Building Indigenous Power in Philanthropy
We are in transformative, revolutionary times
We’ve seen the research. The fraction of philanthropic support that reaches Indian Country and Indigenous-led organizations has remained largely unchanged for decades, while institutional philanthropy has come to rely heavily on non-Indigenous-led organizations or intermediaries to carry out their priorities and strategies. But when priorities and strategies don’t emerge from the community and are implanted from the outside, we can find that philanthropic institutions are advancing their own interests while remaining comfortably distant from (and only loosely accountable to) Indigenous Peoples and communities, forgoing any deeper understanding of or respect for tribal sovereignty. Indeed, many philanthropists consider the matter “too complex,” an inadequate and unserious approach, especially when compared to the multitude of federal and philanthropic regulations that must be navigated by Indigenous Peoples and tribes working to develop their communities.
Over the years, I’ve worked within and across the nonprofit, tribal and philanthropic arenas. I’ve been a paid staff or consultant for foundations both large and small. I’ve served on countless Native American advisory boards. All of this has been valuable work. It has been important work. Yet the operative word here is “advisory.” These boards are the place and opportunity to advise predominantly Euro-American-led institution(s) on how to best serve Indigenous Peoples. These roles typically fall short of sharing actual decision-making power, or of assuming the role of board member or senior leader.
Most nonprofit development, fund development, and fundraising curricula espouse diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in nonprofit boards, but while donors often use DEI as a lens to assess best practices among nonprofit organizations, that doesn’t mean they turn the same lens on their own institutions and practices. Similarly, conventional nonprofit and fund development training encourages the presence and inclusion of financial expertise and wealth on boards of directors, which often implies the seating of a non-Indigenous ally who then shares decision-making. Non-Indigenous allies then share decision-making power over how Indigenous communities are served, resourced or impacted.
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