About us

HISTORY

Swift Foundation was incorporated shortly after United Parcel Service went public in 1999. For the first time in 92 years shares of stock were offered to the public and the founder, John Swift, chose to diversify family-held ownership by creating a foundation. John has long been a committed supporter of organizations with a global focus on protecting the environment, investing in community wellbeing, and promoting sustainable agriculture. For the next ten years, Swift Foundation focused on environmental conservation around the world.

In 2009, Swift Foundation tripled in size with the proceeds from another family foundation. At this time, John invited his daughters Sonja and Karen to join the board, launching a new chapter for the foundation with an expansion of the mission toward a bio-cultural framework that respects Indigenous peoples as crucial leaders in protecting biodiversity, or in other words, people’s beloved home territories.

This also led to a radical revision of how the foundation managed the endowment, leading to Swift Foundation’s first mission-related investment policy and subsequent work toward greater coherency and accountability in how the investments align with the mission.

The board is committed to widening the circle further and is grateful for the guidance and wisdom that a broader range of perspectives offers. To this end, we maintain a practice of inviting visiting advisors, often grantee-partners, to each board meeting to enrich and strengthen the programming work and for greater transparency.

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.

STAFF

Sonja Swift, Interim Executive Director

As a child my grandmother asked me to pick an animal for her to sponsor, a first brush with her type of philanthropy. I said wolf. She was furious that I’d pick a predator but sent me a card anyways with a photo of the Mexican wolf. I was so proud of that card, not because she had donated money in my name but because I had allied myself with wolf. Years later while visiting friends on the White Earth reservation I would learn that the Ojibwe word for wolf is ma’iingan: guide, one who shows the way.

The origin of the funds that seeded this foundation is a courier service that transports packages around the world. The surname itself, Swift, with roots in Old English, a swifte, was a name given to a messenger or courier, one with speed. I have often thought about this symbolism as it is the work I do, traversing between halls of economic influence and the courageous work of partners on the ground facing off blunt attacks on life way and territory.

Working programmatically with the foundation I am deeply committed to a vision of coherency, accountability and integrity, which has often required that I ask hard questions about philanthropy and also of myself. As a writer, I do not shy away from complexity. Born and raised in a valley of oaks, my own cultural framework is land-based. Today I call home San Francisco, California and the Black Hills, South Dakota.

Karen Mehringer, Executive Assistant & Grants Manager

I’ve always been inspired by dolphins – their beauty, grace, intelligence and playfulness. Recently, I had the honor of swimming with a pod of 25 wild dolphins off of the coast of Kona, Hawaii. While under the water with these magnificent creatures, I was aware of how synchronized this pod was, swimming together in community, in the flow with one another. I felt a deep sense of peace amidst their presence.

Working with the Swift Foundation team, I am part of something larger than myself, part of a community working towards positive change and greater peace in the world. Together, each one of us plays a part and together we have a greater impact.

My part as the Executive Assistant and Grants Administrator is to provide support for the team and to keep track of the details, so that the organization can flow and function optimally. I am grateful to be part of this group of conscious, loving people… this human pod.