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A Call to Action: Increasing Philanthropic Support for Native Communities During COVID-19

As the Indigenous people of this country, we are all too familiar with the challenges of facing a public health crisis like COVID-19 (novel coronavirus). However, this current crisis is at a scale we haven’t seen in recent history, and it is already having deep impacts on and potentially catastrophic results for our communities. Native Ways Federation, an organization comprised of seven national non-profits led by and serving Native people through the United States, along with multiple other Native non-profits across the country, are calling upon the philanthropic community to support both Tribes and Native non-profits as they work diligently to meet the needs of our communities in rural and urban settings.

When faced with adversity, Native people have always demonstrated and continue to show incredible strength and resilience. Our values, focused on relationships, caring for others – especially our youth and our elders, and caring for our earth have helped us to endure as culturally distinct societies of Indigenous peoples. Yet, massive barriers to equity exist in our communities resulting in higher incidences of chronic illness, inter-generational trauma causing dire health consequences, homelessness, poverty, food and water insecurity, unemployment and a vast digital divide. Many of our people live in small remote communities or reservations with limited access to medical care, water, and supplies. Unfortunately, these issues are not new in our communities, but they are being exacerbated as we navigate both the short and long-term impacts of this new pandemic and our ability to respond appropriately.

Following are some ways funders can help Tribal nations, communities, and people during the COVID-19 crisis.

Support Tribal Governments and Native Non-profits

Tribal governments need your support. They provide critical roles and services in this country that are unique to their nations and that no one else provides. Yet, despite being considered tax exempt organizations under IRS guidelines, many foundations won’t fund Tribal governments. Unlike state and other local governments, our Tribal nations do not have the ability to tax their citizens, yet they are often the only, or one of a few, service providers in small, remote communities. They rely on other sources of revenue, such as gaming, the hospitality industry, and tourism – all of which are impacted by this pandemic – to give them the ability to provide services to their citizens (from housing to healthcare and more). While some Tribal businesses have been successful, this is not the case throughout Indian Country. A minimal amount of funds are allocated in a recent economic stimulus package from the federal government to support Tribal nations; however, the amount set aside is not enough to meet the unique needs of all of our Native Nations and their rural and urban citizens.

Native non-profit organizations are the “social safety nets” for their communities when local, state and federal governments are not able to adequately meet all their needs. With missions dedicated to supporting education, language and cultural revitalization, health, child-welfare, domestic abuse programming, economic development, food and water sovereignty, and many other areas of critical importance, our Native non-profits provide key services throughout communities. These organizations providing vital needs are being forced to adapt in ways that they never could have imagined would be necessary. Almost all have had to cancel major events and fundraisers, adapt programming as well as operations (including working from home), and some have already had to start making the heartbreaking decision to lay off staff or cut programming.

In order to continue providing their essential services, especially during this time of crisis, Tribal governments and Native non-profits need continued and additional funding.

Foundations: Increase Your Funding to Tribes and Native-led Organizations

Foundations need to prioritize communities that are the most vulnerable during this pandemic and this includes Native communities. Even before COVID-19, less than .4% of philanthropic dollars were going to support Native communities. The percentage distributed to Native-led organizations was even lower. Additionally, many foundations have historically limited their overall payouts to the minimum amount required by the IRS – just 5% of the value of their net investment assets – even though this is the minimum, not maximum, requirement. THIS NEEDS TO CHANGE. Foundations can give more, and there is no more urgent time than now to reconsider these practices. We need to continue pushing for additional philanthropic support in Native communities, especially to Tribes and Native-led organizations, as we are those most connected to their communities with the best knowledge of how to most effectively respond to their unique needs.

If you are a foundation or philanthropic leader, contact us and we can help you develop and implement ideas to ensure that our communities are included in your current and future investment strategies.

Remove Restrictions on Current Grants and Provide General Operating Support

The kind of funding foundations and corporate donors provide organizations also matters. Research has documented that grants awarded to Native communities are typically restricted and general operating support remains a critical area of need – especially now. With unrestricted funding, Native communities can direct (or redirect) funds to critical areas needed to support their organizations and communities. If you have a current grant, be it federal, state, private, or any other category of financial support such as sponsorship for a specific event or gathering or a donation to a specific fundraiser for a Tribe or Native non-profit, give them the flexibility to convert that grant or funding in to general operating support so they can make the best decision possible to accomplish their work. This not only supports them at a critical moment, it also supports self-determination, which amplifies their ability to best provide and protect their communities.

Be a Good Relative

We call upon the philanthropic community to respond to this crisis as good relatives, while ensuring that we come together to help those who need it the most. As Native non-profits and Tribal governments, we have the solutions to support our communities – including during this COVID-19 pandemic. However, to effectively implement those solutions we need allies who work with us to maintain existing services and, most importantly, provide additional resources. The inequities in our tribal communities are being amplified during this time of crisis, and it will only be through increased support that we will be able to fully address them and move forward. The actions we take today, will impact our future generations. They are depending on us.

Wopida tanka (with immense gratitude),

Native Ways Federation
American Indian College Fund (College Fund)
American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES)
Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA)
First Nations Development Institute (FNDI)
National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA)
Native American Rights Fund (NARF)
Running Strong for American Indian Youth (Running Strong)
First Alaskans Institute
California Indian Basketweavers’ Association
Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation
Native Peoples Action
Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA)
‘Āina Momona
Friends of the Akwesasne Freedom School
The Hopi Foundation
Tiwahe Foundation
American Indian Association of Illinois
Vision Maker Media
First Peoples Fund
Hope Nation
Lincoln Indian Center, Inc.

Carly Bad Heart Bull

Executive Director,
Native Ways Federation

Our Mission

The mission of the NWF is three-fold: (1) strengthen the circle of giving by uniting Native organizations to raise awareness and support for the communities we serve; (2) better serve Native communities by becoming more effective Native nonprofit organizations; and (3) ensure that nonprofit organizations working on behalf of Native communities observe the highest levels of ethical standards and fiscal responsibility. NWF is unique in that it is the only federation in the country directly serving Native nonprofits that assist Native peoples and communities in Indian Country. NWF is based on the idea that the challenges facing Indian Country demand that nonprofits serving this population hold themselves accountable to the highest standards.