How the Alaska Community Foundation Works to Advance Native Social Justice

An inuit Village in Alaska. PHOTO: Conchi Martinez/SHUTTERSTOCK

An inuit Village in Alaska. PHOTO: Conchi Martinez/SHUTTERSTOCK

The Alaska Community Foundation (ACF) funds a broad range of causes through 10 local affiliate funds, scholarships, and donor-advised funds. Its priorities include community and nonprofit development, the outdoors, children and education, health and wellness, and arts and culture. It also supports indigenous communities in the state with the highest percentage of Native American residents.

Earlier this year, ACF announced the first round of Alaska Native Social Justice Fund grantees. A total of 10 Native-led nonprofits received a portion of $140,000 to address social justice issues that specifically affect Alaska Natives. Programs relating to arts, energy, land use, youth, and women coming home after incarceration were selected.

While internationally-recognized events such as Standing Rock can trigger bursts of focused grantmaking, funding to Native American causes is actually very low. A 2011 report found that just 0.3 percent of total foundation giving went to this area. A 2018 report looking at community foundations in 10 key states found an average of 0.15 percent was directed for these purposes.

Despite high levels of poverty and other social and health struggles facing Native Americans, the disconnect between traditional philanthropy and these communities persists. This lack of understanding, trust, recognition, representation, and cooperation can be traced back to European colonization and its aftermath—a dynamic that has led some modern philanthropic thinkers to call for the contemporary decolonization of giving and wealth.


But the state of Alaska is a relative bright spot in philanthropy’s engagement with Native causes. More than 10 percent of community foundation dollars go to Native organizations and causes here—eight times more than any other state. The designation of certain funds specifically for Alaska Native communities, like the social justice fund ACF just launched, is one activity that sets Alaskan community foundations apart.

The 10 Alaska Native organizations who are the fund’s inaugural recipients each got a share of $140,000. Both programmatic and operational support were included. Support for the initiation and first two years of grants for this fund comes from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, a social justice and public health grantmaker known for progressive philanthropic strategies such as participatory grantmaking and weaving networks to advance movement building. Casey has backed other Native causes, such as the American Indian Association of Tucson’s social programs. The Alaska Native Social Justice Fund is considered a sister program to ACF’s Social Justice Fund for Alaska, which launched in 2015.

A total of 24 Alaska Native-led nonprofits, faith-based organizations, tribal governments and entities, and grassroots organizations applied for this opportunity at ACF. The two largest grants of the 10 were each $20,000. One went to the Alaska Legal Services Corporation for a pro bono training academy on child welfare training and support; the other grant went to the Tanana Chiefs Conference to increase “the Alaska Native voice in hunting and fishing management.” The other eight awards ranged from $10,000 to $15,000. Supported initiatives include Native hip-hop and organizing, women’s activism and re-entry programs, youth empowerment, and education for Bristol Bay residents about the Pebble Mine permitting process—a contested local project.

While the new awards may seem modest in dollar amounts, against the background of the general lack of funding for Native causes, they’re consequential. Even in Alaska, the relatively high 10 percent of related community funding is below the percentage of the Native population, which, as of 2017, was 15.3 percent for American Indian and Alaska Native alone and 1.4 percent for Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders alone. Also, 7.4 percent of the population identify as two or more races. So, every contribution in this direction counts, and there is plenty of room for more funding for these often-overlooked communities.

ACF has previously and does still support other Native well-being and cultural causes too, such as the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, the language revitalization efforts of the Clara Lee Memorial Fund for Preservation of the Inupiat Language and Culture, the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, the Alaska Native Cancer Foundation, and the Qutekcak Native Tribe.

It remains to be seen whether the Alaska Native Social Justice Fund will herald greater Native-focused investments from this 23-year-old organization, which has assets of $75 million and gave $4 million in 2017, as well as from the other community foundations across the U.S. that wield more than $76 billion in assets.