Intentional Relationship Building is Integral for Effective Philanthropy

Joseph Ironhawk Little

For Native-led nonprofits, the integrity with which funders build relationships and invest resources directly affects their ability to make community impact. The weight of this power dynamic between funder and nonprofit underscores the need for funders to address imbalanced relationships among philanthropic institutions and Native nonprofits and alter the fundamentals of Native philanthropy by promoting equitable and effective philanthropy in Native communities that fosters reciprocity.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) report (Overlooked (Part Two): Foundation Support for Native American Leaders and Communities) sought to better understand these relationships in the sector by addressing the question: how are Native American nonprofit leaders and communities overlooked by foundation funders?

In the report, a Native nonprofit leader shared, “You can’t assume that just because you’re meeting with two tribal communities, that they’re going to be exactly the same. There are 574 federally recognized tribes. There are unique, beautiful, amazing differences between those tribes.” This is just one example of why funders need to include Indigenous knowledge in the larger philanthropy ecosystem. Fostering a meaningful and intentional relationship with Native nonprofits requires both community and knowledge building. Another leader shared, “If you don’t understand the issue that you’re trying to impact, you’re not going to have very much impact.” This knowledge defines the reciprocal essence of Native philanthropy. For foundations to be effective drivers of impact, there is a need to create an informed grantmaking system where Native nonprofits are meaningfully engaged and consulted. To change the dynamic from overlooking to prioritizing Native-led nonprofits, foundations must approach relationship building holistically.

Foundations’ funding practices in support of Native-led nonprofits are another major contributing factor to changing this dynamic. Our sector must collectively work to increase funding by large U.S. foundations beyond the current 0.4 percent of philanthropic dollars directed to Native communities.[1] The distribution should meet the actual needs of Native communities while also investing in their tremendous opportunities and cultural strengths. In the report, CEP found that almost two-thirds of foundation leaders provide little or no grant dollars to organizations primarily serving Native American communities. With regard to funding in 2020, the report found that about two thirds of nonprofit leaders whose organizations primarily serve Native American communities reported that they did not receive new foundation funding.

We all must take the time to reflect and ask ourselves: why is this accepted in philanthropy as normalcy? As we witnessed during the early months of the pandemic, numerous Native communities and leaders needed immediate resources to provide support for community members experiencing significant challenges. Where the federal government and the philanthropic sector fell short, many community leaders raised their own resources by establishing GoFundMe campaigns and promoting them heavily across their communications platforms.[2] Major foundations should learn from these transparent and comprehensive community-led efforts as they reevaluate their own funding practices.

The CEP report included a significant call-to-action, asking funders to provide flexible, long-term support for Native-led nonprofits. We join them in calling on philanthropic institutions to apply this knowledge in practice and commit to building more meaningful relationships with Native-led nonprofits beyond just funder and grantee. Providing general operating support and unrestricted funding is one of the strongest ways a foundation can demonstrate trust and change the dynamic of these relationships.

The CEP report also demonstrates a lack of reflection by the philanthropic sector about how they approach their relationships with Native-led nonprofit organizations. Foundations need to commit to evaluating how they engage, consult, and fund Native-led nonprofits with more intentionality. It also requires assessment of how we collectively learn, value, and create change from research. The findings from this report are vital for creating informed engagement and funding agendas.

Power is an inherent and central part of philanthropic relationships. Funders have the power to support communities, but often wield it in harmful ways that focus on deficits instead of strengths and demonstrate mistrust of community leadership. On the other side, Native-led nonprofits have their own power derived from trusted networks and relationships, and a keen understanding of the solutions that work for their own people. As funders read this CEP report, they should reflect on the Native value of reciprocity. This power dynamic between funder and nonprofit does not need to be mutually exclusive to relationship building. Approaching funding practice and relationship-building with reciprocity as a value means a more thoughtful, intentional, and humble approach to power.

Spurred by grassroots movements and Native leadership in the philanthropic sector, we are now entering an exciting phase of philanthropy where foundations are being called to uphold their role as equitable stewards of their resources. As one of the most under-invested communities in the country, it’s crucial that foundations significantly prioritize Native people and their communities. In addition to the important recommendations in the CEP report, we call on foundation funders to evaluate their current funding practices and take strides to redefine their approach to Native philanthropy in the following ways:

  • Create an informed grantmaking system by consulting with Native communities to foster deeper relationships.
  • Build stronger relationships with Native-led nonprofits by providing support for general operating grants and unrestricted funds.
  • Uphold research as a vehicle for change by applying Indigenous knowledge in both funding practices and evaluation measures.

Joseph Ironhawk Little is the Data and Research Associate at Native Americans in Philanthropy, an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and Gabrieleno Tongva.

[1] Candid, & Native Americans in Philanthropy. Investing in Native Communities: Philanthropic Funding for Native American Communities and Causes. https://nativephilanthropy.candid.org/reports/investing-in-native-communities-philanthropic-funding-for-native-american-communities-and-causes/.

[2] Native Americans in Philanthropy. Indigenous Community Leadership in Response to COVID-19: A Call to Action for the Philanthropic Sector. https://nativephilanthropy.candid.org/reports/indigenous-community-leadership-in-response-to-covid-19-a-call-to-action-for-the-philanthropic-sector/.

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