Philanthropy411, in partnership with the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Aleesha Towns-Bain, a Program Associate at the Rasmuson Foundation in Anchorage, Alaska.

By: Aleesha Towns-Bain



So begins the Lakota story of the Sun Boy, shared by American Indian College Fund president Richard Williams. With those words, Williams also marked the beginning of three days of intense and fruitful discussions at the 5th Annual Native Philanthropy Institute, hosted by Native Americans in Philanthropy in Denver this week.

As many people already know, Native Americans and Alaska Natives face extraordinary challenges to access funding through the nation’s foundations. Of the $5.4 billion in grant awards made in the United States, less than one percent is targeted toward Native American/ Alaska Native communities-and even less of those funds go directly to Native organizations. The Native Philanthropy Institute represents an unique opportunity for funders, Native philanthropy representatives and others to join together to discuss how to make real change in this area.

In the three days at the conference, here were some of my key takeaways.

Solutions will come from Native people

As the late Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller believed, the best way to restore Native pride was to allow people to accomplish things for themselves, within their own communities. This requires a special kind of leadership, one that Mankiller, who passed away on April 6, 2010, exemplified. In a touching tribute to Mankiller, Native Americans in Philanthropy executive director Joy Persall pointed to one of the first examples of this community-in-action model in Bell, Oklahoma. A community that is 95 percent Cherokee, Bell residents took community improvements into their own hands, installing 16 miles of water line to the town and providing the first running water to many homes. (Check out a great short film on this project here:

The story of Bell and many others shared by funders is that the answers to improving lives and work in Indian Country will be found in Indian Country. Over and over again at the Native Philanthropy Institute, Native leaders and grantmakers said we must trust Tribal and Native organizations to come up with solutions for themselves–and then accept ways of doing that may not align to typical ways of doing business for Western-based organizations. Several Native American leaders pointed out that foundation and governmental funding can come with restrictions that are designed to be helpful, but end up representing an attempt to acculturate native organizations to a Western system of working.

Change will be based in relationships

Another recognition is that meaningful change will happen gradually and over time. The best place to start, as Washington State House Rep. John McCoy suggested to gathered funders, is by asking Native American/ Alaska Native tribes how can Foundations best serve them–and to keep asking. It’s through relationships, patience, persistence that we will build a mutual respect to begin working together.

The Archibald Bush Foundation has taken this relationship building to a new level. Based on research conducted by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, the Bush Foundation is acting on the precept that nation-building is the only way to improve lives in Indian Country. In a multi-year commitment, June Noronha shared the Foundation’s decision to support the self-determination of the 23 sovereign Native nations by building partnerships, providing tribes with training and tools to develop as nations, and facilitating partnerships and alliances between the nations and other governments. June said that a key piece of the work is only moving as quickly as each community is ready to do–and recognizing that their work will be continuous and tribal governments change.

An end is not a failure

Another young Native American grantmaker caught my attention with her words on program development. She believes that the end of programs doesn’t always represent a failure but may be a natural death. Programs, she reasoned, aren’t meant to be permanent but are part of the ebb and flow of life–they are reflective of what’s happening in a community at a given moment, and those priorities can change. We shouldn’t make judgements based on these natural flows.

We all have a responsibility to act

Finally, I’d like to share the words of Marguerite Casey Foundation Program Officer Alice Ito, who joined with Native Americans in Philanthropy at the Institute. She called for recognition that we all must deepen our understanding of issues outside our own communities and suggested that the United States has built inequities into our systems. In her speech, she said the traumas of indigenous and minority people are not accidental–they are the building blocks of a system that is unjust. She quoted American poet and activist Audre Lorde in reminding us that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

To me, Ito’s call is the best reminder that lasting change will be found not in dominant, mainstream tools but in the solutions of communities. And I will only hear those solutions by following the words of Richard Williams, “Listen…Listen!”

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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