Philanthropy as Reciprocity

Philanthropy as Reciprocity

Sarah Kastelic

This article is the eighth in a series that Nonprofit Quarterly, in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute, is publishing this fall. It features Native American nonprofit leaders who highlight the practices of community building in Indian Country and identify ways that philanthropy might more effectively support this work.

It has been said that reciprocity is a core value of the nonprofit sector. It is also a core Alaska Native value. By reframing the grantmaking relationship as a reciprocal relationship, foundations have the opportunity to intentionally reduce the power differential inherent in philanthropy while developing deeper and more effective partnerships with many of the nation’s 573 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native nations.

Reciprocity is an important Alaska Native value. As a young child, as an Alutiiq person, I was taught that reciprocity is about balance in relationships—between people, organizations, institutions, the environment. It isn’t necessarily a one-to-one exchange, but it is more generally about balance and harmony through attention to service and contribution. It’s about recognizing things, approaches, actions, and attitudes of value and maintaining the proper awareness and appreciation. It’s also about looking for what you can contribute as an individual person, family, community, organization, or institution that is of value. It’s about maintaining good relationships by attending to balance and giving back, contributing what you can, and being mindful of what and how much you take.

Early in my career as a social-work-trained policy analyst and advocate for Native families and communities at the National Congress of American Indians, I encountered formal organized philanthropy: private foundations and major donors. I had my first uncomfortable experiences with philanthropy trying to navigate power differences and differences in worldview at the same time—not too dissimilar from some of my experiences in higher education, actually.