Grantees & Grantmaking, Strategic Approach | November 3, 2021

How to Give to Native Communities? It’s About Good Grantmaking and Partnership.

By Kevin Walker     President and CEO, NWAF

This is the third blog in a yearlong series that explores the Foundation’s commitment to provide 40 percent of its grant dollars to Native-led groups.

We’re deeply committed to funding organizations led by and for Native people. We’ve made this commitment because of where our assets came from and the connection to our values and our mission. In this blog, I want to get into how we fulfill this commitment.

That’s actually a question I get all the time. People often react as if I’m saying we devote 40 percent of our giving to programs on Mars! I’m joking, but only a little. 

When we open our eyes, we see that innovative and impactful Native-led work is everywhere around us.

The data tells us that of all philanthropic funding since 2006 by large US foundations, only 0.4 percent on average is directed to Native communities—just the tiniest bit more than goes to communities on Mars.

I think it’s fair to say that most foundations lack the relationships, context, and confidence they would need to change this woeful funding picture. The very small number of Native program officers, foundation executives, and board members is part of that problem, of course. But our experience over many years has been that the way to find innovative, experienced, community-centered Native grantees is to look for them.

In the eight-state region we serve, there are 76 federally recognized Native nations, numerous other tribes struggling to gain or regain that recognition, and significant urban Native populations in the Twin Cities, Seattle, Portland, Rapid City, and other metros large and small.

And I would argue that no matter what issue area a foundation focuses on, there are proven and promising Native nonprofits and tribal programs whose vitally important work needs support.

Simply learning to see Native people and Native communities—who are all too often rendered invisible in the broader culture—is key. But it’s just the beginning.

Centering Native communities helps open our eyes, but really it’s just good grantmaking practice.

For us, the key to answering “How do you do that?” lies in our approach. It relates to the deeper question of how to engage in a good way—a respectful and sustainable way.

I’ve found that a lot of principles that we might all agree constitute good philanthropy become even more urgent and important when we’re trying to engage with Native communities and Native-led organizations.

We’ve built our approach based on principles like these—all of which I learned from the Native American program officers, foundation executives, and board members I’ve had the good fortune to work with:

What we’ve learned about being better grantmakers and partners to Native communities.

SHOW UP AND BUILD THE RELATIONSHIP. Meeting potential Native partners where they are is essential. It’s the necessary first step in shifting the power imbalance between a wealthy foundation and communities that are often under resourced.

This may mean spending a few days in a reservation community even if you’ve never been to one before. Or finding the Native nonprofits and Native-owned businesses in your city or county and making some connections there.

It could mean touring a tribal college or a tribe’s resort/casino enterprise. It could mean attending a tribal council meeting to introduce yourself and listen. It could mean attending a convening like a Native Americans in Philanthropy conference or the annual Strengthening the Circle gathering.

But start somewhere. Show up. Then show up again. It’s the clearest and simplest way to demonstrate good intent and a willingness to engage.

LISTEN BEFORE YOU TALK. Because we have access to needed resources, people tend to listen when we talk. It’s extremely important that we understand this dynamic and use our ears more than our mouths. Every good foundation professional knows this basic rule of the road.

But I think it becomes even more important in Indian Country. That’s partly because humility is a deeply held value in almost every Native community I’ve visited. And distrust of outsiders with fixed ideas about what to do runs very deep, for reasons that have accumulated over centuries.

So listen. Then listen some more. Then some more. And when you do respond, be genuinely responsive to what you heard, not prescriptive based on what you already knew.

HONOR PEOPLE’S EXPERTISE, VALUES, AND LIVED EXPERIENCE. As in any other community in which you’re interested in being of service, it’s true in Indian Country that the lived experience and cultural wisdom of the people are the most important forms of expertise.

Your would-be partners have that expertise; you don’t, unless you’re a member of their community.

Everything you choose to do as a funder should flow from respect for your grantees’ worldview, their community knowledge, and their vision for the future.

SEE THE ASSETS IN THE COMMUNITY AND IN THE PEOPLE. When our team looks at Native communities, we see a wealth of cultural wisdom and expertise that spans multiple generations. But a funder who looks at a Native community through a deficit lens is almost guaranteed to miss these strengths.

Notice that when Native people and communities show up in the mainstream media at all, the story is almost always about the negatives. Grantseekers will often lead with the bad stuff as well, on the assumption that money can be shaken free if the “statement of need” is vivid enough. But we’ve learned to see much more than needs, gaps, and trauma.

We see a rising generation of free-thinking, innovative young people who are ready and able to shake up old systems of oppression..

We see that ancient ideas are proving to have immense appeal today, like cooperative ownership and food sovereignty and land stewardship.

We see Native entrepreneurs building a Native-owned private sector economy.

We see resourceful nonprofits that deliver value for their communities against stiff odds.

And we also see in Indian Country a deep understanding of what philanthropy is supposed to be all about. Native traditions of giving are profound and vibrant, and pre-date by centuries the establishment of the first US foundations.

DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU’RE GOING TO DO. This principle sounds so obvious! But nothing is more important. Be scrupulous with your word and clear about your commitments.

Don’t overpromise. Don’t under deliver. Otherwise, foundations simply reinforce the pattern of false promises, broken treaties, and bad faith that Native people have encountered from US authorities for generations.

We can and must do better. We have an opportunity to build relationships based on trust and transparency that prove to Native communities that funders can be reliable partners.

GIVE, DON’T TAKE. Again, this one sounds like a no-brainer. We’re funders—we give, we don’t take, right? But philanthropy at its worst can be downright extractive.

Doing better means partnering with Native communities in ways that enhance their data sovereignty, instead of taking data from them for our own evaluation purposes.

It means keeping application and reporting requirements practical and purposeful.

And it means prioritizing the needs of grantees, not our own needs, in designing whatever convenings or other activities we might organize.

These are good practices for all philanthropic relationships. But in the unique context of Indian country, respecting grantee partners by giving and being sure you’re not extracting is even more important.

Acting on our commitment is, really, just good relationship building.

So, that’s my answer to the frequently asked question: How do you do this? It’s an ongoing process of listening, learning, and changing.

But to be clear, that’s how we do it when we’re at our best. Like everyone else, we sometimes fall short. We sometimes fail.

But we learn from our mistakes. We apologize when we’re wrong, and we try to repair any damage we’ve done. Then we keep going.



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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