First Nations Development Institute: A Powerhouse for Data on Philanthropic Giving

At his desk at the First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), President and CEO Michael Roberts has posted this quote: "The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world." 

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For Roberts, that observation from Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer is at the heart of three new First Nations research publications that he says "all circle around the same story: the invisibility of the Native American people." To confront and transform that reality "means changing the narrative," he adds. "To do it, we needed a deep understanding of what the public thinks of Indian people."

Reclaiming Native Truth, published in June, is a comprehensive research effort designed to learn how different groups of Americans perceive Native Americans and the issues facing Native communities. The findings constitute a lot of data on dominant myths and negative stereotypes, who holds those views, and their impact on policy.

·       "The most persistent and toxic negative narrative" – that Native Americans are flush with casino cash and enjoy government benefits not available to other ethnic groups – "can undermine relationships with other communities of color."

·       Bias is more prevalent among people who live in greater proximity to Native Americans – in part because much of Indian Country is located within rural parts of the U.S. that are more politically conservative.

·       Native American contributions to American culture are recognized and respected. "Even in the context of deficit frames," the survey found, positive associations emerged around Indian family ties, spirituality, and commitment to the environment and land conservation — values often seen as missing in American society.

A key – and unsurprising – finding is that, as Roberts puts it, "white people didn't understand, have interaction with, or know an Indian." What's notable, however, is that many of those surveyed were aware of their ignorance and saw it as an indictment of K-12 education in the U.S. "The good news," Reclaiming Native Truth reports, "is that when people are exposed to accurate facts about Native American history and contemporary life, they believe the information, feel cheated that they didn’t learn it in school, and quickly become more open to a new narrative." 

The research for Reclaiming Native Truth includes a review of existing public opinion surveys and other literature ­– and there wasn't much of that to be found. "This was primary-data gathering that had not been done before," Roberts notes. "Hopefully, this will serve as a cornerstone for a lot of work."



Growing Inequity: Large Foundation Giving to Native American Organizations and Causes is a 42-page examination of grants made and dollars given – and by whom, for what, and where – from 2006 to 2014. Published earlier this year with support from the Fund for Shared Insight, the report concludes that giving "is concentrated in the portfolios of a small number of funders." Roberts puts it more pointedly: "The very institutions that say they are investing in social and racial equity change" are scarcely to be found in supporting that work in Native American communities.

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And existing support has been falling off:

·       The decline has been particularly steep among the largest U.S. foundations – by 60 percent, on average.

·       The dollar average awarded annually from large foundations was about $92 million, but the trend was down 29 percent – from $119 million in 2006 to $84 million in 2014.

·       The majority of grant dollars and large multiyear grants went to non-Native-controlled nonprofits.

·       Grants awarded to Native American organizations and causes have increased, but fewer dollars are being spread among them.

·       While support is emerging from new foundations, their resources are a fraction those of controlled by established funders.

Why are only 23/100th of 1 percent of philanthropic funds awarded to nonprofits led by Native Americans ­­­– who represent 2 percent of the population and are among those communities of greatest need? We Need to Change How We Think: Perspectives on Philanthropy's Underfunding of Native Communities and Causes, produced by First Nations with Frontline Solutions and published in July, supplies those figures, calls out underlying reasons for the lack of support, and suggests some new approaches for both funders and Native-led nonprofits.

Interviews with more than three dozen leaders at Native-led nonprofits, their funders, and their nonfunders found that even foundations that do support Native American organizations often fail to recognize Native diversity and geographic distinctions – a lack of knowledge that, for example, can lead to the exclusion of many Native communities from funders' urban strategies.

Researchers discovered that often, "foundations that focus on areas that are directly aligned with Native community needs — education, health disparities, environmental preservation, and asset-building — still claim that Native issues are beyond their areas of focus." And the perceived cost of site visits to relatively remote reservations creates another barrier to initiatives from larger funders – a deficit that community foundations, ironically, are often ill-suited to address given the biases entrenched in many rural areas nearer to Indian Country. 

Roberts notes that We Need to Change How We Think surfaces the K-12 failures also cited by respondents surveyed for Reclaiming Native Truth. "Most astonishing to us was that these same myths and prejudices and biases found in the general public were held by people in philanthropy," he says. "We were a bit stunned."

Jessica Barron, a consultant with Frontline Solutions, notes that "the role of institutional culture as a barrier to funding was discussed very broadly by all groups. For many of the nonfunders, their perceived biggest barrier to funding Indian Country is the racial makeup of their boards and leadership," she says. "And having a predominantly white staff leaves little room for disrupting any bias in the conceptualization of Native communities."

"American Indian people suffer from racism by exclusion," Roberts says. "Many larger foundations, the first thing they tell you is, 'This is not about numbers. This is about impact.' But when we come looking for funding, the first thing we hear is, 'This is a numbers game and you're not big enough to count.'  So, what that's saying is 5 million Indians don't count. Indian kids don't count. It's making a value judgment on Indian people – that 'some lives matter less.'"

Without new approaches, Barron observes, "no matter how you slice it, the numbers will always work against Native communities."

But Barron also notes that "in nearly every interview with non-funders, respondents mentioned the assumed role of embarrassment and guilt in the underfunding of Native communities throughout philanthropy. One respondent told us, 'what do people do when they are embarrassed? They turn away from it.'"

Non-funders were much more explicit than funders "in discussing whiteness, white institutional racism, and white supremacy," she adds. "They were much more upfront about whiteness serving as the primary barrier to funding Native causes. And nonfunders spoke specifically about understanding how their organizations have been set up to exclude Native folks from the beginning, and how that may have prevented philanthropies from being more proactive in Native communities."


We Need to Change How We Think shares a number of insights into what foundations can do to establish deeper relationships and create meaningful support for Native American communities:

·       An investment of 1% of giving from most foundations would have a significant impact on Native American communities – and alleviate corrosive and wasteful competition among Native-led nonprofits for philanthropic dollars.

·       Diversity, equity, and inclusion work should expand to include grantmaking to Native American communities, and metrics for outcomes must factor in the centuries of oppression at the root of many Native issues and needs.

·       Three entry points for support, cited by current funders, are "inherited" relationships through foundations with a history of funding Native American causes, relationships brokered through intermediary groups, and site visits. 


And the ultimate use for this year's "arsenal of data" from First Nations and its research partners?

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"To arm Indian people and organizations and communities with the tools to enter conversations," Roberts says, "to make them better at telling their stories." In order to move forward into more and deeper relationships with organized philanthropy, he says, "we need to arm Indian people to get halfway there."

First Nations is an exception to the rule that its recent research has underscored. Roberts points to a "wonderful constellation of projects" funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Fund for Shared Insight, and others. "The Kellogg Foundation has long understood that Indian folks have not shown up in a lot of programming," he says, and that the social and economic disparities experienced by Native American communities "usually put us at the very bottom in educational attainment, health outcomes, economic opportunity – you name it." The Kellogg Foundation, he adds, has been "a good player" in bringing funding to Native people and causes.

Roberts notes that FNDI was launched, in 1980, with a $25,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. "We were one of the early organizations in Indian Country to look to private philanthropy, and we enjoy a very good relationship with philanthropy as a result," he says. "And we see it as part of our role that we should be building those bridges between philanthropy and the rest of Indian Country – and when that doesn't work, stand on a soapbox and scream as loud as we can. You can be more honest with your friends than with people you don't know."