to get going.

Anchored in Anchorage

I wasn't born here, but I've lived in Alaska for most of my life and my mom’s family is from Alaska’s interior. My family’s been in the Northwest for probably over 10,000 years. But I’ve learned more in the past year about how my home state works than I ever did growing up here, through sharing in the happiness of successful grant requests.

Since joining Rasmuson Foundation as a program fellow in August 2014, I have reviewed more than 68 Tier 1 grant requests, resulting in just over $1.2 million in awards to nonprofits statewide. Our Tier 1 program is our small grant program that makes awards of up to $25,000 for capital projects. Helping with this program has helped me achieve a better sense of the work Alaska’s nonprofits do and how grantmaking works. It’s really not about just giving money away, but more of a combination of investing in  nonprofits and supporting projects that will improve the lives of Alaskans. Oftentimes the request is pretty straightforward: “We need a new van to transport elders to medical appointments,” or “We need a new roof because we literally have water leaking through the light fixtures.” Other times, Tier 1 requests necessitate a string of emails and many phone calls. I often find myself asking nonprofits what a piece of equipment is — for example, a nutrient autoanalyzer or a skidsteer — what the equipment does and how it will help people.

One Tier 1 grant I reviewed was for a nutrient autoanalyzer that will process water samples for the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova. I was there for a museum conference last month, so Sammye Pokryfki, Roy Agloinga and I stopped by for a visit. This piece of equipment will help PWSSC process a backlog of over 3,000 frozen water samples. In the long run, it’s going to dramatically free up their researchers’ time so they can figure out other mysteries of local fisheries! It measures macronutrients in the water. This project is “somewhat typical” of what I do every day. Then again, there isn’t really a typical Tier 1.

As far as a day at the office goes, nothing beats the overjoyed response from a nonprofit that has just learned that its request has been approved... especially when the approved request will go towards keeping someone warm, fed, sheltered or healthy.

Local Matters

With my hectic schedule, I was fortunate to attend the closing reception of Local Matters: Alaska + Indigenous Communities with my coworkers last week. As we munched on locally-sourced sushi prepared by Alaska Native chef Rob Kineen, the participants began to trickle in from the closing discussion. I recognized many of the Philanthropy Northwest staff I had met at last month’s training and many Alaskans I know from work — everyone looked exhausted! However, when I asked how it all went, everyone smiled and said it was amazing. The reason they were exhausted was because they had spent several hours discussing what they had learned. It was clear that everyone in the room had learned something valuable, and will have more to share with their organizations and the sector over the coming weeks.

This was a good opportunity to reconnect with Philanthropy Northwest staff about my work here in Anchorage, and see the power of bringing the right people to the table to facilitate a fulfilling and enlivening discussion. I look forward to seeing everyone again in Seattle next month.

Kelsey Potdevin is a Momentum Fellow hosted by the Rasmuson Foundation. Read more about the Momentum Fellowship on our website, and stay tuned for more blog posts from our first cohort.