The commitment challenges us to do more to support Native-led groups and call out the need for a better, more equitable future.

2021 is the tenth straight year in which the Foundation has honored a unique commitment to changemakers in Native American communities: Each year, we award at least 40 percent of our new grants and program-related investments to Native-led organizations.

This intensive commitment to Indian Country is at the heart of our funding approach. It’s a vibrant expression of our values. It’s the leading edge of our determination to be a force for racial and economic justice in our region and the nation. And it’s a commitment to building locally controlled assets in Native communities.

As 2021 unfolds, I want to share with you what this journey has meant for us as a philanthropic organization and lift up insights we’ve gleaned from the Native grantee partners whose trust we’ve tried to earn.

“This intensive commitment to Indian Country is at the heart of our funding approach. . . . And it’s a commitment to building locally controlled assets in Native communities.”

Curiosity about our funding for Native-led groups usually boils down to four questions.

Over the years, this commitment has sparked plenty of surprise and curiosity in foundation circles. The four questions I get most often about it are: 

What do you mean, “40 percent to Indian Country”?
• Why do that?
• How do you do that?
What have you learned?  

I’ll share my thoughts on each of these four questions in a series of blogs—one per blog, beginning with this one—as we approach the 10-year milestone.

I’m hopeful that other funders might find their way onto this under-traveled pathway. At a time when our entire field is being called to give more, to think differently, and to push more forcefully for a better world in which racial justice is a reality, this is a story worth exploring.

What do we mean, “40 percent to Indian Country”?

We decided we could and would make a commitment of 40 percent of each year’s grant dollars to Indian Country back in 2011. Here’s a little bit of the backstory.

When I arrived at the Foundation, it was already a point of pride in our organization that in the preceding decade, we had devoted 30 percent of our giving to Native-led organizations. In 2011, we decided to take it up a notch.

We chose to be even more intentional about this core commitment and to make it a public pledge. Our board and staff alike embraced the idea without hesitation. It’s a cliché in foundations that the board is always a brake on the aspirations of the staff, but not in our case. They were with us on this from day one. 

We also were explicit that we aren’t talking about grants to non-Native organizations to help Native communities, or to study Native communities. We mean grants to organizations led by Native people, governed by Native people, and serving Native communities in self-determined ways.

“It’s a cliché in foundations that the board is always a brake on the aspirations of the staff, but not in our case. They were with us on this from day one.”

This commitment evolved from the Foundation’s previous decade of work. In that era, we helped establish the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, an independent, Native-led institution. We also provided long-term funding to community-driven anti-poverty strategies in three Native nations: the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and Lummi Nation.

We learned an enormous amount from these multiyear partnerships and also from our relationships with other Native grantees working on economic justice, including community development financial institutions (CDFIs), microenterprise development programs, and Indian Business Alliances.

We came to understand that our Native partners had the wisdom, passion, and expertise to develop solutions to the most pressing challenges they faced. We also learned that patience and flexibility are essential in confronting barriers to prosperity that have been centuries in the making.

Most importantly, we learned that showing up as committed allies, willing and able to stay the course through thick and thin, is a must. All of these lessons served us well as we prepared to go deeper.

“Most importantly, we learned that showing up as committed allies, willing and able to stay the course through thick and thin, is a must.”

The 40 percent represents a goal to keep digging deeper.

We made this 40 percent commitment public in 2012, and we have hit the mark each year since. To be clear, there is no magic to 40 percent. It was simply a major step up from our previous 30 percent.

It was a way of pushing our thinking. Intensifying our commitment. Being even more intentional about centering Native communities in our approach.

In a sense, it was also a deliberate counterpoint to our field’s tendency to obsess over planning, analysis, and measurement, as if those of us lucky enough to work in philanthropy were scientists in white lab coats and communities were experimental subjects.

I prefer to view us as learners, not experts. Allies, not experimenters. And relationship builders, not benefactors.

We knew that intensifying this commitment would force us to build new relationships with Native organizations and make sure Indian Country was central across every part of our funding strategy. It kept us going deeper. And it has made us a better and more impactful organization.

“We knew that intensifying this commitment would force us to build new relationships with Native organizations and make sure Indian Country was central across every part of our funding strategy.”

And, importantly, Native-led work is about justice and meaning.

Focusing on this topic throughout 2021 is worthwhile because the commitment is such a defining characteristic of the Foundation and—more importantly—because Native communities continue to be dismissed, undervalued, and under-resourced by much of organized philanthropy.

The most recent research on this topic by First Nations Development Institute shows that less than one-third of one percent of foundation dollars nationwide are granted to Native-led organizations.

Our sector’s very purpose is to invest in a better future. But we’re failing to do so when Native communities, which have been fighting centuries of injustice, receive such a thin slice of the philanthropic pie. You might even say we’re complicit in the injustice when we fail to find ways to support them more.

When we interact with the Native-led organizations and Native leaders we know, we see Innovators. Changemakers. Culture bearers. Shapers of a self-determined future. Too often, the narrative dwells on deficits and trauma. But we see so much strength.

We’re determined to disrupt the pattern of avoidance and underinvestment. And I’m eager to spread the word about how funding Native-led groups has led to some of the most meaningful work I’ve been a part of during more than a quarter century in the foundation field.

Author

Kevin

Kevin Walker

President and CEO, Northwest Area Foundation

Kevin spearheads the Foundation’s efforts to shape a future in which all people and communities in its region can thrive on their own terms and live free of poverty. Under his leadership, the Foundation has sharpened its focus on asset building in a set of priority communities: Native Americans, communities of color, immigrants, refugees, and people in rural areas. Read more about Kevin.

Contact Kevin’s office.

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