Getting Proactive: A Tech Giver’s Journey to More Strategic Giving

An indian reservation in washington state. 4kclips/shutterstock

An indian reservation in washington state. 4kclips/shutterstock

For the first few years of its existence, the Vadon Foundation tended to operate as a conventional family foundation, giving to local organizations including Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Bertschi School. The funds behind the foundation come from tech entrepreneur Mark Vadon, 48, a Harvard and Stanford grad who’s been on the Forbes billionaire list.

Like a lot of tech winners, the Vadon name is unlikely to ring many bells outside of Silicon Valley. But he’s scored big over the years, founding online jewelry retailer Blue Nile in 1999 and co-founding Seattle-based online retailer Zulily a decade later, which was acquired by home-shopping giant QVC for $2.4 billion in 2015.

Even before that windfall, Vadon had already turned to philanthropy, creating the Vadon Foundation in 2013. Last year, the foundation went through a major revamp, adding an executive director and an accessible website, which states that the foundation now supports “innovative, community-based initiatives that sustain healthy, thriving indigenous nations in perpetuity.” The foundation looks to “fund programs working to ensure that every successive generation of indigenous people and culture will face an increasingly brighter future of healthy self-determination, autonomy, evolution, and sustainability.”

We don’t see many foundations that are laser-focused on indigenous peoples. To learn more, I recently spoke to Vadon Foundation Executive Director Dave LaSarte-Meeks about the foundation’s evolution and its grantmaking. In the process, I found out about one funder’s journey from being reactive to becoming more proactive and strategic. LaSarte-Meeks started by telling me about what first drew Vadon to giving. “Mark had a general belief where he wanted to get involved in philanthropy at a certain point after he had a couple of successful company startups, and just felt that it was important to give back to the community.”

But what started as conventional giving shifted at the end of 2017. And LaSarte-Meeks looms large in this evolution. He and Vadon both attended Stanford Business School and have been friends ever since. LaSarte-Meeks grew up on the Coeur d'Alene Indian reservation in northwestern Idaho, when unemployment at the time was at 80 percent. The first member of his family to attend a four-year college, he learned about Brown University from a high school counselor. He later returned west to attend Stanford, where he got his MBA and J.D.

Then, he went back to his community, working for tribal nonprofits and legal organizations. And he was also once the CEO of Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort and Hotel. He says, “My whole career has been spent working on indigenous issues. Through our friendship, Mark gets exposed to a lot of different angles when it comes to these kinds of issues. Ultimately, I helped Mark understand that this was a seriously neglected area. If he was going to do philanthropy, he wanted his resources to go to a place that had the greatest multiplier effect.”

LaSarte-Meeks’ lasting relationship with Vadon speaks to the influence nonprofit and community leaders can wield in charting a funder’s giving strategy. The two kept in touch through the years despite disparate careers, and have synced up again for this new journey.

LaSarte-Meeks adds that Vadon himself was a history major in undergrad, with an interest in the initial contact between settlers and indigenous communities. Later, as he was starting the Vadon Foundation, the Standing Rock water battles were going on, and he was particularly moved by coverage about missing and murdered indigenous women.

The duo is also driven by the fact that very few philanthropic dollars are directed to indigenous communities. Native Americans in Philanthropy, whose mission is to promote equitable and effective philanthropy in Native communities, states that “despite Native Americans accounting for nearly 2 percent (5.4 million) of the U.S. population, philanthropic funding for the population remains less than 0.5 percent of annual foundation grant dollars.” The group says that even “philanthropic efforts to improve the lives of men and women of color overlook the distinctive needs of Native Americans.”

LaSarte-Meeks makes it clear that the Vadon Foundation is still in the very early stages of working within this neglected area. So far, he tells me that the foundation is working with a number of organizations in the Northwest to put resources behind grassroots efforts to train new fluent speakers of native languages.

Why focus on indigenous languages when there are seemingly more pressing problems like high unemployment and substance abuse within these communities? LaSarte-Meeks is convinced that a lot of these problems begin with language and culture. “Some languages are already kind of extinct. And others, there are only 10 or so fluent speakers left, and they’re all elderly. If we go from communities with a handful of fluent speakers to 500 fluent speakers who are having children who are growing up and learning the language organically in the home, that’s a huge impact—that’s a culture-level impact.”

What’s more, he and Vadon report great feedback from native communities on the ground about the importance of language. “We’ve been talking to communities about a range of issues, whether it’s unemployment, high school dropout rates, substance abuse, and violence in communities. A lot of people bring it back to the destruction of their culture, which goes back to U.S. programs to eradicate native languages and force tribes to assimilate. Sure, it’s an indirect and oblique approach, and for people outside the community, it feels odd. But a lot of this goes back to families being broken down generationally and tearing at the fabric of communities.”

With a deepened asset base—the f0undation’s assets now stand at around $44 million—LaSarte-Meeks tells me that he and Vadon have spent the first year structuring an effective giving program. He says that the foundation is also looking at issues like violence against women in native communities.

Additionally, the foundation has done work locally in Seattle with organizations like Chief Seattle Club, which works in combating homelessness in native populations, and United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, which “provides social and educational services to Native Americans in the Seattle metropolitan area and aims to promote the well-being of the Native American community of the area.”

Of Mark Vadon’s philanthropic evolution, LaSarte-Meeks tells me this is “not an uncommon lifecycle. Mark and his family set up a vehicle and responded to requests in the community, but it was fairly reactive. Mark wanted to go from reacting to people approaching him to actually being a proactive presence in a topical area.”

LaSarte-Meeks says that he and Vadon’s biggest hope for the foundation is maximum impact: “We just want to stay true to our initial roots of wanting to have the maximum impact we can. How do these resources have the maximum impact, and for multiple generations in these communities? We are not really content just to write checks. We’re really excited to go out into the field grassroots and meet organizations that aren’t getting much support, and stepping in to help some of these organizations make the next step.”

While the Vadon Foundation seeks out partnerships, it is open to contact. LaSarte-Meeks, though, doesn’t exactly promote the conventional application process. “I spent way too many years applying for grants from the other side of the table to justify a 20-page grant application. We are open. Just read the website, shoot me a call, or send me an email.”