By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
In January, Marsha Whiting (Chippewa Cree, Sicangu Lakota) joined First Peoples Fund’s staff to fulfill a role ideally suited to her — Vice President of Operations and Programs. Bringing Marsha onboard was one of the first steps First Peoples Fund took in implementing their newly drafted Strategic Assessment and Direction.
Marsha spent seven years at First Nations Development Institute as Senior Grants and Program Officer. In this position, she oversaw grant administration and was a member of the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative Program team. At home, staying connected to the Denver Indian community through volunteer work was important to Marsha as she continued the longstanding family tradition. These life and professional experiences prepared her to take on a job of great significance with First Peoples Fund.
“The programming is amazing—the work that’s being done is so groundbreaking,” Marsha says. “It’s just exciting to hear about some of the events going on. Very impressive.”
Beginning in the spring of 2015 and continuing to November 2016, First Peoples Fund engaged in a strategic planning process with partners, advisors, trainers, artists, staff and the board of directors. This journey resulted in the Strategic Assessment and Direction. It leverages our guiding principle on how change happens, the importance of upholding culture bearers in Native communities, and supporting individual artists. We deeply value these artists and culture bearers, recognizing their power to build Indigenous arts ecologies.
The year 2017 is also one of “investing in our own,” expanding organizational and program development to strengthen abilities and uplift the Collective Spirit®. To grow national Indigenous arts ecologies one artist and one community at a time. Of equal value is “to respect the pause” by going within, investing in internal staff capacity and internal processes and systems that will allow us to sustain the organization.
We begin with an assessment. It’s the driver that allows models to be adaptive. Assessment is the first step in any new effort, development or initiative, whether internally or externally. In the assessment, we have begun to tighten our own weave by establishing stronger criteria and processes for bringing on new staff. The process of hiring the new Vice President of Operations and Programs is one strand in the weave to strengthen the organization's capacity. This position has an organizational focus on internal systems, procedures and capacity building, freeing up First Peoples Fund president Lori Pourier to lead growth and development while managing external partnerships.
In this position, Marsha is responsible to implement the Strategic Assessment and Direction, creating the internal framework to support the direction while integrating values and purpose into all levels. The internal framework will also maintain consistency with how the organization functions as a collective, and with a strong foundation in criteria and holistic assessment.
Focusing on the balance between “the head and the heart” of artists and culture bearers, we continue to innovate, evaluate and create transformative processes within to uphold the Collective Spirit®. The VP of Operations and Programs position is the next step in that journey.
Change takes time and requires strong relationships, long-term commitments and investment. Going forward, we want to deepen our programs and commitments. We value systems, methodologies, language and approaches, knowing consistency across programs strengthens connectivity and leverages impact. These elements tighten the weave within our work.
First Peoples Fund is deepening its systems of internal accountability to ensure culture bearers are guiding us every step of the way as we grow and assess programs by involving them more with community work, especially as FPF engages in a greater way with community development and organization. This process is a significant focus in 2017 as we strengthen our internal model-building processes.
“As I have gotten familiar with First Peoples Fund through the interviewing and hiring processes, I’ve been really impressed with the mission,” Marsha says.
The values, systems, and programs make First Peoples Fund a distinguished nonprofit in Marsha’s eyes. When she read the Strategic Assessment, she knew it was unique. Marsha has worked with nonprofits that were just starting out and didn’t have the infrastructure she’s experienced since she began working with First Peoples Fund.
The Strategic Assessment impressed Marsha, who says being able to work from that document is a wonderful prospect. She’s looking forward to actualizing the Assessment and laying out a plan for the organization to achieve objectives in it. A big part is working with the staff collaboratively, using the models outlined in the Assessment. This position is ideal to utilize Marsha’s skills in organizational systems.
She made the move from Denver to Rapid City, but it’s not her first time there. She makes a few trips a year to Rapid City for the Black Hills Powwow, and also to visit family on the Rosebud Reservation.
Three generations of Marsha’s family are currently working in the nonprofit sector. Her mother and brother work at the American Indian College Fund, and her daughter works at First Nations Development Institute. Marsha has been connected to many American Indian nonprofit agencies in the Denver area through volunteering, serving on advisory councils and boards of directors, and through employment.
In 2008-2009, Marsha was a Leadership & Entrepreneurial Apprenticeship Development (LEAD) Program fellow. She has a Bachelor’s degree in business administration.
It was 11 years ago that Marsha knew it was time to make a career transition from her importing and graphic design work. “I found I was spending more and more time volunteering within the intertribal Indian community in Denver where I was born and raised,” she says. “I was enjoying it a lot more than my job. I made the transition to working in a Native nonprofit because it reflected the values of giving back to the community instilled in me from my Lakota grandparents. They had always been involved with the community and really set a great example for our family.”
Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota), FPF chair of the board of directors, says, “First Peoples Fund is so fortunate to have Marsha Whiting join us. She brings knowledge and skills that will complement and supplement our staff capacity at a critical time. The board looks forward to working with her as a member of the senior management team.”