A Small, Progressive Family Funder Comes Out of its Shell

A Noya Fields family grant recently backed a lawsuit on climate change brought on behalf of children.

A Noya Fields family grant recently backed a lawsuit on climate change brought on behalf of children.

Coverage of philanthropy, ours included, tends to focus heavily on the eye-popping gifts—and the billionaires and top foundations throwing around tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and trying to make a big impact on society. 

Now and then, however, we like to zoom in on small funders carrying out family legacies, trying to make impacts of their own—in this case, we’re taking a look at the Noya Fields Family group of charitable funds, and the young couple behind it, who’ve made some notable environmental grants lately.

A sometimes overlooked dynamic in philanthropy is the huge number of small grantmaking entities that have emerged in recent decades, fueled by the boom of new millionaires and heirs to small family fortunes. Overall growth in the number of foundations is stunning, with over 30,000 foundations created since 2000. Roughly half of all private foundations are family foundations, and many are relatively young. According to the National Center for Family Philanthropy, in 2015, nearly 70 percent of family foundations were created after 1990. (NCFP did a first-ever national benchmark survey of family foundations in 2015 that shines considerable light on these institutions, and is well worth looking at.)

Then there’s the tremendous rise of donor-advised funds, a controversial but popular mechanism for giving that has exploded—the National Philanthropic Trust cites nearly 270,000 in 2015, more than triple the number of private foundations. While a great many families do their giving through DAFs, details on how family members engage with such entities are hard to come by.

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One thing that makes family philanthropy so interesting is that strategies can change as a new generation comes forward. As we’re seeing with networks like Resource Generation and Solidaire, or with foundations run by heirs like Dave Peery, Audrey Simons and Katherine Lorenz, next-generation philanthropists often strike different paths from their elders. Sometimes these younger givers are keen to use more rigorous and cutting-edge approaches to grantmaking. Other times, what distinguishes them is their embrace of progressive advocacy—as in the case of Farhad Ebrahimi and the Chorus Foundation. 

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The Noya Fields Family group is also charting a progressive path. Here, you've got two donor-advised funds, one created by parents Judith and Norman Fields in 1992, the other by Ken Fields and Nikki Noya-Fields in 2016. The elder couple have since passed away, Norman Fields just this past September; now Ken and Nikki run the two funds, deciding on grants together. 

Two recent grants in particular are notable—one for $20,000 to Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit that fights climate change, in part by taking legal action against governments on behalf of young people. The group filed a landmark lawsuit on behalf of 21 young people over the federal government’s insufficient action to curb emissions. The funder also recently made a $25,000 grant to the green news site Grist.org to fund its first video fellow in support of its expansion into multimedia.

As Ken Fields said to Inside Philanthropy via email, the couple want to continue the legacy of his family’s philanthropy, but they also want to do it in their own way. 

“Judith and Norman were both from a generation that was a little more reserved and passive in their charitable endeavors. With Nikki and I, we are modernizing so to speak, becoming more active and engaging. We want to be active participants in the organizations and causes that we care about.”

Ken Fields is an investor, Nikki Noya-Fields is a wellness coach, and the two have a rough budget of around $200,000 in annual grantmaking, Fields says. Donor-advised funds don’t have to follow the disclosure rules foundations do (one of our main problems with DAFs) and Fields declined to disclose their combined assets.

The two are active online, with a new website in progress for the Noya Fields Family Funds, issuing press releases about their giving, and posting news updates about the issues they care about. It’s clear they are strongly opposed to the Trump administration, are big fans of clean energy, and their two main causes are the environment and civil liberties. 

All that is pretty different from the stereotype of a wealthy couple that might instead quietly cut the same two checks every year to the Nature Conservancy and a local symphony. This younger donor couple hasn't yet built a major philanthropic infrastructure, but they’ve got an intentionally public persona and ideology, are are pursuing some edgier giving.

Related: "Small But Meaningful." The Rumphius Foundation's Approachable Grantmaking