About us

FOUNDATION ORIGIN

We acknowledge that there are many layers beneath the simple recap we offer here. Our ancestors who traveled by wooden boats to the eastern shores of Native homelands and the colonization of those homelands westward leaves a painful memory of loss and cataclysmic change that created conditions for the newcomers settlers gain, our economic gain.    

Swift Foundation incorporated shortly after United Parcel Service, a private company for 92 years, went public with shares of stock offered to the public in 1999. John Swift chose to diversify stock while following the family charitable tradition of his grandfather and mother by creating a foundation. John, a committed supporter of organizations with a global focus on protecting and conserving nature, investing in community wellbeing and promoting sustainable organic agriculture; continued funding these initiatives around the world for the next ten years.

In 2009, Swift Foundation tripled in size with the proceeds from the Marilyn Smith Swift Tennity foundation, John’s mother’s foundation. At this time, John invited his daughters Sonja and Karen to join the board, launching a new innovative chapter for the foundation with an expansion of the mission toward respecting Indigenous Peoples as crucial leaders in protecting biocultural diversity. Jeannette Armstrong, Okanagan author and scholar, joined the board as the first non-family board member. The Foundation also made a radical revision of how the endowment was managed; leading to Swift Foundation’s first mission-related investment policy and subsequent work toward greater coherency and accountability in how investments align with the mission.

By 2019, the board had expanded to be governed by a multicultural majority of non-family board members and in May of this year, the board committed to double the annual payout. This marked a turning point for the organization, not just through a financial commitment but also through a deeper commitment toward strengthening the foundation’s leadership, approach and responsibility to our partners on the ground. A year later, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the increased funding was applied in emergency grants to partners and allied organizations. The staff also entered into a process of re-envisioning the Foundation’s work and way of working in authentic solidarity, revising our programs strategy, mission, vision, values and principles. We continue this work today, now led by majority Indigenous staff and leadership.

OUR WORK TODAY

We work to nurture possibility and diversity through creative solutions, which the practices of solidarity and reciprocity cultivate, to meet the greater complexity, accelerated change and permanent crisis that challenges our future and life in the present. Recognizing that our partners, communities, and allies negotiate work in an incredibly complex world daily, they are best positioned to lead the strategies grounded in autonomy, self-reliance and community-based solutions. To advance our mission and meet society’s urgent challenges, we employ an integrated holistic model that responds to the realities of our partners in creating social change, in a complex and dynamic world and which harmonizes with our guiding vision. Drawing on our ability to be responsive, flexible, and imaginative, we hope to meet this challenge by working together with our partners and allies.

BOARD

Jeannette Armstrong, Board Member

My earliest memory is of my mother tying a Saskatoon berry branch to me. Sitting next to the bush, I busied myself eating berries while she picked our sweet Chief Berry. My first poem was a song about that comforting moment. Wild harvesting is a constant force guiding me toward opportunities.

This motivation has led me to share with community my desire to restore that relationship with those who have lost the right to it, through the establishment of our own cultural educational centre, En’owkin Centre.

On the board of the 7th Generation Fund, I learned from Indigenous leaders and many good people focused on supporting Indigenous self-sufficiency. I also served on the boards of Cultural Survival Canada and Pacific Cultural Conservancy focused on restoring cultural connections. Today, I balance my community focus with the work of those who continue to hold onto knowledge of the importance of that relationship and act it.

John F. Swift – President & Founder

Over dirt paths, in the mountainous Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala, that passed by ancient Mayan ruins, my work in 1973 with Amigos de Las Americas was to give children vaccinations of DPT and oral polio. The “shiver” I felt striking the bone on a skinny arm remains with me, as well as the beautiful smiles and expressive eyes of the children. Being a Rotarian for 30 years, I am proud of the collaborative effort to eradicate polio.

Working in Papua New Guinea, based at the WAU Ecology Institute on an agro-forestry project, I joined Ph.D. students studying tropical forest biology. I will never forget my ascent into and through the forest canopy on a rope system-the astounding beauty of the cloud forest, endlessly undulating toward the horizon with the incredible diversity including epiphytes, insects, birds of paradise and complex life within this magical ecosystem.

These experiences reinforced my understanding of the role Indigenous people and nature play in biodiversity. My Conservation of Natural Resources professors at UC Berkeley lectured us on the troubling effects of the greenhouse effect. In hindsight, the issue of climate change has been going on for a long time.

Coupling these understandings with my conviction that a woman’s ability to access family planning as a basic human right challenged me to focus my philanthropy on a holistic view of conserving cultural diversity and indigenous ecosystems with regenerative agriculture and community wellbeing.

Raising my family on a ranch as an organic farmer, I am a long-time supporter and current board member of Conservation International and past director of World Neighbors and Pathfinder International. I am current president of the Rotary Club of Los Osos and founding director of Slow Money SLO.

Karen Swift, Board Member

Great horned owls help me remember life’s mysteries, uncover internal shadows, illuminate darkness and reveal what it takes to listen and observe. To understand the balance between our own autonomy and the chaos the universe throws our way. Guardians of dreams, walker between worlds, perched above the chaos, of this world but not caught up in it. They know when to act, responding quickly with intention after silent observance. Great horned owls have guided me on this life journey, teaching me about facing fears, walking in humility, remembering to honor the beauty of the rising and setting sun, and being present while alive now.

How do owl lessons apply to my role within Swift and philanthropy? Good question: Observe, be patient and mobilize when timing is aligned. Listen to and learn from those grounded in ethics of reciprocity and respect; observe and listen to what community members are saying and try to get the foundation to act accordingly. Don’t get caught up in the way traditional philanthropy operates; observe different systems of decision making and accountability outside the western paradigm and work to apply accordingly. Walk between the worlds of philanthropy and movements, be a messenger in between, work to strengthen alliances and spaces for dialogue.

Other experience: Attorney, food sovereignty activist, co-founder Milpa Alliance, currently based in Ecuador working with communities in efforts to restore, maintain, and revitalize maize cultivation systems, place based knowledge, seed autonomy and cultural/spiritual practices around seeds.

Elaine Rasmussen, Board Member

I’ve had the good fortune to have a life journey that has taken me around the world.  From my hometown of Los Angeles to the seas of the Bosporus in Turkey to the Native American tribes across Turtle Island, I’ve seen the strength of people, place, and culture. The people I’ve had the honored to break bread with throughout my travels, revealed to me the seen and unseen interconnected thread that weaves all of us together.

When the sun rises, I ask myself ‘how can I be a good relative today’. When I lay my head down on my pillow at night, I ask myself, ‘did my actions today make me a good ancestor?’

The circle of reflection pushes me to learn and grow in new ways to be the best steward of brief time I am being given by the Creator.

Humberto Rios Labrada, Board Member

During the 1980s, I studied plant breeding and high-input agriculture regimes practiced in Cuba and supported by many socialist countries interested in maximizing yields. Following the collapse of the eastern block in 1989, I had to reinvent how plant breeding could generate benefits for small farmers who became the new champions of agriculture in Cuba.

Instead of releasing a few high yielding seeds according to the criteria of my research team, we decided to release hundreds of varieties of seeds to small farmers. We then organized diversity learning spaces all over the island where farmers taught us how to maximize yield and production with a biodiversity of plants.

Small farmers working collaboratively with other local actors selected and multiplied a range of diverse locally adapted seeds. The farmers’ work on seed selection supplied locally adapted seed to more than 50,000 farms in a few years.

This experience inspired me to develop an action learning approach at ICRA to generate financial and social benefits for smallholder farmers by promoting agro-biodiversity. While I started in Cuba, I am now also working in Mexico, Bolivia, Spain and Myanmar.

Vini Bhansali, Board Member

Originally from the Thar desert of Rajasthan, India, I now make home in Richmond, CA where I live with my mother, partner and wise cat named Moses.  Born and raised in various parts of India, amongst the many places I’ve lived and worked, I hold closest to my heart: Bombay, India; Austin, Texas; Kitui, Kenya; Durban, South Africa; Chiapas, Mexico and now this beautiful land of redwoods and the Pacific ocean.

I learned my earliest lessons in honoring biocultural diversity, internationalism, interdependence, indegeneity and sovereignty from my family as part of our Jain heritage.  Pluralism, non-absolutism, truth-telling and minimalism are all Jain concepts that I try to practice, sometimes more successfully than other times. I am also a lifelong student of progressive social movements and have had the proud opportunity to make beloved community through various roles as a community organizer, philanthropic leader, leadership coach, popular educator, strategy consultant, movement builder and Iyengar yoga practitioner.

I am so humbled to join the Swift Foundation at this critical moment when philanthropy must embrace its right role in moving resources towards lasting political, ecological and cultural transformation.

STAFF

Suzanne Benally, Executive Director

Suzanne Benally

Suzanne Benally is Navajo and Santa Clara Tewa. She grew up in the community of Shiprock, New Mexico on the Navajo Nation. Her maternal clan is Kinlichii̒nii (Red House People) and she was born for Naashaashi (Bear People Clan). She describes her maternal family home and her sense of belonging as:

Red sandstone mesas rise and curveAround the horizon
Extending like protective arms
To form a cove called Red Valley.
This is my home.

Suzanne has worked in higher education and the non-profit sector for 35 years. Most recently, Suzanne served as the Executive Director of Cultural Survival, an international Indigenous rights advocacy organization that advocates for Indigenous Peoples’ rights, self-determination, land, language, culture, and political resilience.  Formerly, she served as the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Naropa University, and was a core faculty member and previous chair of the environmental studies department. Her extensive experience spans positions devoted to social justice, diversity, and equity. Suzanne is currently co-chair of the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples and a Trustee of the Naropa University Board of Trustees. She is a cohort member of the Rothko Chapel’s Spirituality and Social Justice initiative to further contemporary understandings about spiritualty and social justice.

Deeply committed to social, environmental and climate justice, her work, passion, and interests center on relationships and interconnectedness between land, spirituality, culture, and people as reflected in narratives and stories past and present. She looks forward to drawing on her professional experience and cultural background at Swift Foundation and advocating for transformative practices in philanthropy that address issues of racism, equity, justice, and Indigenous rights. Mostly importantly engaging work that draws hope now and for new generations to come. Suzanne lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Alejandro Argumedo, Andes Amazon Lead

Alejandro was born in central Peru to an indigenous Quechua farming family where he grew nurtured by the herb-perfumed aroma of his grandmother’s cookery and the teachings of maize and potato fields, who schooled under the watchful eyes of snow-capped sacred mountains. These early years taught him that this living world is more than a beautiful creation; it is a kinship web interweaving all of Mother Earth’s yarns: potatoes, maize, the mountains, rivers, sky, stars, condors, llamas, and people — all things, beings and energies — into a tapestry of all relations, a universal family.

As a Director of Programs and Andes Amazon lead, Alejandro brings over 25 years of international experience working with indigenous peoples, small scale farmers, NGOs, research organizations, government institutions and UN bodies and other intergovernmental organizations in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Alejandro’s complex thinking has focused on a range of topics and issues including human rights, corporate structures, governance, indigenous philanthropy, campaigns, public policy, dialogue, communications, and domestic and international conservation and development activities. A recognized indigenous leader, Alejandro helped found global indigenous networks such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Biodiversity Network (IPBN), The Call of the Earth Group, The Indigenous Peoples Biocultural Climate Change Assessments and The International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples. He studied Agronomy at the University of McGill in Montreal, Canada.

Alejandro’s energy and passion are focused on nurturing the evolution and diffusion of food-focused indigenous epistemologies and conceptual frameworks for the planning and management of indigenous territorialities and crafting contextualized solutions. The “Food Neighborhood” approach advanced by Alejandro is a power-shifting strategy that uses food as a key driver of solutions to the compounding climate, environmental, economic and human rights crises we face.

Sonja Swift, Program Advisor

Sonja hails from coastal foothills along Los Osos creek, California in the homelands of the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini Northern Chumash. She learned early on to rely on the land. Memory lives in places, so does knowledge. With this sense of belonging and common sense land ethic, she revolted against white savior environmentalism and continues to learn from Native friends more resonant ways of comprehending the world. She is a good hand at farm work, and remains committed to caretaking orchards, fields, oak groves and grassland while also, together with her husband and son, calls home in the unceded territory of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, in He Sápa, the Black Hills, South Dakota. 

As Program Advisor, Sonja brings over a decade of international experience supporting Swift Foundation in its metamorphosis. Through speaking and writing she has consistently advocated for more accountability and coherency in the field of philanthropy and that funding go to organizations led by people with lived experience of the issues at hand, all the while working to facilitate those structural changes within. Writing is her artistic medium, both creative nonfiction and poetry. She co-directs Windrose fund and serves on the boards of the Colorado Plateau Foundation, Community Agroecology Network and Oakland Institute.

Swift, with roots in Old English, a swifte, was a name given to a messenger or courier, one with speed.  Sharing her last name with the institution, she has often considered the symbolism, and how it relates to her work in this field traversing between halls of economic influence and the courageous work of partners on the ground protecting life way and territory. She considers this work a responsibility and strives to live up to it. Sonja loves to wild harvest, jump headlong into cold water, and the feel of an oncoming thunderstorm.

Cecily Engelhart, Grants and Communications Manager

Cecily Engelhart

Cecily (Ihanktonwan/Oglala) was raised in eastern South Dakota; her school years spent with her mother in the college town of Vermillion and summers with her father, grandparents, and many cousins on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. The muddy banks of the Missouri River were her constant playground, teaching reverence for the beauty and fierceness of nature while simultaneously providing an abundance of cherished memories. Swimming, kayaking, fishing, gathering mulberries, watching the sun set on the water, and counting the stars slowly gliding across the night sky are ones she holds particularly dear. Now living in Mni Luzahan (Rapid City, South Dakota), she strives to create similarly cherished memories with her daughter, partner, and father in their multigenerational household. 

As the Grants and Communications Manager, Cecily brings both passion and persistence to the work of supporting Swift Foundation’s thoughtful approach to philanthropy. She brings years of Native nonprofit experience, specifically related to Indigenous artists and culture bearers, creative placemaking, sustainable community development, food sovereignty, and systemic approaches to creating long-term change. She holds a Masters Degree in Social Documentation from the University of California, Santa Cruz, a Postgraduate Diploma in Māori Studies from the University of Auckland (earned during her time as Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar), and a Bachelors Degree in American Indian Studies with a minor in Women’s Studies from the University of South Dakota. 

Cecily is unwaveringly passionate about how methods of expression shape our understanding of ourselves and each other. Her personal and professional work has consistently coalesced around storytelling in its various forms, most often through cooking, design, writing, and filmmaking. She feels her personal and professional work is most in alignment when talking with, laughing with, and learning from other Indigenous people. Through all her contributions to the world, she seeks to be a good relative, a good future ancestor, and a responsible steward of Unči Maka.

Rosemary Hitchens, Operations Administrator

Rosemary Hitchens was raised along the rocky shores of Lake Huron in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This special place, protected by 36 offshore islands and tucked away amongst the cedars, inspired her to love and appreciate the natural world.

Rosemary spent her graduate years receiving a master’s degree in International Relations from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, followed by a remote master’s degree in Conservation Biology from Miami University, Ohio, which granted her the privilege of learning from indigenous stewards and conservationists at international field sites in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, Borneo’s rainforests, and the Maasai lands of Kenya. Throughout Rosemary’s educational endeavors, her perception of how to make meaningful change always drifted back to understanding people, communities and their traditional practices as a key tenant to protecting and conserving our natural and cultural worlds. 

Rosemary works as a self-employed social science consultant and freelancer, providing project management and administrative support to mission-driven organizations and groups that contribute to the world in an impactful way. Rosemary has supported Swift Foundation since the fall of 2017, learning from the passionate staff, board members and partners involved in its ongoing work.

Nwamaka Agbo, Strategic Advisor

Nwamaka is the CEO of the Kataly Foundation and Managing Director of the Restorative Economies Fund. In her roles, Nwamaka collaborates with the Kataly Team to lead the foundation’s day to day operations, while holding the community-centered strategy and vision for the Fund.

With a background in community organizing, electoral campaigns, policy and advocacy work on racial, social and environmental justice issues, Nwamaka is deeply committed to supporting projects that build resilient, healthy and self-determined communities rooted in shared prosperity.

Prior to joining the Kataly Team, Nwamaka built an independent consulting practice guided by her framework on Restorative Economics. As a consultant, she provided technical assistance and strategic guidance to community owned and governed community wealth building initiatives like Restore OaklandBlack Land & Power and others. Her work with these community driven projects led her to providing trainings and advisory services to donors, foundations and impact investment firms including institutions like The San Francisco Foundation and RSF Social Finance. Nwamaka has served as a fellow for the Center for Economic Democracy and the Movement Strategy Center. She proudly serves on the board of Thousand CurrentsRestore Oakland, Inc. and Resource Generation.

To relax and unwind, Nwamaka enjoys spending quiet time in her Oakland backyard savoring sips of bourbon. 

Swift Foundation partners with Manchester Capital Management to manage its 100% mission-aligned endowment. Manchester is a registered investment advisory and family office dedicated to helping families sustain their wealth, values, and legacy from generation to generation.

Amy MacLeod, Wealth Manager at Manchester Capital Management

As a Wealth Manager at Manchester Capital Management, I have been advising Swift Foundation since 2009, helping the Foundation grow from a family-run foundation to a foundation with four non-family board members and employees. I assist in the management of Swift Foundation’s endowment, helping guide the Foundation’s investment policy, asset allocation and investment selections with the goal of deepening Swift Foundation’s mission while generating a financial return to achieve the Foundation’s grant-making goals.

My first career was as an attorney, and with those skills, I advise Swift Foundation on administrative and policy best practices and regulatory requirements when the Board and Staff call on me for assistance.

My work with Swift Foundation and its partners inspires me to seek truth, to better understand the motive and consequences of our actions. Our planet’s resources are limited. Capital is finite. How do we allocate capital to create sustainable systems that promote human dignity and use resources wisely?

Teresa Dunbar, Impact Investment Analyst at Manchester Capital Management

As the Impact Investment Analyst at Manchester Capital Management, I am responsible for conducting investment research and due diligence focused on environmental, social, and governance risks, opportunities, and capabilities across asset classes. I have worked closely with the Swift Foundation since 2016 helping the foundation align its 100% mission-aligned investment portfolio while achieving its financial goals.

I have over fifteen years of experience working in international development, microfinance, and philanthropy with the Hewlett Foundation, Kiva.org, Oikocredit, and the Christensen Fund. My subject matter experience has focused on sustainable agriculture, biological and cultural diversity, indigenous rights, economic development and women’s economic empowerment.

As a Cultural Anthropologist and Sociologist with an MBA focused on finance and investments, I weave my passion, curiosity and skills to bring a holistic, long-term approach to investments and portfolio management. My daily inspiration comes from the understanding that each investment is an opportunity to support healthy and resilient systems. My challenge and goal is to make investments that support value-creation for all stakeholders while enabling the foundation to fulfill its mission for years to come.