Today, I am honored to name Kelli Begay to a new position on my leadership team as Chief Strategy and Operations Officer at Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP). In this role, she will serve as my partner in building out our programs and operational capacity to meet the goals of our strategic plan. In managing our growing team, she will also be building out a culture of support and innovation across our organization. Finally, Kelli will lead our Native Voices Rising Indigenous participatory grantmaking collaborative with Common Counsel Foundation.
Naming Kelli as a permanent member of our leadership team reflects an important milestone as I reflect back. I took the helm here at Native Americans in Philanthropy one year ago. I had just finished 4 years running the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, one of the best jobs of my life, and took a couple much-needed weeks off before I began. I started my first day on the road at Pechanga moderating a Native youth session at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society Leadership Summit. I got to know many of my beloved partners from the CHANGE Philanthropy coalition at another meeting in Tucson.
And then, everything changed.
As the oncoming pandemic began to lock us down and ground us, it became clear early-on how hard our tribal communities were being hit. Economic development ground to a halt, our people lost their jobs, PPE was impossible to find, and the virus began taking its disproportionate toll.
And then, the calls from funders and philanthropic donors started to come in. They learned about the crisis at Navajo in the news and wanted to know how to help. New Native-led response funds were emerging across the country and donors wanted to know where to invest funds. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) had just launched, was a hot mess, and very few of our Native nonprofits were even getting past the application phase for much-needed resources. NAP became a vital resource to all these stakeholders, and I was working with a skeleton crew as a new Executive Director.
Kelli was brought on in a part-time capacity as a communications coordinator before I arrived. She was a registered dietitian (in full disclosure, so is my mother, and RD’s are awesome), had an MBA, and had just started her own small consulting business. I immediately clicked with Kelli because of her warm and supportive presence, but also realized her creative spirit, and her innate curiosity.
Once the pandemic hit, we found ourselves working together around the clock in Washington, DC and Albuquerque trying to figure out everything we could do to help our communities. That’s where I learned about Kelli’s work ethic. She jumped in on everything and helped us launch our COVID-19 response center online, our new informational digests, last-minute funder briefings, and more. Kelli also loved our Native Voices Rising program and worked hard with our partners at Common Counsel Foundation to move $2 million to over 80 Native-led grassroots nonprofits at a crucial time. She was doing all of this while helping me hire new staff and improve our operational systems. Quite simply, she felt like a co-pilot—one driven by her commitment to our communities and a true spirit of innovation.
I know I speak for our whole team in expressing how excited we are to have Kelli on board. While 2020 and the beginning of 2021 have been some of the most trying we could have imagined, I know leaders like Kelli will help me build NAP into the most effective organization we can be for our people as we all work toward a stronger and more hopeful future moving forward.