Yet, organized philanthropy appears to have relatively little engagement in Indian Country: National research indicates that less than half of one percent of all foundation dollars are directed specifically to Native people.
Recognizing this disconnect, Philanthropy Northwest set out in 2006 to promote more philanthropic engagement in Indian Country. Its recently released report, Lessons for Philanthropy: A Journey Into Indian Country (PDF), reflects on seven lessons learned while engaging more deeply with Native Nations:
- Listen first. Martin Jennings, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, program officer at Northwest Area Foundation, observes that “funders too often focus on deficits or problems. Their thinking needs to shift to asset-based approaches that build on local cultural values, Tribal assets, and knowledge that exists in Indian Country.” Philanthropy should first seek to strengthen its understanding of, and appreciation for, Indian Country.
- Cultural identity matters. Cultural traditions are fundamental to improving – and then maintaining – Native peoples’ well-being. For example, Dr. Martina Whelshula, Arrow Lakes, executive director of the Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations, how ceremonies and cultural practices powerfully transform youth in her organization’s treatment program for chemically dependent teenagers.
- Honor native voices. The 21st-century world relies on reports, contracts, email, and predominantly impersonal business transactions. In contrast, Native people place a high value on long-standing personal relationships and oral communication. Philanthropic organizations must be prepared to invest time and energy in authentic conversations with potential Native partners.
- Learn from mistakes. Grantmakers interested in Indian Country may have a fear of failure. Consider viewing potential failure differently: Mistakes will be made, but funders who proceed with honesty, clarity and respect for the land and people will find loyal partners in Indian Country.
- Recognize the importance of storytelling. To build relationships between traditional philanthropists and Native leaders, Philanthropy Northwest held a series of small-group conversations. These discussions allowed adequate time for people to get to know each other, and they led to more honest and unstructured conversations between grantmakers and grant recipients.
- Build true partnerships. Breaking down walls between grantmakers and grantseekers is certainly difficult, but it is not impossible. Seek out proven strategies for building new and deeper relationships.
- Take the long view. Working successfully in Indian Country requires long-term engagement. Investing in organizations that train leaders, build community and encourage new political alliances can build the capacity of Native people to chart their own destiny.
Ultimately, Philanthropy Northwest recognizes that funders will make a bigger contribution to life in Indian Country if they listen to and learn from their Native partners.
Join the conversation: Do you have any best practices that have helped you collaborate successfully with grantees of diverse backgrounds? What lessons from Indian Country may also be applied to other communities?
Several recent publications explore foundation engagement with Native Nations:
- Foundation Center, Foundation Funding for Native American Issues and Peoples 2011
- Minnesota Council on Foundations, Working Towards Diversity IV, 2011
- Philanthropy Northwest, Giving to Indian Country: Trends in Northwest Giving 2010
-Anne Bauers, MCF research manager