First Peoples Fund (FPF), in partnership with the Black Hills Area Community Foundation, Bush Foundation, HRK Foundation, Johnson Scholarship Foundation, and Northwest Area Foundation, hosted a roundtable discussion this month. Titled Within, Together, Collective, the day was part of an ongoing conversation around the idea that now is the opportune time to thoughtfully deepen our collective efforts and investments in Native communities. Several intersecting bodies of research discussed throughout the day illustrated the urgency for, and challenges in, creating a more equitable future in which Native communities are not left out.
Malcom Chapman, former city council member for Rapid City, South Dakota, walked around the room holding a piece of artwork. He had asked everyone to write down their reaction to the piece, detailing what thoughts came to mind as they considered what they were seeing. Then he asked them to circle a single word in their description, the word that most fully encompassed their reaction:
This opening for the day’s events reminded people that even when we all look at and react to the same thing, our understandings can be different. Malcom, the event’s facilitator, asked people to, “Take time to reflect within as we go through today’s conversations so that together we can come up with ideas and solutions that move us forward as a collective.”
Gathered in the room were representatives from sixteen foundations and nonprofit organizations: Artspace, Better Way Foundation, Black Hills Area Community Foundation, Bush Foundation, Center for Cultural Innovation, First Nations Development Institute, HRK Foundation, Jerome Foundation, John T. Vucurevich Foundation, Johnson Scholarship Foundation, McKnight Foundation, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, Native Americans in Philanthropy, Northwest Area Foundation, NoVo Foundation, and Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation.
Going around the room, everyone introduced themselves and said a few words about their hopes for the day, creating a motivating energy for the coming conversations. Then the first panel of the morning kicked-off. Presenting a wide-range of data regarding everything from mainstream perceptions of Native people to trends in philanthropy’s support of Native communities, this panel set the tone and purpose for the day’s conversations. Three bodies of research combined to create a picture of the realities and challenges facing Native communities and their philanthropic partners.
The first body of research examined the state of large foundation giving to Native organizations and causes from 2006 to 2014. The key findings of the study found a decline of 29% in total funding over these years. This decline represented a $35 million drop in funding, meaning less than 0.02% of philanthropic dollars go to organizations focused on Native causes and Native-led organizations. The second body of research, conducted by First Nations Development and Echo Hawk Consulting resulted in the groundbreaking publication regarding perceptions of Native people: “Reclaiming Native Truth”. The study gathered feedback from over 11 different focus groups across the United States, with a wide range of proximity to areas with high Native populations. The focus groups were both urban and rural, and comprised of various ethnic, academic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Among the study’s more striking findings was that 40% of people believe Native people no longer exist within the United States.
40% of people believe Native people no longer exist within the united states
- Reclaiming Native Truth, 2018
The final piece of research presented in the morning was from an internal project conducted by the Bush Foundation’s Native Nations Activities Manager, Carly Bad Heart Bull (Dakota/Muscogee Creek). This project, the “Native Nations Investment Report”, looked back at the available grant information from Bush Foundation’s funding, starting in 1970. The purpose of the report was to share and illustrate the ways Bush programs invest and support Native nations and people in the three-state region. Carly’s presentation served as an example of how a foundation can look critically at its past funding to Native organizations and use that data to plan more equitable funding in the future.
“The majority of the work happening in Indian Country is on the grassroots level,” said Carly. “It can be difficult for the people doing this work to have the time and capacity to manage grants and reports. For some funders, it can be a challenge in easily investing without the help of a more established intermediary organization. Challenges like these are opportunities for us to be intentional in learning from communities in order to develop solutions.”
Challenges in Philanthropy
Delving deeper into the discussion on intermediaries, Jackie Franke, Vice President of First Nations Development Institute (FNDI), and Lori Pourier, President of First Peoples Fund, shared a panel discussing the role of intermediary organizations in philanthropy’s relationship to Indian Country. Serving as a bridge between Native communities and philanthropy, intermediaries such as First Peoples Fund and FNDI often serve a crucial role of educating philanthropy on, and advocating for, the good work happening in Native communities. Additionally, intermediaries help change-makers in Native communities and smaller organizations navigate the world of philanthropy.
The roundtable discussions continued to delve into the challenges presented by philanthropy’s hesitation to invest in Native nonprofits. These hesitations, as highlighted in FNDI’s research, are based on common misconceptions and misguided narratives that include a lack of accurate information about Native people and how their communities function; concerns about the misuse of funds; and feeling overwhelmed by the perceived amount of time required to learn about Native history and governmental structures and to build relationships with Native communities and governments.
“So much of philanthropy is focused on short-term, transactional interactions rather than long-term change making ones,” said Kevin Walker, President of the Northwest Area Foundation. In advocating for more funding for Native communities, Northwest Area Foundation leads by example through a commitment to devote 40 percent of new grant dollars to Native-led organizations in their funding region. Kevin explained to the group that this commitment acknowledges and honors the history of the wealth of their region and foundation, and its roots in Native lands and communities.
Less 0.02% of philanthropic dollars go to organizations focused on Native causes and Native-led organizations.
- Reclaiming Native Truth, 2018
Commitments like Northwest Area Foundation’s are rare, in part due to persistent myths. As a result of pervasive, damaging narratives about Native communities, Native nonprofits consistently have to present “Indian 101” information in order to fully contextualize their work in a way that is reflective of accurate, contemporary realities. The recent research and data about Native communities, incorporated into compelling narratives, offers a pathway for deeper and more nuanced understandings of contemporary Native communities and organizations.
The funders present recognized that challenging and dismantling myths about Native communities also requires listening to and learning from Native-led organizations, allowing Native communities to define their own measures of success, and investing in long-term relationships.
Listening to Community Voices
The afternoon welcomed in representatives from local Native-led grantee organizations Four Bands Community Fund, Lakota Federal Credit Union, and Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. Their panel offered funders in the room the opportunity to listen to pertinent feedback, ask questions, and engage in earnest discussion.
Stories and data presented during the afternoon showed that rather than being a “risky” investment, Native organizations are an integral part of their local communities. Far from being a funding risk, supporting Native-led organizations provides philanthropy with an authentic connection to communities and is an effective and efficient way to support lasting change.
“Funders often see it as we only impacted 250 lives with the 250 loans we’ve made,” said Lakota Vogel (Cheyenne River Sioux), Executive Director at Four Bands Community Fund. ”Well, I can tell you a story of the impact of every one of those 250 loans we made and the lives changed as a result, and I would challenge a bank in the middle of a city to do the same.”
Thunder Valley CDC’s representative, Andrew Iron Shell, described how their organization’s systemic approach to community development work means that their program areas fall under everything from early childhood education to food sovereignty, workforce development to home construction. Although individual program numbers vary in quantity, it’s the interconnected, collective system of programs that contribute to the “petri dish” of possibilities for the future, as he described it. Siloed program funding can make if difficult to fund this kind of work, requiring organizations to patch together a wide variety of funding sources, each with their own grant requirements and restrictions. And sometimes, being a Native organization can make a grantee into a “program area” regardless of the specific work they do.
“Saying ‘we don’t have a program area for that’ isn’t a reason to not fund Native communities,” said Carly. “Native organizations are doing work in education, in economic development, in anything you find in other communities. You don’t have to have a program area specific to Native communities in order to fund the work of Native people.”
Transforming the Future
Conversations throughout the remainder of the day dug into specific barriers faced by both grantees and funders, with people exchanging ideas for solutions and expressing interest in working together to create steps forward. Connections to difficulties faced by other under-funded populations, such as rural communities, were made as a strategy to create partnerships and shared learning. Others discussed the impact of unrestricted funding that shows an investment in an organization's work rather than a specific program area. The consensus was that there is a change in the nature of philanthropy on the horizon that everyone should proactively anticipate, because when our collective efforts and funding align, the power of our impact grows exponentially.
“Inclusion is more than simply diversity and quantitative representation,” Lori Pourier, President of First Peoples Fund said. “It involves authentic and empowered participation and full access to opportunities. It also means going within to ensure everyone is able to contribute meaningfully to better decisions and greater effectiveness.”
As Native communities and philanthropic partners continue to work together to create systemic, sustainable change, we look forward to tightening the connections that weave us into this shared fabric of life. Growing within, together, and collectively, each of us can play a role in honoring local knowledge and leaders, uplifting communities, and transforming the future.
As illustrated in a passage from “The Book of Awakening” by Mark Nepo, it all comes down to trust. Malcom read this passage aloud at the day’s closing, ending the day the same way as he began it –– by sharing art as an offering of knowledge.
“Breathe deeply and know that even the smallest moment of risk and trust is difficult,” he read. “Lean into your chasm gently until the fear subsides. Lean into your chasm and offer, through your breathing, a wordless compassion for yourself and all others in our very human struggle to step with risk and land with trust.”