First Nations on Fiscal Responsibility & Investing in Early Stage Entrepreneurs

Michael E. Roberts (Tlingit), President and CEO of First Nations Development Institute, runs the 40-year-old nonprofit like a for-profit business.

First Nations Development Institute helps Natives regain stewardship of their assets — such as land, human potential, cultural heritage, or natural resources. To do so, First Nations employs a three-pronged strategy of educating grassroots practitioners, advocating for systematic change, and capitalizing Indian communities.

The nonprofit has two primary customer bases. One being the foundation community, the donors who give the organization money. “We have a certain obligation to them to spend their money wisely, keep them informed, and give them the respect and dignity that they deserve for investing with us,” says Michael E. Roberts (Tlingit), President and CEO of First Nations. 

Beyond the foundation community, First Nations’ customer is quite large: Indian Country. “In many ways, it’s our most important customer. We look at how we might serve them best,” Roberts says.

Prior to re-joining First Nations in 2002, Roberts spent five years in private equity. He advised angel investors, worked for a $500 million telecommunications fund and for an early-stage Midwest venture capital firm. (He previously served as First Nations’ chief operating officer from 1992-1997.) 

His MBA in finance from the University of Washington informs his approach to running a not-for-profit business more similarly to a for-profit company. “I always tell people, the not-for-profit sector is a business sector. We’re very good at employing the best practices of for-profit businesses at First Nations,” he notes. 

Roberts’ goal at First Nations has always been to be best-in-world business first, best-in-world not-for-profit secondly, and best-in-world not-for-profit in Indian Country thirdly. 

“If we’re not keeping our eye on the prize: being best-in-world business, we’re probably not going to do well,” he says. 

Central to Roberts’ best-in-world business principle is fiscal responsibility and investment strategy.

“We are very good at controlling expenses, so we don’t ever overspend our revenue for the year,” Roberts stresses. 

“As an organization, we practice open books management. Everyone at my organization gets to sit down once a month, and we go through our revenues and expenses on a project-by-project basis, so everyone understands where our money comes from and how we spend it,” he adds.

Meanwhile, First Nations invests — in this case, in “dynamic entrepreneurs” and in “their big ideas,” he says, adding, “You work really hard with them to put the pieces they need in place to be successful.” 

“We have a lot of faith in the genius of Indian Country, and we invest in grassroots, early stage, community, social entrepreneurs,” Roberts states. “We make small and sometimes large-size investments in them, with the full knowledge that they can change the world.”

READ MORE: First Nations: Applying Venture Capitalist Principles to a Not-for-Profit