A Unique Funder’s Support for Food Systems in Native Communities

For a global funder, the Christensen Fund isn’t the biggest on the block, giving around $12 million a year across seven main geographies. But it sure has set itself apart from the crowd. 

For one, there’s the way it defines its grantmaking—supporting “biocultural landscapes,” or the mesh of culture and ecology in specific locations. It also focuses giving in indigenous communities, often overlooked by philanthropy, particularly in the U.S. 

Christensen takes a deliberately different, multifaceted approach to giving that supports Native art, women’s rights, and organic agriculture, to name a few. It also funds communities all too frequently ignored by wealthy donors and foundations, ranking near the top of the heap in a recent NCRP report on foundations that support underserved communities. Christensen was one of the early funders of the Standing Rock water protectors. It’s also taken on an impact investing strategy, with both MRIs and PRIs.


All that is to say, we’re talking about a very forward-thinking funder, here. And while it gives a lot internationally, one of its stateside programs operates in an interesting niche within the bustling food and agriculture space.

Part of its funding in the American Southwest supports food and agriculture in Native American communities, including food sovereignty, meaning food production that is sustainable, healthy and driven locally by native communities. 

Sustainable food and agriculture is an area of philanthropy that we’ve taken a lot of interest in, because it draws one of the most varied collections of players you’ll see in one arena with respect to size, strategy, politics and priorities. Christensen is a prime example, and a leader in the subcategory of food philanthropy in Native American communities. 


The foundation’s giving in the Southwest actually has two main themes. One is about strengthening Native American philanthropy and leadership, but for now, we’re looking at the other, called Native Foodways and Landscapes. 

This basically boils down to working the land in ways that are driven by and in service of Native American cultures. The idea is that native people have been cultivating landscapes in the Southwest for centuries, and have both unique knowledge and a right to work that land. So the program backs grantees like native farmers, herders and ranchers, and projects related to regional and community seed banks, and knowledge of cultural practices regarding food and land. In addition to being good for the land, such funding also supports both public health and culture. 

For a couple of examples, one 2015 grant went to Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture, an Arizona nonprofit working to strengthen Hopi food traditions, including creation of a co-op, apprenticeships, and community nursery. A recent general support grant went to the North Leupp Family Farm, a Diné-owned and operated farm that produces crops traditional to the region. 

In fact, that’s one more thing to like about Christensen’s grantmaking—it offers a lot of general operating support, another indication the funder is working to let local folks lead the way.