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Indigenizing Philanthropy: Indigenous Led Funds

Image courtesy of International Funders for Indigenous Peoples.

En español.

Co-authored by Cultural Survival (Galina Angarova, Daisee Francour) and International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (Lourdes Inga) 


The Indigenizing Philanthropy Series is a five-part article series accompanied with a webinar and toolkit (coming soon) to provide a framework in how to transform and Indigenize philanthropy. Co-authored by Cultural Survival staff Galina Angarova (Buryat) and Daisee Francour (Oneida), both authors have unique experiences as Indigenous women who have worked both in philanthropy as program officers for private foundations and as fundraisers for NGOs. Angarova and Francour, Indigenous women from the United States and Russia (Siberia), offer their dynamic expertise and shed an important light on how philanthropy can take a serious, introspective look at its colonial roots and take authentic actions to remedy its future in a way that is aligned with natural law and responsible ways of being and knowing. For the last article in the series, Cultural Survival invited the expertise of another Indigenous leader in the field, Lourdes Inga (Quechua), Executive Director of International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP), to collectively dive into the importance of Indigenous decision-making and Indigenous Led Funds as a way not only to transform philanthropy, but also restore balance in the natural world. International Funders for Indigenous Peoples is the only global funder network dedicated to Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Their mission is to foster Indigenous solutions and partnerships among Indigenous Peoples and funders around the globe. IFIP expands the sphere of funders and collaborative action among funders and Indigenous Peoples to support and advance issues of importance to Indigenous Peoples.

Check out these other articles in the Indigenizing Philanthropy Series:

1) Indigenizing Philanthropy (En español)          

(2) Reimagining Philanthropy: Towards Relationships, Trust, Abundance, and Radical Love (En español)

(3) Indigenizing Philanthropy: Shifting Grantmaking Practices from Extractive to Reciprocal   (En español)

(4) Indigenizing Philanthropy: Repatriating the Distribution of Wealth (En español)

The tensions that exist in the world today have been attempted to be remedied by modern concepts like equity, but restoring balance in the natural world means returning to natural law. Natural law reflects the innate balance between all living things, and outlines the unique role and the responsibilities for each member of our ecosystem. From the microbes in our soils, to the four-legged relatives that live in our forests, to the winged beings that travel the sky, to our kin who swim across waterways, each living thing has a purpose, and from its origin, knows instinctively its role and set of responsibilities in this world. As Indigenous Peoples honor and carry out their responsibilities, it is done through the practice of reciprocity: giving out of abundance and not taking more than what is needed. Philanthropy is not a new concept to Indigenous Peoples, as these acts of generosity, respect, and solidarity with our surroundings have been deeply embedded in our ways of being and knowing since time immemorial and have existed long before institutional philanthropy. As we have strayed away from natural law and our unique responsibilities, how do we restore these? We return to our traditional ways of being and knowing, our original instructions, and practice philanthropy based on those instructions by giving from a place of abundance, love, respect, and responsibility.

In this Indigenizing Philanthropy series, we have unpacked what decolonizing and Indigenizing philanthropy means in today’s current political, cultural, and economic context. But what does that actually mean in practice? How can those who are already part of the choir move their work far and beyond their grantmaking to make profound systemic change within their foundation and in the field at large? Some of these answers are on the surface, and many foundations are practicing these remedies at some level, including uplifting and centering Indigenous leadership inside the organization, and investing in Indigenous leadership through Indigenous Led Funds, externally. 

With over 476 million Indigenous Peoples across the world, accounting for 6.2 percent of the global population, Indigenous Peoples historically have been underrepresented in every sector, and especially in philanthropy. This lack of representation in the field is evident across many measures, including the level of funding Indigenous organizations receive, the lack of attention and resources dedicated to Indigenous rights and self-determination, and the lack of inclusion and representation of Indigenous Peoples and their worldviews in the philanthropic sector. Indigenous Peoples hold solutions that can resolve the problems and chaos that exist today. Philanthropy can become a powerful agent for transformation by enabling Indigenous Peoples to fully implement their rights and practice their traditional ways of being and knowing, which in turn enables traditional knowledge to restore balance in the world today. 

Indigenous Philanthropy is the practice of transformed giving and values-based partnerships based on the “4 R’s” of Indigenous Philanthropy: Respect, Reciprocity, Responsibility, and Relationships. International Funders for Indigenous Peoples encourages its members and others to practice a new paradigm of giving based on these principles. Indigenous Philanthropy reframes funding relationships, improves the quality of giving, and uplifts self-determination. It provides a way forward for funders who want to ensure that their giving, regardless of the issue or topic, is reaching Indigenous communities in a good way.  

As established in previous articles, the philanthropic field is not monolithic. There are many incredible movers and shakers who are constantly pushing the envelope to make philanthropy what we all dream it be: just, accountable, equitable, and responsive. We hope that this series, too, can contribute to transforming philanthropy even further to resource, uplift, and center Indigenous leadership, which has been long overlooked, yet absolutely necessary to achieve this transformation. Philanthropy can benefit from learning from Indigenous leadership and how we come to consensus and make our decisions. Indigenous Peoples’ governance is a reflection of honoring and carrying out natural law, and it is reflected in both our balanced decision making and actions. 

If the goal is to address social justice, equity and inequality, environmental destruction, and other atrocities that exist in our world today, philanthropy must invest in Indigenous leadership and Indigenous Led Funds. As defined by consensus by the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples Indigenous Led Funds Working Group, which convenes periodically to share learnings, collaborate, and change narratives about Indigenous-led philanthropy, “Indigenous Led Funds are guided by Indigenous worldviews and led by and for Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Led Funds strengthen self-determination and support a process that empowers the communities, at the local to the global level, to be able to change paradigms and shift power relations addressing the asymmetry of powers and resources to recognition and reciprocity.” 

An Indigenous Led Fund is an organization, instrument, agency, or other body made up of a majority of Indigenous individuals. The primary role is to fund Indigenous organizations, movements, and community projects whose mission is for the direct benefit of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Led Funds are significant contributors in the field of philanthropy, and their leadership bridges Indigenous Peoples and philanthropy by connecting the dual implementation of the missions of foundations and that of Indigenous communities. Indigenous Led Funds have evolved beyond regranting to become an institution of its own right and significance, and as an actor in philanthropy. Historically, private foundations have used regranting as a tool to reach many areas of the world by funding non-Indigenous organizations. Indigenous Led Funds offer immense expertise, hold important place-based knowledge, and steward relationships with people on the ground. They understand how to do the giving in culturally appropriate ways without imposing a Western colonial approach of knowing it all, replicating, and scaling solutions, while moving to funding approaches that are more oriented to transformational change that centers community rights and well being. 

Indigenous-led grantmaking has been practiced for decades. But it is only recently that Indigenous Led Funds have gained traction and recognition as institutions that implement their own visions of self-determined development rooted in the values and principles of the Indigenous Peoples and the communities that they support. Many models of Indigenous Led Funds take root in the models of traditional governance of Indigenous Peoples, such as elders’ decision-making circles, advisory groups, navigation councils, gatherings, and exchanges similar to Potlatches in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and Canada, Indigenous women and matriarch-led healing circles, and so on. The most important characteristic of Indigenous Led Funds is that all decisions are made by Indigenous Peoples themselves, which is the exemplification of the most important right for Indigenous Peoples: self-determination. 

Secondly, and no less crucial, is the choice of themes and approach to the work, which we find innovative, specific to Indigenous Peoples, and reflective of Indigenous Peoples’ values, cosmovisions, and aspirations. While the entry point to the work addressed ranges from land tenure to cultural and language revitalization to Indigenous climate solutions and Indigenous women and youth empowerment, these bodies of work are not seen as stand alone projects, but a continuum of life plans that are holistic in their approach to truly address challenges. Third, Indigenous Led Funds work with some of the most overlooked grassroots Indigenous communities around the globe; ones that are beyond the reach of traditional, mainstream philanthropy as Indigenous Led Funds build true, reciprocal relationships with their constituency on the ground. Fourth, most Indigenous Led Funds work locally. Their model of grantmaking is grounded in Indigenous-led priorities, which are determined at the community level. Measures of community and partnership accountability are often embedded into the Fund’s grantmaking strategies. 

Examples of Indigenous Led Funds

Cultural Survival grantmaking is implemented via the long-term vision for the Keepers of the Earth Fund (KOEF) and Indigenous Community Media Fund (ICMF). Both funds are true examples of Indigenous Led Funds, managed by Indigenous Peoples and for Indigenous Peoples and serving to fulfill the aspirations and dreams of Indigenous communities globally for their self-determined development and freedom of expression. Core objectives for KOEF are to support grassroots Indigenous solutions, including support for political, economic, and food sovereignty; Free, Prior and Informed Consent, land justice, self-governance, women and youth leadership, prevention of fossil fuel extraction, the maintenance of healthy, carbon-capturing forests, traditional agriculture and agroecology, and protecting biodiversity. 

KOEF’s grantmaking is unique in that it supports grassroots Indigenous-led organizations, collectives, and traditional governments in their self-determined development projects based on their Indigenous values, which are in constant feedback loops and synergy with Cultural Survival’s organizational values of Self-Determination, Indigenous Cosmovisions, Trust, Humility, Interculturalism, Community, Respect, Equity, Accountability, and Solidarity. The grants are selected and awarded via consensus by Cultural Survival staff and advisors who are members of their own Indigenous communities and nations, and who understand the need, have intimate knowledge of place and people, and work together with their communities to strategize solutions.

KOEF is unique because the fund truly supports Indigenous communities without imposing Cultural Survival’s organizational vision and worldview, but rather uplifts knowledge, lived experiences, and local solutions of the peoples who live and belong to their land. Lastly, it is the choice of themes, which we find innovative and reflective of Indigenous Peoples’ values and aspirations. These range from protecting Indigenous lands and forests, pursuing legal title to lands, stewarding and transmitting traditional knowledge between elders and youth, practicing and promoting traditional agriculture, language apprenticeship programs, and other place-based Indigenous solutions. Oftentimes institutional philanthropy doesn’t understand these important issues or is not connected with grassroots communities who are doing this work. At Cultural Survival, we bridge the gap between Indigenous grassroots solutions and philanthropy. 

Cultural Survival’s second fund, Indigenous Community Media Fund (ICMF), works to promote and protect the freedom of expression of Indigenous Peoples and supports communities to build their own radio stations from the ground up, provide training in journalism, radio content production, women’s empowerment, and produce radio content on Indigenous Peoples’ rights. ICMF aims to strengthen the impact and influence of community radio stations at the local and regional levels in their work towards the revitalization of Indigenous cultures, languages, histories, philosophies, and rights; the protection of ancestral territories and natural resources; and the promotion of women’s leadership. Cultural Survival’s holistic approach to grantmaking centers on building trusted and reciprocal relationships and partnerships with Indigenous Peoples, uplifting and strengthening their advocacy efforts, and offering capacity building, networking, and technical support. 

Another notable example of an Indigenous Led Fund is the Ayni Fund, housed at Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indígenas (FIMI). The Ayni Fund focuses on Indigenous women globally, who are among the most marginalized segments of the population. Indigenous women suffer double, and sometimes triple, discrimination based on their ethnicity, gender, income, and other factors. The Ayni Fund works on the basis of the priorities identified by Indigenous women in their own communities. What makes the Ayni Fund stand out is that it considers the contribution of Indigenous women in their own communities as an essential component to the overall budget by taking into account both "quantifiable contributions" and “unquantifiable contributions.” The non-quantifiable contributions of Indigenous women include, but are not limited to, practices and traditional knowledge and spiritual resources. Quantifiable contributions are those linked to the areas of investment and operation such as working time (staff), along with non-monetary contributions such as local foods and services, lodging, and raw materials.

These three Indigenous Led Funds provide just a glimpse of both the many Indigenous Led Funds that exist across the globe and the various grantmaking strategies they implement. IFIP is currently finalizing the first Indigenous Led Funds Landscape Scan Report, aimed to inform the philanthropic sector and build the understanding of why and how these funds are investing in their communities. The Landscape Report will also identify the different geographic regions represented, the holistic approach in which they are funding, and share the list of Indigenous Led Funds that participated in the report. IFIP welcomes donors and funders to become a member to access this report and stay updated on important information like this. Funders are afforded learning opportunities and should invest in and engage with Indigenous funder networks like IFIP; Native Americans in Philanthropy, whose work focuses in the United States; The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada; and the Arctic Funders Collaborative, which focuses across the Arctic region. IFIP, together with peer networks like these, seeks to transform philanthropy for the inclusion and representation of Indigenous Peoples in philanthropy and philanthropic giving.  

How to Support Indigenous Led Funds

Support self-determination: Funding self-determination in practice means investing in Indigenous leadership through Indigenous Led Funds. To reach their full potential, institutional philanthropy must relinquish its power of decision, assess its own bias and misconception of Indigenous Peoples, and trust that Indigenous leaders are the experts of their own livelihoods and that they know the best ways to achieve their missions, visions, and how to effectively implement place-based solutions relevant to their communities and territories. 

Invest in healing and decolonization: Prioritizing healing and decolonization is necessary for transformation in the world we wish to build, and this process is one that takes place alongside grantees. In practice, this means including healing and decolonizing as perpetual priorities to be reflected in a foundation’s operational line item budget, and also prioritizing this in actual funding practices and reflected in grantmaking portfolios and strategies and one layer to support grantee partners. Funders oftentimes ask Indigenous Peoples and our organizations to center stories of trauma and our past, constantly replaying the devastating history of how colonization has impacted our communities and very few inquire about our dreams and visions for our futures. Most funders don’t take interest in what we are doing to heal ourselves and our communities, let alone resource it. Philanthropy should consider funding healing spaces like traditional ceremony, forms of artistic expression such as dance and poetry, talking circles and healing exchanges, and other trauma-informed healing strategies. Indigenous Peoples are the original healers, and many of us carry our traditional ways of healing, which are reflected in our ceremonies and prayers. As Rebecca Adamson, founder of First Peoples Worldwide and the Keepers of the Earth Fund, shared in her reflections on the importance of resourcing healing work, “You see a correlation between ceremony and suicide and drug abuse prevention in community; a contribution into a ceremony means many lives saved down the road.”

Support “outside the box” approaches that go beyond program, thematic, and geographical focus areas: Indigenous communities, cultures, and ways of being and knowing are not compartmentalized. There is no separation between education, health, and food sovereignty and land access, social justice, and equity. All of these facets of our lives are interdependent and interconnected, and we encourage that philanthropy holistically build them into grant portfolios by both empowering and enabling communities to decide for themselves what works best for them. 

Support land purchases and resource Indigenous Peoples’ #LandBack and #LandRightsNow efforts: Funders have been resistant and slow to move towards supporting land purchases or returning land to Indigenous Peoples. Such resistance can be explained by hundreds of years of conditioning under colonial rule, when many Indigenous communities around the world, and especially in the U.S. and Canada, suffered from displacement and dispossession from their lands. Land is the ultimate expression for one to self-determine one’s own destiny. For Indigenous Peoples, the land is everything. It is tied to our understanding of the world, our cosmovisions, health and well being, food systems, and livelihoods, and there is a direct spiritual and physical connection between the land and its people.

As Indigenous Peoples, we bring our full selves to the places we work. There is extraordinary power in being your authentic self, accompanied by the prayers, ceremony, and original instructions shared with us by our ancestors. For Indigenous Peoples, compassion, empathy, respect, and love are embedded in our cultures and traditional ways of being and knowing. These are gifts given to us at birth and they need to be shared widely, including in philanthropy.  We don’t hide them; we lead with them. It’s important to bring our whole selves to our workplace, including bringing traditions, ceremonies, and prayers to work, which for many of us is our second home.

As philanthropy continues to work towards true social justice, equity, and transformation, Indigenous Peoples are paving a future of inclusion and recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ contributions.  Philanthropy must not remain idle and complicit to the status quo. Indigenous Led Funds experience the burden and responsibility of fundraising against the biggest odds, lack the support of large multi-year grants, and face a philanthropic sector that often inhibits funders from building true, trusting relationships with Indigenous grantee partners, nor funds holistic approaches. Trust-based relationships and holistic approaches that tackle systems changes are integral to Indigenous Led Funds and their calls for large multi-year and general support grants. As Indigenous leaders in philanthropy, we stand ready to collaborate and engage with the funding community. Justice demands a well resourced Indigenous movement. Equity requires a philanthropic community that invests in Indigenous Led Funds and responds to the calls for justice.