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Philanthropy’s Role in Reinforcing Settler Colonialism

Date: February 1, 2022

Raymond Foxworth

Vice President – Grantmaking, Development & Communications, First Nations Development Institute

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The new Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) report, Overlooked (Part Two): Foundation Support for Native American Leaders and Communities, sheds further light on the experiences of Native American nonprofit leaders when it comes to their interactions with funders across the U.S. It documents that Native Americans continue to be overwhelmingly invisible, report less positive interactions and relationships with their current foundation funders (compared to nonprofit leaders of other races/ethnicities), and are under-supported by an overwhelming majority of foundations throughout the country.

From the perspective of Native nonprofit leaders these findings are not necessarily new. The negative interactions between Native nonprofit leaders — and Native communities at large — and philanthropy is a function of a settler colonial system that ignores and minimizes Native American people, communities, and their sovereign priorities. Unfortunately, the negative experiences of Native nonprofit leaders have been consistent features of philanthropy despite their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) journeys and their recent attempts to support justice movements across the U.S.

Acknowledging Where We Are Now

In this vein, when I am asked to comment on DEI efforts as they relate to philanthropy and Indian Country, I always begin by noting that DEI in philanthropy has been a huge failure by almost all empirical indicators available to the sector to measure success. Foundations have not welcomed more Native people into staff positions or onto boards (they remain predominantly white), and they have not significantly supported Native people through giving portfolios — the lack of support is especially true for Native-led nonprofits across the country. These are longstanding empirical facts of our sector.

The CEP report documents that even during the global pandemic that exposed longstanding inequalities in Native communities, most Native nonprofits did not receive new funding in 2020. This itself is an abhorrent finding, given that Native communities experienced the highest rates of infection and death from the virus, and greater levels of economic stress during the virus. Even for those of us who were fortunate enough to receive new foundation dollars in 2020, the typical message from foundations was to consider the new grant a “one-time investment.” In other words: we are not necessarily looking to build long-term relationships or partnerships with Native nonprofits.

The new CEP report should be required reading by everyone in philanthropy. In reading this report, readers should remember that there are actual people and real experiences behind these survey responses. The majority of these leaders have been harmed, traumatized, hurt, and aggressed in their interactions with people in philanthropy. Readers should also keep in mind that these experiences are not gender neutral because we know that the majority of Native nonprofits are led by Native women. Finally, readers should note that the comments from CEP’s qualitative interviews with Native nonprofit leaders only begin to scratch the surface of documenting Native nonprofit leaders’ experiences with philanthropy.

In reading the CEP report, I was reminded of a 2019 article authored by Trish Moquino, who is Cochiti and Ohkay Owhinge and founder of Keres Children’s Learning Center, a Native-led education nonprofit located in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. In reflecting on her experiences in trying to create relationships with funders, she noted, “We often feel ashamed and traumatized for thinking that our community goals to heal and thrive on our own terms do not match nicely with the broader goals of philanthropy (or people in philanthropy).” In her article she reminds us that the vast amount of wealth accumulated by philanthropy has a past rooted in community disruption, including the colonial disruption of Native communities. She rightfully suggests that until we begin to unpack and have honest conversations about this history, matched with meaningful action, philanthropy will continue to perpetuate their histories of abuse, harm, and dismissal of Native people, communities, and priorities.

Building a Better Future

Beyond understanding the current negative experiences of Native nonprofit leaders in philanthropy, the ultimate goal of CEP’s report is to consider how Native nonprofit leaders and philanthropy can create more positive, respectful, and Indigenous-centered relationships. In this vein, the report offers some suggestions for foundations: listen to learn, not respond; do your homework; visit Native communities; hire Native staff; provide long-term and flexible support to Native-led organizations, among other suggestions included in the report.

Moreover, what is needed for the sector is a radical transformation in how they view the history of economic and political development in this country. The sector needs to acknowledge that the United States is a settler colonial country and recognize that still today Indigenous peoples must fight for survival under conditions of settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is a phenomenon that erases, trivializes and dismisses Indigenous history, current existence, and realities. Until we meaningfully come to grips with this reality of the U.S., we will continue acts of colonial aggression that harm Indigenous peoples and communities. This includes perpetuating harmful practices that dismiss the innovation, resilience, and perseverance, shaped by Indigenous cultures, languages, and practices, that have sustained Indigenous peoples since time immemorial.

In sum, philanthropic leaders need to critically reflect on how we create a better world where individuals in philanthropy are authentically partnering with and actively supporting Native nonprofit leaders and their self-determined goals and priorities. Key to this liberatory work must be acknowledging and actively supporting the inherent rights of Native peoples in the U.S. — that includes their sovereign, linguistic, cultural and land rights.

Raymond Foxworth is vice president, grantmaking, development & communications at First Nations Development Institute. Find him on LinkedIn and follow First Nations Development Institute on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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