Helping Philanthropy Understand and Connect With Native American Communities

A Standing Rock protest photo: arindambanerjee/shutterstock

A Standing Rock protest photo: arindambanerjee/shutterstock

Native peoples and their issues, cultures and histories are frequently overlooked or misunderstood in American discourse. Philanthropy is no exception—one study from 2011 (even research on the topic is limited) found that just 0.3 percent of total foundation giving went to Native American causes. 

Most of that funding also comes from a pretty small band of foundations. Now, a few of those funders are pooling money to create an online tool, a partnership of Native Americans in Philanthropy and the Foundation Center, to help more funders understand and connect with Native people and causes.

The project, receiving more than $250,000 in support, seeks to close a historic disconnect between philanthropy and Native American communities, despite huge needs and a lot of inspiring work happening there. As we reported previously, research has shown that even community foundations, which are perhaps in the best position to support often significant Native American populations, are similarly failing to fund them

There are a lot of factors behind this neglect, stemming from colonialism, harmful federal policies, and racism explicit and implicit. When it comes to philanthropy, those factors certainly are in the mix, along with foundations’ tendencies toward well-worn paths and blind spots for unfamiliarity, as we see in rural areas. A lot of institutional funders are simply out of touch when it comes to these parts of the country. The Standing Rock showdown in 2016 brought nearly unprecedented attention to Native issues, drawing in a number of backers. But it did little to erase the deeper cultural and institutional disconnects around the way philanthropy often operates.

The new Native-centered web portal that’s currently under development will attempt to close some of that gap in understanding. It's being led by a team staff and consultants from Foundation Center and Native Americans in Philanthropy—a membership-based organization of Native and non-Native nonprofits, tribal communities, foundations, and community leaders, led by award-winning CEO Sarah Eagle Heart. It will also be guided by an advisory committee of Native leaders and funders. 

"The multi-content web portal will provide a critical and visible educational component for the sector regarding Native issues, with the goal of highlighting and correcting the invisibility of Native people across key social issues and within philanthropy," the announcement states. The idea is to bring Native issues further into mainstream philanthropic discussion and encourage greater funding, as well as to serve as a tool for those making grants in Native communities. 

The three initial backers include the Bush Foundation, a Midwestern foundation supporting a mix of community work, with a strong commitment to Native nations in the region. The Henry Luce Foundation is a unique funder supporting arts, higher ed, public policy and more, including for programs promoting knowledge about philanthropy. The Northwest Area Foundation is similar to Bush, a regional foundation that places a strong emphasis on the Native nations there—40 percent of its funding goes toward Native-led organizations. These are some of the major funders supporting Native causes, along with Christensen Fund, Kellogg Foundation, and Common Counsel.

Hopefully, this portal will be a move toward building stronger connections, not just among these foundations that really get it and have for years, but for those that work in fields from the environment to public health, where Native American communities are integral and often overlooked. Not only do these communities have tremendous needs and vulnerability across several issues important to the philanthropic sector, but highly innovative work and powerful organizing is also happening there, particularly work led by youth and women. 

As Eagle Heart says in the project’s announcement, “Native philanthropy matters not only to Native peoples or a small niche of foundations, but to society as a whole.”