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Charting a Path Forward


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The Native Nonprofit Sector and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Charting a Path Forward

In June 2020, First Nations Development Institute launched a survey to better understand the effects of COVID-19 on Native-led nonprofit organizations. First Nations received nearly 300 responses, mostly from community-based organizations, that illuminated a huge degree of uncertainty as Native nonprofits continue to respond to COVID-19 in their communities and look to bounce back from the economic crisis resulting from the global pandemic.

Some Native communities have been hit hard. Native communities, such as those in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Mississippi, and Washington, have seen significant outbreaks of COVID-19. At the same time, all Native communities have been affected by the economic crisis that has gripped the country. With Native businesses closing permanently or shutting down temporarily to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, scholars estimate that there will be a $50 billion loss in economic activity in Native communities.

Key Findings

Philanthropy and Native communities in Times of Crisis
A key finding of the survey was the level of uncertainty being experienced in Native communities. First Nations’ previous research indicates that this is driven by the longstanding lack of support for Native-led community organizations, especially in economically challenging times.

During the Great Recession, foundation giving levels in 2009 dropped by 36% from 2008. Similarly, in the economic recession of 2001, giving between 2000 and 2001 declined by 18%, dropping from roughly $87 million to $71 million annually. In addition, it took about eight years, until 2015, for funding to return to prerecession levels.

Impact on Services and Financials
The survey further found that the majority of Native nonprofit organizations have pivoted and are providing direct services to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, 38% of Native nonprofits have reduced operations, working primarily remotely, and thus have narrowed services and added online programming. Moreover, 1 in 5 Native nonprofit organizations has not received a grant to support their work within the last 3 months.

In looking to the future, First Nations’ further learned:

  • 69% of Native nonprofits expect to see a revenue decrease as a result of COVID-19. Even more, 43% of respondents expect to see a decrease of 25% or greater.
  • Most Native nonprofits anticipate seeing the greatest impacts of COVID-19 in greater than three months.
  • 35% of Native nonprofits believe they will have to reduce their staff size. To put this into context, most respondents had a mean staff size of 2 full-time and 2 part-time staff members.
  • Native nonprofits cite needs for general operating grants, personal protective equipment (PPE) and technology to help meet operational and programmatic needs.

Change in Philanthropy Requires Listening, Learning and Investment
Many nonprofits leaders noted that there are some critical changes needed in the philanthropic sector and its support of Native communities. Among them: A true commitment from philanthropy that allows Native organizations to focus on combating and challenging structural and institutional factors that lead to underdevelopment in Native communities. And, Native leaders noted that individuals in philanthropy need to listen and be willing to learn from Indigenous innovation, reversing top-down approaches that have largely structured interactions and grantmaking between Native community organizations and philanthropy.