"There's a Real Opportunity for Funders to Learn Here." Lessons from Standing Rock

Amid deep concern about what a Trump presidency means for the progressive and environmental agenda, the fight against the Dakota Access oil pipeline presented a powerful, Native American-led grassroots movement that many are championing as a path forward.

After months of resistance, water protectors rallying behind the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe won an important victory when the Army Corps of Engineers denied a key permit to proceed, halting the project. It’s not completely clear what will happen next, especially under a Trump administration. But it’s a win nonetheless, and the movement seems to be shifting into its next phase.

The Standing Rock fight has also been undeniably successful in demonstrating the strength of a community-led, grassroots movement that captured the global spotlight, attracting support and solidarity across a huge array of groups and people. 

Related: "Everything We Care For." The Future of Progressive Philanthropy Under Trump

Several tribal nations issued resolutions in support and sent delegations to the camp. Veterans, church congregations, elected officials, unions, municipal governments, and a broad cross-section of nonprofits all issued statements of support or joined the camp. Thousands braved the frigid North Dakota winter.

Standing Rock has also been a meaningful moment for philanthropy, as millions in funding poured in from small donors, celebrities, and some fast-acting foundations, helping to fuel the work on the ground as it unfolded. It shows how effective rapid response funding to grassroots, community-led movements can be, and philanthropy can look to what happened there to adapt, improve, and win future victories down the line.

How Standing Rock Can Inform Future Philanthropy

One important takeaway from the Dakota Access pipeline protests is the tremendous need and potential impact in funding Native communities (further coverage to come). But the way in which institutional funders responded in this particular case also offers some lessons for foundations eager to replicate and broaden its success. 

The source of the movement’s strength came from the leadership of Native communities and the thousands of demonstrators who have faced arrest and bodily harm, but the philanthropic response has fueled and elevated the fight. 

Donations from tens of thousands of individuals and a set of foundations played a big role in sustaining the effort, including supporting basic costs of running the camp and legal expenses. Foundations early to the scene backed the work of nonprofits like Indigenous Peoples Power Project (IP3), which trained thousands of people in nonviolent direct action, and the Indigenous Environmental Network, which played a big role in communications. But it was also a diffuse movement, with important work and support coming from many organizations.

“This is what success looks like when we make the bold investments that are needed into direct action organizing and movement work,” said Tyler Nickerson of The Solutions Project, which makes rapid response grants through its Fighter Fund and supported Standing Rock. Standing Rock should raise important questions for philanthropy about how effective it is at moving money quickly to movements like these, he said.

“Clearly, this is a moment for us to learn, both from those who’ve stepped forward and done it, and those who were thinking about it and trying to make it work. This shows us and gives us a sign of success that moving money in the right way to groups on the ground is incredibly beneficial for all of our movements.”

The foundations that made the greatest impact, he notes, were those that either had existing relationships with native-led organizations and coalitions and could move money fast, or those that were willing to suspend barriers and take a chance on such groups even if they did not. 

Some of the key funders include the Solutions Project, Common Counsel Foundation, the Christensen Fund, and the Chorus Foundation, which together co-sponsored a well-attended funder briefing in New York on the landscape of groups involved. Others funders that supported the movement include the Solidaire donor circle, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Bush Foundation, Surdna Foundation, and Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, plus a handful of smaller family foundations. But keep in mind that this is not a complete list, and there was no single conduit for funding. 

For all the supporters that did step forward, Nickerson pointed out a notable gap between philanthropy and Native American communities, which made it a challenge for many funders to respond in the moment. That’s underscored by an overall shortage of funding for Native American peoples—one Foundation Center report found that just 0.3 percent of total foundation giving focuses on Native American communities. “As appreciative as I am of those who were active, there’s not enough of us,” Nickerson said.

The decentralized nature of the movement also presented a hurdle for traditional philanthropy. As opposed to, say, a neatly organized coalition with a lead 501(c)(3) and approved sub-grantees, Standing Rock involved a flurry of nonprofits, tribes, and individuals working within a landscape that was constantly shifting. 

“It’s been admittedly a little challenging because of the desire on the part of a lot of folks in philanthropy to have a really convenient, easy, one-stop shop, especially in a quickly changing situation,” said Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation, “and that’s not how social change works.”

Such a cross-section of issues—environmental justice, climate change, indigenous rights, poverty—also pushed funders to resist a tendency to slot the movement into philanthropic silos, which Ebrahimi observed was actually less of an issue with Standing Rock than it often is. “It’s the fact that [Standing Rock is] at the intersection of all those things that makes it so powerful.”

That means funding the movement has required investing time into learning the scope of those involved, and being cautious to make sure grantees are respectfully responding to, and not imposing on Native American leaders. The Stand With Standing Rock website offers a handful of nonprofit partners that can serve as entry points, but Ebrahimi also emphasized that peers like his own foundation and others already involved can be resources for the greater funding community.

In some cases, foundations relied on a trusted proxy to channel funds to where they were needed, as in the case of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. The South Dakota-based CDC has administrative capacity and philanthropic connections that allowed it to guide funds toward the movement.

Closing the Gap

Besides finding the right grantees, the logistical and cultural disconnect between the philanthropic world and organizers at Standing Rock posed a challenge. On a very basic level, the cell phone service and Internet connection were limited at the camp, meaning things like conference calls and email exchanges weren’t reliable. 

But foundations also tend to move on their own schedules, speak their own unusual languages, and require their own bureaucratic steps, which strain grantee capacity in such a challenging environment. Many involved are unfamiliar with the oddities of a grant proposal, and those who are, like Nick Tilsen of Thunder Valley CDC, were often among those organizing in the camp.

Another challenge is the limited understanding of Native culture, said Sarah Eagle Heart, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy.

“Native people, our worldviews have not been very understood by mainstream America. For the longest time, we have been told that our worldview is not valid and is not valuable,” she said. Her membership-based coalition of nonprofits and funders holds regular strategy calls and releases research reports and other resources to help philanthropy gain a better basic understanding of Native issues. That includes even explaining the concept that foundations can give to tribes, as they are treated like states for purposes of federal income, estate, and gift tax deductions for charitable contributions. But Eagle Heart also recommends foundation staff visit and learn about Native cultures firsthand. NAP, for example, held a funder tour in October that proved a meaningful experience for those involved, she said.

Ultimately, supporting movements like Standing Rock likely means challenging grantmaking norms, loosening up requirements, taking chances, and moving much faster than foundations may be accustomed to. But if anything, a lesson from Standing Rock is how important it is to lend such support, and what kind of impact it can yield. With pipeline fights alone, not to mention broader indigenous rights issues, and even equity fights like the Flint water crisis, Standing Rock is far from a one-off issue.

“That’s the real opportunity for funders to learn, here,” said Nickerson of the Solutions Project. “It’s how we get smarter about moving money into these really important moments and into communities that we don’t have traditional and longstanding relationships with.”