Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits


From the opinion page of the Anchorage Daily News, June 28, 2014, Steve Lindbeck writes “-you might have mistaken him for an old-timer sidelined and out of touch. You’d have been wrong. Over time his consulting services were more in demand abroad than in the modern Alaska. Angola, India, China, Finland, Israel, Iceland, Russia …”

As I read this recent tribute about the respected Alaska advocate Walt Parker, this bible verse came to mind – King James Version: Luke 4:24, And he said, “Verily I say unto you, no prophet is accepted in his own country.” Walt was an activist and a world renowned specialist on public policy for transportation and communication issues. In Alaska, those who knew Walt sought his counsel – even his advisories noted his experience and integrity. But as Lindbeck stated, his vast knowledge seemed more respected by those outside Alaska than by his neighbors, even though he played such a significant role in our state’s history.

In Alaska, there are many examples of remarkable leaders and institutions that receive more recognition and admiration outside of the state than at home. Fortunately, I have the pleasure to know about many of these “prophets.” Their stories mirror Walt’s. We want to share some of these stories to encourage increased respect for our prophets at home and to encourage readers to help identify and celebrate other Alaskans who deserve such recognition.

One example of a “prophet” is a former Foraker Operations Board member, Dr. Sven Haakanson Jr. Born in Old Harbor on Kodiak Island, today he is one of the best known anthropologists in the world. In 2007 he received recognition as a MacArthur Fellow and is one of only three individuals from Alaska to receive that honor. That same year People Magazine named him the “World’s Sexiest Archeologist.” Whenever I visited Kodiak while Sven was executive director of the Alutiiq Museum, most times I would find an international crew filming a documentary on Sven and his work. Today he continues his work at the University of Washington. Alaskans who know Sven understand and appreciate his contributions, but unfortunately he remains better known outside than at home.

The other two MacArthur Fellows from Alaska, also prophets, are known around the world for their amazing work. The most recent is Margaret Stock, an attorney with the Anchorage office of Cascadia Cross Border Law and author of Immigration Law and the Military (2012). Before coming to Alaska she held many positions including serving as a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Margaret is celebrated around the world for her vision and leadership on immigration issues. But who in Alaska has heard of her and her outstanding contributions to humanity?

Katherine Gottlieb, CEO of Southcentral Foundation is the other distinguished “genius,” as MacArthur Fellows are known. She and her team developed what is called the Nuka System of Care that reinvented how to best deliver primary health care. (Nuka is an Alaska Native word used for strong, giant structures and living things.) People come to Alaska from all over the world to learn about their work. They just received funding from Rasmuson Foundation to create the Nuka Institute to help educate health care providers on this system of care. But while Alaskans may know of her organization, this and the many other contributions of Katherine Gottlieb are too often overlooked by her neighbors.

This list could go on and on because there are so many unsung-underappreciated prophets/heroes in Alaska’s nonprofit sector.

One of the most visible nonprofit leaders, in and out of the state, is Diane Kaplan. As the staff leader of Rasmuson Foundation many people here know her. But perhaps Diane is even better known and respected by her colleagues throughout the country. Her significant effort to improve people’s lives by supporting individual artists through her work with United States Artists and her effort to champion the dental health aide initiative with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium are just two examples of the work that warrants her designation as a “prophet.”

Then there is Orion Matthews, president and CEO of DesignPT. Orion took over DesignPT more than a decade ago and led it to become one of the country’s most respected IT consultanting companies, especially for nonprofits. In addition to his work at DesignPT, Orion recently became CEO of Partners International, an IT firm aligned with DesignPT’s values, with offices in Washington DC, New York City and Kiev, Ukraine. And if that’s not enough, while doing these full-time jobs he served as the interim IT director for the Council on Foundations and now serves as a special IT consultant to Philanthropy Northwest.

To end a short list are three more nonprofit prophets better known by their colleagues around the country than at home. Steve Lindbeck, the CEO of Alaska Public Media led the turnaround of that organization so that today it is the national leader on every positive indicator used by the public broadcasting system as a sign of quality. And another is Michele Brown who has led the United Way of Anchorage for over a decade to become one of the most respected community impact organizations in its network. Finally, we mention Art Rotch, the CEO of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau. Alaskans who have seen their productions understand why Perseverance is a respected force nationally. However, too many Alaskans have never even heard of it or know its outstanding reputation. It is one of America’s most progressive regional theatres.

Every Alaskan should know about these and many other local prophets.

One more example is The Foraker Group itself. Last month Foraker received notice that the Oak Foundation – an international foundation focused on human rights, the environment, child abuse and various other social justice issues with annual grants of $161,000,000 – determined that the Foraker self-assessment tool, the one every Foraker Partner completes annually, will be used to gauge the capacity of Oak grantees. They will also refer them to Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey, Foraker’s book on our sustainability model. While we have sold many books in Alaska, the national buzz far exceeds the local response.

Regardless if we live in a small village or the big city, humans tend to take for granted those who are the closest. Maybe it’s time that we intentionally identify prophets that are revered Outside and focus some of that attention on them at home. Their contributions prove that we don’t need to go outside to find all the answers – many with the most to contribute live next door.

If you have additional examples, please share their stories with us and we will share them with our neighbors through this newsletter.