Learning to Support Indigenous Communities: One Foundation’s Experience

Learning to Support Indigenous Communities: One Foundation’s Experience

by Sean Buffington

NPQ, in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), has published a series of Native American leaders who highlight the practices of community building in Indian Country this fall. This essay, also produced in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute, is the third of three articles that we are publishing from the perspective of philanthropy.

Additional related articles can be found at this First Nations webpage. This concludes the series, but expect more from NPQ and First Nations in 2020.

How does a foundation go from not investing in Indian Country to becoming a thoughtful partner? Two key steps are to build from what you know and asking thoughtful questions. Among the most generative questions are: 1) What work is being done now in Indian Country? 2) What do current leaders feel they need to do their work; and 3) What infrastructure is in place to identify leaders who need support and to get that support into their hands?

In June 2018, the Henry Luce Foundation’s board of directors unanimously approved a new philanthropic initiative for Native American leaders. It was a momentous day: we launched a new effort to support Indigenous knowledge keepers and knowledge makers. But it was also the culmination of a two-year process of consultation and learning. That process was crucial to the development of the initiative and to its approval by the board; it was also personally transformative for me and my colleagues.

In March 2016, the Luce Foundation’s board asked for a proposal for a new grantmaking initiative. We had not launched an initiative outside of our established programs for several years. The horizon of possibility was broad—but we had a few limitations. First, of course, we had to design an initiative that was consistent with our mission and philanthropic legacy. Second, our funds were modest; our initiative had to be designed to make effective use of these monies.

In the end, we decided on a fellowship program for intellectual leaders within a particular community. The Foundation has had extensive experience with fellowship programs for aspiring leaders over its history and recognizes fellowships as a high-impact philanthropic strategy. Focusing on leaders who were producing knowledge for the benefit of a community spoke to the Foundation’s mission to promote the production and dissemination of knowledge.