Why Aren’t Community Foundations Supporting Native American Causes?

A Navajo reservation in New Mexico.  Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

A Navajo reservation in New Mexico.  Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

The Standing Rock Sioux’s 2016 resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline was a national eye opener to the great need, and great grassroots power, in Native American communities. While we’ve covered some bright spots of funding in the aftermath, there remains a huge gap when it comes to philanthropic support for work in Indian country. 

The latest report on this disconnect, published by the First Nations Development Institute, looks at funding from community foundations in 10 key states, and finds that on average, 0.15 percent of their total giving goes to Native American causes and organizations annually. In each of these states, that figure was far lower than the percentage of Native Americans in the state population, and even more off-balance when considering poverty levels among the demographic. 

There are two important takeaways, here. First, just because a state has a large Native American population doesn’t mean funding follows. Second, national foundations often pass on such giving with the reasoning that there are community funders filling the gaps. That’s not happening. 

Moreover, it underscores a historic disconnect between the philanthropic sector and Native American communities, despite huge needs and exciting nonprofit work happening there. The report, from First Nations Development Institute, complements a 2011 report showing that just 0.3 percent of total foundation giving went to Native American causes, and only 10 funders accounted for nearly three-fifths of that support. 


Around 2 percent of the overall U.S. population is American Indian or Alaska Native, and reservations suffer some of the harshest economic and health problems in the nation, with more than a quarter living in poverty. In a number of the states included in this report, both of those figures are notably higher. For example: 

  • In Arizona, Native people make up 6 percent of the population, 33 percent of which are below the poverty line, but receive 0.72 percent of community foundation dollars. 
  • In Oklahoma, Native communities make up 13 percent of the state, but receive only 0.04 percent of community foundation giving. 
  • California, an enormous engine of community philanthropy, devotes just 0.02 percent (that’s two-hundredths of a percent) to Native American causes. 

This kind of marginalization may not come as a surprise to many, but what, exactly, is going on here? 

The authors point out a few factors, such as a common perception that Native American populations are “small and insignificant” (even when regional numbers show otherwise). There may also be incorrect assumptions about organizational capacity of potential grantees, or a lack of knowledge about the nonprofit sector in Native American communities, which has been significant since the 1970s. Funders may also be unaware that charitable organizations can support tribal government programs. 

While the report points out that some community foundations are taking steps to better reflect the diversity of their communities, there may also be a disconnect in the nature of community foundations and their donor-designated funds: “The funding goals of these donor-designated funds may have reflected the racial, cultural and economic makeup of their funders, and for the most part, Native American communities were not represented in these funds.”

Indeed, one bright spot in the report is Alaska, where more than 10 percent of community foundation dollars go to Native organizations and causes, eight times more than any other. A couple of things that set them apart are the designation of certain funds specifically for Alaska Native communities, guided by Native individuals serving on funding steering committees. These foundations’ boards are also more inclusive of Alaska Native individuals and people who have experience working directly with Native communities. 

In other words, when foundation decision-makers better reflect the full makeup of these communities, funding naturally follows. 

That strikes me as a big part of the problem. Foundations are not merely failing to divvy up funds proportionally, they’re likely failing to recognize Native people as an integral part of their communities, inseparably connected to a region’s ability to thrive.

There’s also the matter of philanthropic aversion to risk, or to straying from a certain beaten path of well-known nonprofits, institutions and procedures. On the other end of that relationship, potential grantees that have less historical interaction with the philanthropic sector are no doubt quickly disheartened by its rigidity and peculiar rituals. And don’t forget philanthropy’s blind spot for rural areas, which is also likely a factor.

That’s why community foundations are so important in this context—their proximity can close the gaps that arise from philanthropy’s stubborn tendencies.  

The report issues some advice for correcting the problem, such as being willing to listen and learn from Native communities; including them in their missions, core values and teams; including Native nonprofits in convenings; and turning to state, regional or national Native American organizations for help. 

However they tackle the gap, it’s important that they do. Community foundations are key players in philanthropy, holding more than $76 billion in assets in 2016, and uniquely situated to help their regions be successful and equitable. That’s an unattainable goal if they don’t get it right with Native American communities.