“A seat at the table” is one of those phrases the social sector often throws around without really considering its implications — or even, really, considering the concreteness of the table itself and the people around it. That’s why the origin story of Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) is so important to Erik Stegman, NAP’s Executive Director. The story takes place at a literal table, and it zeroes in on a fundamental challenge Native communities have always faced when it comes to their engagement with philanthropy: the question of visibility.
“We were founded at a Council on Foundations meeting back in 1989, by a small group of AAPI (Asian-American and Pacific Islanders) and Native people who could barely fill a table,” Stegman says. “They got together and said, ‘We’re sick of philanthropy using our small numbers to justify severe under-investments in who we are. We’re always invisible in the data, always the asterisks.’”
In the context of philanthropy, this invisibility is particularly troubling because, as NAP’s website puts it, “Native peoples are the first philanthropists, but Native people remain invisible.” That statement is compelling partly because, by staking a claim to the very invention of philanthropy, it challenges us to rethink not only the inception of philanthropy’s theory and practice but also, perhaps, our essential perception of it as well. If philanthropy’s originators are invisible to us, what does that say about its current place in our society — and by extension, about our society as a whole? This question was the natural starting point for Adapt’s interview with Stegman.
The line, “Native peoples are the first philanthropists,” seems almost intended as a provocation. Whether it was or wasn’t, it certainly invites us to question what we think about the roots of philanthropy.
I think it seems provocative to people because philanthropy is about as Western and white as it gets. It’s such a Western construct that it’s hard to understand anything outside of it, especially in the United States. America is built on a model of extremely extracted capitalism where we just go and gobble up resources and hold as much wealth as possible. And then it’s up to individuals to decide if they want to spread some of that wealth out through philanthropy. A lot of those philanthropic vehicles are not exactly just for the dollars that are given out; they’re for the philanthropists themselves.
So when we say Native people are the first philanthropists, the statement can be confusing to some people because it’s not rooted in extractive capitalism. It’s really meant to help the field understand that if we’re all trying to do good, we have to constantly have a conversation about values. Indigenous peoples are diverse and have all sorts of different ways that we interact with each other and steward our lands and our cultures and our communities. But one of our biggest shared values is reciprocity. And there are so many different ways in which tribes and indigenous people around the world don’t think: “I have wealth and I need to give it to you for some purpose.” There’s a cultural understanding that we share resources and that we’re all here to steward things together. And oftentimes that means moving resources around in the community. Whether you’re looking at a potlatch or any number of cultural ceremonies that have to do with resource sharing, that’s our view of philanthropy.
The most important thing I always share with people about why I think we need more Native people working in this sector is that we’re interconnected around indigenous cultural systems. So our power that we bring to the sector in my opinion, is how we relate to each other. We know this work and we bring that value of reciprocity to this work. So we’re trying to really help a very Western institution, which is never going to change overnight, make much more dramatic shifts by bringing our value systems to the table.
There’s a vogue in contemporary philanthropy for social entrepreneurship and innovation: a fixation on new solutions, new ways of thinking about this, that, or the other thing. Yet NAP emphasizes that tribes have had ways of doing things since antiquity that they’re still doing successfully, from protecting the environment to preserving strong cultures. Can you speak to the tension between asking philanthropy to respect older traditions and the social sector’s obsession with innovation?
I would start by saying that one of the most important values indigenous people everywhere bring to the table is the value of intergenerational knowledge and cultural systems. I used to run the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute and did leadership development work with youth leaders all over the country. One of the most important parts of that youth leadership was ensuring the role of elders in their lives and culture-bearing and knowledge. The Western non-Native world is so hyper-focused — sadly, I think — on disruption and innovation. It just casts those knowledge and cultural systems aside. When non-Native people go to a tribal community, they often have trouble understanding the networks of kinship. Kids get brought up by the community. They’ll be at one auntie’s house one day and some uncle’s house another day and then back at mom and dad’s. That’s our natural reciprocity with each other. So we really don’t fit well into that narrative around innovation and disruption. When funders frame those kinds of investments, I think it can sometimes come off in a way that can alienate and disrespect members of the community.
I try to help funders who are interested in social entrepreneurship and innovation think differently about what they’re innovating. For instance, Native culture camps across the country are a pretty under-invested resource. Those culture camps are really an effort to do all sorts of things that are about reconnecting young people with their culture, their elders, their traditional ways. But when I talk to them, I hear stories like, “Oh, we have a new agreement with the tribal court where we are putting a lot more young people into culture camps as a diversion program instead of putting them through the juvenile process at the tribal court system.” Well, this is pretty innovative — but it’s innovative because it’s grounded in going back to who we were supposed to be. So I think the innovation for us is about ways we can rebuild our cultural and knowledge systems to better support our communities and really let them thrive. Reconnecting the different generations with our culture: that was when we were thriving at our best. And the more we get ourselves back to those ways, that’s where we do offer “innovation” — if we have to put it in that bucket.
Another pressing concern of philanthropy these days is how to accurately measure impact. Given the smallness of Native communities relative to urban populations, how are you making the case that “impact” doesn’t have to equal “numbers”?
We do a lot of work in the rural space to try to help funders better understand what impact looks like in rural communities, which include many, many tribal communities, obviously. One of the strongest cases when it comes to the “small population” question is that when you invest a lot into those communities, which have these tight networks, bonds, and economies, the impact is in the leadership. And that has much broader implications when it comes to how we look at measurement for a small community [versus] what you’d have at scale in a city. Having one really strong leader in a school in a rural community impacts a wide area of rural America. It’s not about the numbers but the quality of resources, communities and leaders that you’re bringing into those areas so that they can really be change makers. And you’re doing that in a way that they can continue to grow those economies in those small population areas that are the engines for all sorts of important things in this country that are very much at scale: agricultural communities, land stewardship, and protection when it comes to climate and conservation needs. There’s all these other impacts that are out there that really have to start with the individual leaders and people who are in those communities.
Another [impact issue] is the larger tribal side of things. I think one of the biggest pieces that funders don’t look at when it comes to rural tribal communities, particularly if we’re looking at tribal nations and reservations, is that we have a lot of legal and political power. And so when you’re investing in tribal enterprise out in a rural area, [often] the tribe is the biggest employer in the region, and they’re also oftentimes the biggest land managers in the area. They’re often helping co-manage forest fire prevention. [Funders are] not honoring the unique contributions that tribal governments bring to the table.
And the last piece I’ll say [about impact] is that philanthropy is very bad at understanding the power of culture. When you fund a Native language immersion school for a small number of kids, the impact moving forward on everything from childhood development to the ability of those tribes to continue their culture, which is a protective factor for their communities, is huge. But it’s a long-term investment. So we’re really trying to have conversations with regional funders to turn the idea of scale on its head and to reassess how we look at scale. But that has to start with those who are closest. So we’re talking to rural funders, tribal communities, and rural nonprofits to get a sense of what they see that needs to be part of a new evaluation framework that we can start pushing with funders.
And once you get that sense of what tribes really need, how can NAP communicate that effectively to philanthropists?
Too many people have no real point of reference for who Native people are. Unfortunately, a lot of people might be relying on what they got in their middle school textbook. If we’re lucky, they might know some Native people, but they certainly don’t understand the unique cultural, political, and legal powers that we bring to the table, or the diversity of our communities.
Changing the narrative is a fundamental part of our work. I’ve worked at tribal law policy my whole life, and across the board in philanthropy policy. Our lack of opportunity has always been grounded in deficit narratives. We’re constantly having to battle out of this poverty narrative about everything wrong with Native people: our suicide rates, our story of being taken off our lands, alcoholism, you name it. But that’s beginning to shift. We had these movements like Standing Rock and others that kind of awoke a broader public conscious about who contemporary Native people are. And then we saw this racial reckoning really starting to evolve during the pandemic. And we’re starting to get to a point now where the conversations I’ve been having in philanthropy — with those who are really committed to who we are — are all about opportunity. They’re all about cultural strength. Funders are trying to understand us for who we actually are so they can invest in the solutions that our communities are developing. And they’re not asking for a statement of need, which has always been the way philanthropy has approached us.
So that’s what really excites me about the future. For us, narrative change is about making sure that we’re getting the diversity of stories out there about who NAP represents, because we have a lot of stakeholders. We’ve just launched a new Tribal Nations initiative, because we don’t have our tribes at the table. We have hundreds and hundreds of tribes and elected tribal leadership, and many of those tribes are doing their own philanthropy, but we have no platform for them to come and strategically engage with the sector. If you look at how tribes are raising resources for, say, their early childhood programs, or for all sorts of things that philanthropy comes to me about, they’re very used to writing federal grants. They know that philanthropy’s out there, but they don’t really understand how it works. So there’s a lot of translation and education that needs to happen for tribes and for funders. We’re lucky if we get them to really understand who Native people are, but when you get into the complexities of tribal governments and the US nation-to-nation relationship, which is actually very important to understand if you’re going to fund our communities, that’s another layer of engagement and education.
And so we’re doing a lot of work to develop those tools, like Native 101, for funders. It’s resetting the table in a way that tribes can come to the table and understand it. But it’s also so that philanthropy can come to our table, where the priorities are set by us and by where we need to go when it comes to funding opportunities.
And when you say that priorities are set by us, who’s the “us”?
The tribes and native people. I think the biggest part of our work is working closely with all of these funders who have lots of different issue areas and priorities that they’re trying to fund, and making sure that we’re identifying the connection with what tribes’ priorities are and not trying to ask tribes or Native people or Native nonprofits to cram what they’re doing into what a funder wants. It’s very much a sort of a translation project that we have to do on a daily basis to make sure that those are meaningful relationships.
How is philanthropy changing from your point of view? And how should it be changing?
One of the broadest things that we all call on philanthropy to do is to just write checks. And the easiest way for mainstream philanthropy to do that is to give an unrestricted grant, a general operating grant, to whoever they’ve deemed is doing good work. There’s trust behind that. And when you put all these restrictions on grants, every restriction is a form of questioning the relationship, and it’s not reciprocal. Now we’re seeing a lot more unrestricted funding. And so we’re really trying to take that very basic thing that brings a lot of us together as advocates and philanthropy — general operating support — as an opportunity to ask, well, what, what else do we have to say about how to build trust in the field? How are funders doing more to build meaningful relationships? What’s the role of intermediaries like us in this? It’s up to us to hold the sector accountable, to see how much further we can help it progress.
What caused the shift toward general operating support?
It took a pandemic for a very large part of the philanthropic sector to finally change. I like to think about it as [similar to] what happened with how employers look at offices. We all knew for a long time that the way office spaces were structured was not working for people in general, and that a lot of things needed to change for employers around flexibility. And it took a pandemic to shake the whole thing up. Sure enough, we’re seeing that employers are having to do things very differently than they would’ve ever done incrementally.
And I look at the same thing happening with philanthropy. During the pandemic, [NAP] operated like air traffic control for all these Native-led response funds that were emerging all over the country, and trying to connect funders with them. And funders were all just giving unrestricted funds. In a lot of cases, they were actually taking restricted grants and converting them into unrestricted grants, which especially allowed small organizations to give their communities disaster relief, because they’re the trusted community resources. And so a lot of what we’re trying to say now is, why can’t [general operating support] be your standard practice?
What other shifts have you seen?
We do quite a bit of work now with funders in the biodiversity and conservation space, and the M.O. for a lot of those funders was always about locking up as much land as possible: pristine wilderness, penguins and bison, with no people on the land; and enforcing easements that are driven by white-led NGOs and nonprofits. It was, quite frankly, a white supremacist way of doing things.
That is really shifting now because of political forces. We have our first Secretary of the Interior who’s a Native woman. We have movements that have awakened the broader environmental movement. People are realizing how messed up all the other ways that we’ve been trying to do this environmental work [have been]. And what’s happening is they’re starting to see that some of the best fisheries management in the whole country is through intertribal fish commissions, and some of the best fire protection has to do with tribal fire departments that are using traditional methods they’ve been using since time immemorial. And that’s where we’re able to bring ourselves back to a more holistic place in this work. I’m excited to see a number of different spaces where philanthropy needed to be shaken up and understand how the strategies they’ve been using just aren’t working. Native people bring a certain kind of deep knowledge to the table. That’s finally being respected.
From the perspective of Native and tribal communities, what’s the best role philanthropy can play in the future?
The ideal future of philanthropy is no philanthropy. Not as we know it. American philanthropy has done some form of reparative investment work. They’ve acknowledged where their wealth comes from, how that’s connected to the stealing of land and resources from Native people. Those resources have finally been invested in a significant way to ensure true self-sustainability for tribes. There are a lot of amazing organizations and tribal leaders and others who are finding ways to ensure that resources that are coming to them currently from the private sector. Our treaty relationships with the federal government are also going to help us do that. It’s really about our own self-determination, not about us having to make a case about our problems and asking for money for them. I’m always working toward that north star: How do we not have to rely on philanthropy in the future?