Published July 31, 2018
LONGMONT, Colo. — Why does philanthropy continue to only minimally support Native American organizations and causes?
That’s the crux of the issue that has plagued Native American nonprofits and causes for some time. Despite the high need in Native communities and the proven ability of Native-led organizations to help address those needs, mainstream philanthropy has shied away from adequately funding these initiatives. In fact, recent research by First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has documented declining levels of giving by large foundations, as well as minuscule levels of giving by community foundations, to Native American organizations and causes.
A new report just issued by First Nations explores this issue. The report – We Need to Change How We Think: Perspectives on Philanthropy’s Underfunding of Native Communities and Causes – was prepared by First Nations’ partner, Frontline Solutions, to shed light on this essential question. This latest report is part of a series of publications assessing funding to Native American organizations and causes that was funded by the Fund for Shared Insight.
From June 2017 to April 2018, Frontline Solutions conducted research to identify underlying reasons for the chronic underfunding of Native American causes. Guided by input from First Nations, Frontline Solutions conducted 42 key informant interviews with leaders from philanthropic foundations and Native-led nonprofit organizations. The philanthropic foundations included some that support Native causes, and some that don’t currently fund Native causes.
The subsequent report, which is available as a free download from the First Nations website at https://firstnations.org/knowledge-center/strengthening-nonprofit/reports, summarizes many of the misconceptions (often fueled by erroneous stereotypes) and other obstacles faced by Native causes in seeking funding. It also offers some solutions and recommendations for both foundations and the Native nonprofit community. (Please note that if you don’t already have one, you will need to create a free online account to download the report.)
The report revealed the following observations about the philanthropic and nonprofit community:
- There is an overall lack of knowledge of Native Americans (both historically and contemporary)
- There is a lack of involvement or relationships with, or other connections to, Native communities
- Largely white-led foundations lack any Native personnel to champion Native causes
- There is a deficit-based view of Native communities, instead of an asset-based view incorporating the communities’ ample strengths and abilities
Some of the misconceptions held about Native Americans included:
- Tribes are flush with federal or “casino” money
- The Native American population size is too small to matter
- Native-led organizations “lack the capacity” to handle large investments, and thus are high risk
- All Native communities are remote or too difficult to get to
On the other hand, leaders at Native nonprofit organizations explained the devastating impact of philanthropic underfunding in Native communities and articulated challenges in interacting with philanthropy. Some of these challenges include foundations that often or quickly “pivot” in focus, or which require an exhausting education in “Indian 101.”
“This report goes beyond implying the willful ignorance and ambivalence, on the part of private philanthropy, of Indian peoples and Indian projects. It asks private philanthropy to own this behavior,” said Michael E. Roberts, First Nations President & CEO. “As private philanthropy wrestles with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, we have to ask ourselves if their very exclusion of Indians in their grantmaking will make them question their progress toward their goals of racial equity.”
“This report reinforces the importance of this type of data inquiry,” said Jessica Barron, Ph.D., Consultant with Frontline Solutions. “In addressing the nuances in philanthropic attitudes and posturing toward Indian Country, the research provides support for the field to reckon with our part in perpetuating these deeply troubling, static and, unfortunately, all-too-common narratives that result in the diminished visibility and support for Native communities and causes.”
The report concludes, in part, with this statement: “Does the current culture and system of philanthropy perpetuate the invisibility and exclusion of Native Americans? This is a fundamental question that both individuals and institutions within philanthropy must answer as we collectively work toward building a more inclusive and deliberate philanthropic culture, complete with authentic Native American engagement and participation … The prolonged invisibility of Native American communities and causes within philanthropy calls into question the most basic tenets of the field: the responsibility to help address poverty and inequality for some of the most vulnerable segments of our society. Negative stereotypes, resistance to inclusion of Native causes, and rapidly shifting priorities are all barriers to philanthropic funding for Native communities.”