Native Voices Rising: Critical Leadership in Institutional Philanthropy

Native Voices Rising: Critical Leadership in Institutional Philanthropy

Earlier this year, I received news that Valorie Johnson, a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, was planning to retire. As one of the few Native Americans working at a foundation, I celebrated her many accomplishments in the philanthropic sector. But I also grieved the impending loss of one the few Native influencers in philanthropy.

Why are there so few of us working in philanthropy? Who's addressing the issue? And, most importantly, why is the inclusion of Native voices so critical to effective philanthropic leadership?

A recent article in the Nonprofit Quarterly described philanthropy's disappointing attempts at diversity: "[N]either the numbers in terms of diversity of staffing and governance nor the dynamics of this landscape has changed much since 2008. The pipeline is still not working to move people of color into philanthropy, or to move women and people of color up in hierarchies, as quickly as white men…."

Philanthropy has invested millions of dollars in various initiatives to increase diversity in the field, including the D5 Coalition, a five-year effort to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the philanthropic sector. Eighteen affinity groups and organizations, including Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP), founded the coalition in 2010, and while there has been progress in tracking much-needed data and advocating for increased Native representation in philanthropy, a significant amount of work remains to be done.

It's true that the small number of Native Americans working at foundations is related to the broader barriers to diversity in the field. But I would like to offer a few additional insights for your consideration:

  • When foundations seek to diversify their staffs, they often look to hire talent from the populations that benefit from their funding. Very few foundations focus their giving on Native American populations, so hiring Native staff may not be seen as a priority.
  • Native Americans are still dogged by stereotypes and myths. For example, some of you might be thinking: "Wow! I didn't know Edgar was Native American. Does he live on a reservation?" A foundation leader even confessed to me her fear of hiring Natives because she believed Natives were incapable of getting along with members of other minority groups.
  • Philanthropy is hardly a new concept for Native communities, many of which embrace a culture of reciprocity (as opposed to professionalized giving). As a result, Natives may not seek out foundation jobs. And many Natives prioritize working within our own tribes or communities instead of large, mainstream, and mostly white-led organizations.
  • Institutional philanthropy for the most part is the product of affluent white men, some of whom earned their wealth through business practices and/or policies that were harmful to Native populations. The lasting impact of colonization has resulted in the majority of Native families in the United States living in dire poverty far from the ivory towers of philanthropy.

The ugly cycle of philanthropic divestment has been compounded by the lack of Native representation in the field, which only serves to exacerbate the lack of understanding between foundations and the communities they aim to support.

Despite these disparities, I'm excited about the inclusion of Native voices in philanthropy and the growing availability of philanthropic resources to support funders, as well as efforts to increase Native representation in the leadership pipeline.

Thanks in part to the good work of Native Americans in Philanthropy, there is a growing awareness among funders of the significant disparity in support for Native communities. We know, for example, that an abysmal 0.3 percent of all foundation funding is directed to organizations that work on behalf of Native American communities. NAP also has been an invaluable resource in terms of convening funders on key issues, as it will be again this week during its 11th Annual Philanthropy Institute, a three-day conference that brings together Native and non-Native philanthropists, funders, tribal, and nonprofit leaders to discuss opportunities to support and advance Native causes.

Others are actively working to improve the funding landscape as well. Native Voices Rising is a grantmaking collaborative jointly led by the Common Counsel Foundation and Native Americans in Philanthropy that supports organizing, advocacy, and civic engagement activities involving American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian populations. In addition to producing research on the state of Native-led organizing, the collaborative has developed one of the best grantmaking mechanisms for funders interested in investing in Native-led organizations led by decision makers from Native communities.

So, yes, it's true that a growing number of us can be found in the sector actively working to increase funding for Native communities. However, this work can be improved, across the board, if other leaders in the sector put aside preconceived notions about Native people and instead celebrate and embrace the values shared by Native communities and traditional philanthropy. Investments in diversifying philanthropic leadership are imperative not only for the health and well-being of Natives communities going forward – but for our idea of America as a place that provides opportunities for all.

Edgar Villanueva is vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter @VillanuevaEdgar.