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.
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.