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The Changing Face of Philanthropy

This past June I was watching a virtual conference session and heard someone say there is only one Native person on a private foundation board. Interesting I thought!  I knew it to be untrue because 1) I serve on a private foundation board with 11 other Native people – and 2) I know a number of other Native people who currently serve on private foundation boards.  This led me to do a very quick research project over the next week to find as many Native people on private foundation boards as I could.  I was moderating a panel at the RES 2021 Summit in July – the Changing Face of Philanthropy:  Native people and Native foundations, and it would be useful information.

In that study, which was not exhaustive in any sense, I found 28 Native people serving on 13 private foundation boards.  I also identified nine Native people serving on the boards of seven community foundations.  And five Native people currently serve as the CEO or Executive Director of either a private foundation or community foundation.  WOW!  Definitely more than one Native person!  I focused this effort on private and community foundations and on the boards to show that there are a growing number of Native people in these philanthropic leadership positions.  Are there enough?  Absolutely not.  Should there be more?  Absolutely. Is change happening fast enough?  Change never happens fast enough.

Johnson Scholarship Foundation Board of Directors and staff

I have 40 plus years of working in Indian Country and 35 years of working with philanthropy to look back on to see that change has occurred. When I went to my first Council on Foundations conference in the late 1980s – as a presenter – there was nary a person of color representing a foundation board and only a handful of staff.  That was the birth of Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) which sought to increase the number of Native people in the field and to bring attention to the amount of philanthropic funding going to Native causes and organizations.  I was asked to join my first private foundation board in 1993, the Hitachi Foundation, one of three I’ve served on over the past 28 years, including currently, the Johnson Scholarship Foundation since 2006, and the Native American Agriculture Fund, since it was launched in 2018 as the largest Native private foundation.

Where real change is occurring is in Native non-profits raising funds from foundations, corporations and other donors to re-grant to Native causes and organizations.  In my little research project I identified 11 Native funds, starting as far back as 1977 up to the present day.  I’m sure there are more of these as well.  This doesn’t include the “community foundations” or “funds” set up by tribes from enterprise funds or other sources of revenue, or the Alaska Native Corporation Scholarship Foundations funded by corporate revenues, or the Native scholarship organizations, or those set up specifically about philanthropy like NAP and Native Ways Federation.  Just think of the growing cadre of Native people serving on these boards and as staff who are adding significantly to expertise in Native philanthropy.

I’ve been in conversations recently with others about this being a “moment in time” for change.  From the social unrest of 2020 and growing attention to equity, diversity and inclusion in both the public and private sector, change is happening faster, opportunities and doors are opening in more places, and more resources are available for social justice.   Will this continue?  It should and it must.  It will continue to change the face of philanthropy.


Sherry Salway Black is Vice Chair of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation Board of Directors.

Three Reasons Why a Native MBA is About More Than Business

profile photo of young womanBusiness skills are certainly essential in any good business degree experience, but they alone will not create meaningful social and environmental change or provide greater economic opportunity.  Only when students possess a strong network of support, a sense of what works, and an appreciation of what doesn’t can they be powerful leaders of change.  Here are some examples:

A shared “best-practice” environment. A universal truth of our experience working with members of more than two dozen tribal communities in the Gonzaga University MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship program is that there is no universal “tribal” identity.  Every tribe has its own governance structure, its own resource opportunities, its own leadership, and its own ways to doing things.  One of the most important elements of the Gonzaga MBA-AIE experience has been and continues to be the opportunity to learn how their colleagues in other tribal organizations get things done – how they move change, how they identify opportunities, how they build coalitions, and how they examine and explain results.

Tcloseup of calculator, paper clips and peno enable compassion and common understanding of challenges. Just as our program provides a pulpit for students to explore and understand what is working, similar value is found in understanding when well-meaning organizations are heading in the wrong direction.  The challenges facing tribal communities are vast, often relying on resources that are unavailable, expertise that can be difficult to muster, and a history that promotes a pessimistic outlook.  Our students benefit from the opportunity to share where things went wrong, and in doing so understand that while sometimes it might be better everywhere else, sometimes it’s not.  They learn that we all face the same challenges, challenges that call for broader intervention with policy, structure, education.

people wearing graduation caps and gownsTo create community. While a great deal of what we do in the classroom focuses on providing tools and applications, an essential byproduct of that experience is the development of a community of learners dedicated to themselves and each other.  Our 60-plus alumni stay in touch with each other – particularly with their cohorts, with whom they spend two years learning skills and gaining knowledge alongside one another.  Given the systemic nature of the problems faced by many native communities and the vast human and financial resources needed to fix them, relationships are important. One of the most powerful tools our students possess is the ability to call a friend and colleague who understands their challenge, knows their abilities, and can recommend action.

Over the past fifteen years, nearly 75 students have taken part in the Gonzaga University MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship.  This program, originally created to provide opportunities to business educators in native communities and tribal colleges, has adapted over the years to focus on one of the most pressing challenges in Indian Country – the development of empowered individuals who seek change and possess the technical skills to make change sustainable and meaningful.

closeup of a 2017 graduation cap and tasselOurs is not the only program to focus specifically on the challenges facing tribal communities and native populations, and in the current environment of higher education where every degree and program must justify its unique contribution to the educational landscape, it is appropriate to ask the question why we need “native” MBA programs.  We need them because they help students and businesses thrive in Indigenous communities.