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Helping Native Communities and Philanthropy Work Together

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In a conference room at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in November, two dozen people from organized philanthropy and nonprofit organizations serving Native Americans came together to talk about their work with Native Americans and what they could learn from each other and be more powerful working together.

Many in the room had spent years and decades working on health, literacy and social welfare issues for Native Americans. Others were new to the field and curious about what they could learn.

The meeting, one of a series taking place over the next few years, is the work of Native Americans in Philanthropy. Thanks to grants from Philanthropy Northwest and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the group is establishing Regional Action Networks. These networks will bring together Native Americans working in the social sector, foundations, and nonprofits who work on Native American issues. The ultimate goal is to improve grantmaking to Native American issues and build relationships among Native American tribes, urban Native American communities, and philanthropy.

These networks bring together a variety of stakeholders in Native American issues, evenly distributed between nonprofits  (Native and non-Native), funders of all kinds, and individuals interested in Native American issues.

Native Americans in Philanthropy Executive Director Carly Hare, a member of the D5 Coalition Leadership Team, stresses the value of a regional approach, as groups in different parts of the country face unique issues and have a different complement of organizations working on Native American issues, either locally, regionally or nationally.

“In New York, we see mainstream national funders and the heads of urban [Native American] organizations, while in New Mexico attendees were from a Native services organization and regional foundations,” Hare says.

The first meeting in each region focuses on listening and relationship building. During the Chicago meeting, participants spent the first hour sharing their own work and roles, as well as their own perspectives on philanthropy.

Several participants from organizations serving Native Americans stressed the importance of considering their cultural heritage in developing programs or strategies.

“We are a strong people,” said one participant. “We are not a poor people needing handouts. We are a very proud people who stay true to our culture and traditions.”

They also stressed the need to understand the Native American experience in America as unique from other ethnic or immigrant groups. In the case of Native Americans the relationship is between nations and based on interpretations of treaties.

“We know that everyone that comes to the table holds some piece of wisdom or practice that can be shared,” Hare said. “We’ve been successful building good working one-to-one relationships. We want to make sure we can talk about wisdom across foundations and our communities. How do we elevate this dialogue so it’s not one-to-one, but a network of individuals ultimately working together?”

After a presentation from Hare about Native Americans in Philanthropy, the deeper discussions began. People broke into smaller groups, so they could have more concrete discussions about the issues they see and deal with in their work. After an hour of conversation, the groups reported out and made plans for future meetings.

The response so far to the regional meetings, Hare says, has been positive. “I’ve heard great appreciation that this space [for dialogue and networking] is beginning to exist more routinely and more intentionally.”

In 2012, Native Americans in Philanthropy will take the stories and feedback they’ve gathered and start to develop plans tailored to the work of each region.


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