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What Philanthropy Can Learn from Indigenous Organizing During a Crisis

January 25, 2021 | 5 min read

What Philanthropy Can Learn from Indigenous Organizing During a Crisis

The following is adapted from our “Indigenous Community Leadership in Response to COVID-19: A Call to Action for the Philanthropic Sectorreport. 

Data and numbers can point to important lessons for philanthropy, however, the voices of Indigenous leaders and stakeholders are vital if philanthropy is to improve its impact and its practices in Indigenous communities.

Although no two communities are alike, the devastating impacts of COVID-19 continue to illuminate similar needed resources in rural, urban, and on/off reservation communities.  

Our report highlights discussions from Indigenous leaders about how they quickly pivoted their work to raise, organize, and distribute resources to their communities. Indigenous leaders on the frontlines, in both the nonprofit and private sectors, led with their cultural values to support their communities.  

To better understand the wide range of Indigenous-led efforts and their approach to meeting their community needs during the COVID-19 crisis, we interviewed community leaders from these perspectives:  

  • Relatives, Relations, and Support Networks 
  • Food Systems  
  • Urban Centers and Communities  
  • Youth Leadership  
  • Entrepreneurship and Small Business  


Interview with Krystal Curley (Navajo) of Indigenous Life Ways 

Are there existing gaps in support systems for your work?  

"The technology gap is one of the biggest challenges we experience. We, and our network, need support for accessing resource information. Thankfully, our partners continue to support us by helping find grants and different funding opportunities within their networks. If it isn’t for partners like this, we couldn’t have managed our efforts while we are on the ground coordinating and distributing resources."  



Interview with Valerie Segrest (Muckleshoot) of the Native American Agricultural Fund 

How can philanthropy practices better support food systems in Indigenous communities?  

"I think about how to solve all these issues: the environment, the banks, the financial system, the food systems, health systems, and trying to figure out the economics of it all. And then I remember, if we can fix it in Indian Country, we can fix it anywhere. What is at risk here in the sector? The people philanthropy could reach, and the pivots that the sector could make to grassroots efforts, are dependent on people with the pulse of their community needs.  

I hope to see philanthropy support something [responsive], where we're building infrastructure and not just a response to a fire being put out. How are investments in sustainable food systems feeding people during a time of crisis, and into the future as well? We are inspired to get to know the grassroots efforts and be involved in supporting this movement in our communities."


Interview with Janeen Comenote (Quinault, Oglala Lakota, Hesquiaht and Kwakiutl First Nations) of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition  

How can the philanthropic sector better support the work of urban Indigenous centers?  

"There’s a two-pronged answer. Philanthropy needs to (1) increase their payouts to more than 5% (increase to 10-15% in my estimation) and (2) they should be doing grants that help those on the ground who need it. This should be done by providing general support grants to urban Indian organizations because they understand community needs best from their frontline efforts. Additional roles of philanthropy are to get centers the immediate help they need and help our sector better operate at the policy level. Tribes received funding from federal efforts while urban centers received nothing while these centers provide services to many.   

This is where policy advocacy is important in the long term. It is vital to ensure that urban centers are included in policy discussions so that measures and resources that follow do not ignore our communities. Philanthropy can help us work on things that policies cannot address or implement, like new initiatives to help centers build sustainability."



Interview with Shandiin Herrera (Navajo) of the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund

Are there existing gaps in support for Indigenous youth in philanthropy practices?  

"The first part in this discussion of existing gaps and challenges that must be considered are Native youths’ tremendous responsibilities in their personal lives and families. As an organization, we had trouble finding volunteers because of the nature of this work also being without compensation. These youth come from multi-generational households that are trying to financially support themselves and their families, especially during COVID-19. Volunteers want to give back to their communities without potential risks or financial burdens. This is something that often gets overlooked especially with volunteer efforts, relief groups or non-profits. When we question how to get more youth engaged in their communities, we need to start the conversation with a more personalized approach. What are youth sacrificing to do this work?"



Interview with Vanessa Roanhorse (Navajo) and Olivia Roanhorse (Navajo) of Roanhorse Consulting, LLC. 

How can the philanthropic sector better support entrepreneurs and small businesses?  

"The moment for Indigenous wisdom is now. Stakeholders in the sector must consult with our Indigenous relatives through informed support relationships. There needs to be a new future, pathway, and system created.   

The sector needs to support financial models that separate general operating dollars from programmatic dollars and understand that grant work is a partnership between funders and communities. There is great change our communities are experiencing, which will require funders to be more understanding and integrate flexible guidelines in grants." 

We would like to express gratitude to our partners that contributed to this section of the report: Indigenous Life Ways, Native American Agricultural Fund, National Urban Indian Family Coalition, Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund, and Roanhorse Consulting, LLC.  

We hope these excerpts of their interviews encourage you to read them in their entirety in our full report which you can find here. 

Please join us on Tuesday, January 26th at 2:00PM-3:00PM EST as we host a COVID-19 Community Conversation about our most recently published comprehensive report, “Indigenous Community Leadership in Response to COVID-19: A Call to Action for the Philanthropic Sector”.


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