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PEAK Grantmaking

Building Equity for Native Communities in Philanthropy

Diversity, equity, and inclusion. DEI. We’ve increasingly seen these words and the acronym used in our sector, from plenary sessions at conferences to guides and research reports, all in the spirit of nudging funders and the field at large to pay more attention to who is in the room, who holds decision-making power, and who receives funding.

Funders leading the charge have been paying closer attention to the amount of investment going to communities of color, especially to groups that are less visible to the funding community, such as Indigenous, Latinx, and immigrant populations. What we don’t hear enough about is how foundations are shifting their DEI practices and policies. What does that evolution look like internally? What can DEI look like when your foundation doesn’t have a specific racial equity or population-specific program? And how do grants management processes and data factor in?

Earlier this year, Candid (formerly Foundation Center and GuideStar) partnered with Native Americans in Philanthropy to create Investing in Native Communities, a free, publicly-available website focused on philanthropic funding to Native American communities. This site has an interactive philanthropic funding map, news stories, social media feed, and research on funding related to Native Americans, as well as a historic timeline written from an Indigenous perspective. The site’s content was created in consultation with Indigenous program officers and foundation staff, who provided insights about what resources funders were looking for, and what questions they needed answered, in order to increase investment in Indian Country. These conversations illuminated innovative ways that funders, such as the Bush Foundation and the Calgary Foundation, were looking internally and evolving their practices to better support Indigenous communities.

Our conversations with the Bush Foundation highlighted the complexities of accurately coding grants data as they relate to demographic groups. In 2017, the foundation wanted to understand how much of its grantmaking, across all program areas, was intentionally going to Native communities. They dug in to years of data (going as far back as the 1970s!) and uncovered that the numbers didn’t always reflect reality. “For example,” says Carly Bad Heart Bull (Flandreau Santee Sioux), Native nations activities manager at the Bush Foundation, “Say we fund a school that checks all the boxes indicating that they serve every population group, but the school only has one or two Native students. Is this really an investment in Indian Country?” Even for a foundation with a strategic focus on Native communities, it can be challenging to unpack which of its grants serves Native Americans.

Taking a step back to review its own data and coding processes has been a learning journey for the Bush Foundation. “We’ve changed how we train staff in determining whether a grant is serving Indian Country,” reports Bad Heart Bull. “The reality is it is not easy or simple, but we can start by educating ourselves about the complexity.” The Bush Foundation published its findings from this process in the 2018 report, Native Nations Investments. As the foundation continues to evolve, it is using the findings from this research to improve how it tracks demographic information for all population groups and the processes by which it codes grants moving forward.

The Calgary Foundation’s journey has been a different one. Recognizing that simply increasing the number of grants allocated to Indigenous-focused projects wasn’t enough to facilitate deeper, lasting change, in 2017 the foundation hired Tim Fox (Blackfoot Confederacy), vice president of Indigenous relations, to help shift the organization’s culture from within. His mandate was broad but simple: “Teach us what we don’t know. Help us to see things differently.” Fox sees his role as being a “systems changer,” so his work is not just about making sure Indigenous initiatives get the funding they need to operate, but rather ensuring that the foundation grasps why systemic disadvantages exist in the first place and developing community-driven solutions. Instead of creating a separate granting stream for Indigenous projects and further silo-ing Indigenous needs and values, he works to embed practices and lessons learned across the organization.

“What is your foundation’s reason for being,” asks Eva Friesen, president and CEO of the Calgary Foundation. “Whatever the mission is, Indigenous peoples might be integral to it.”

These stories provide examples of how foundations are going beyond the surface of DEI work and creating a culture within their organizations where it is embedded in all aspects of their programs and grantmaking activities. Every foundation can take concrete steps to instill a culture of equity and inclusion and embed them in their processes.