STRONGER TOGETHER: The Value of Community and Storytelling in Native Fundraising

Storytelling captures the history, heart, and hope of tribal communities. These stories carry impact and help build relationships, understanding, and support for Native nonprofits and causes in the world of philanthropy.

In 2019, First Nations created the Native Fundraisers Community of Practice (NFCoP), a unique program that brings together select groups of Native leaders working on the frontlines of fundraising to support community and economic development initiatives in their Native communities.

Since the NFCoP launch in 2019, nearly 90 Native leaders from a broad spectrum of tribal nations and Native-led nonprofits have completed training. Pictured here is the NFCoP’s 2023 cohort.

First Nations partners with Melvin Consulting, PLLC, a Hopi-led professional services company in Flagstaff, Arizona, to deliver the NFCoP trainings to First Nations’ community partners and grantees. Eileen Egan, a partner at Melvin Consulting, is the facilitator and principal trainer for the NFCoP.

Through the NFCoP trainings, participants learn from First Nations’ expert trainers, like Egan, as well as their cohort peers, how to strengthen and fine-tune their approach to strengths-based communications, raising funds, writing grants, and identifying donors. Participants of the NFCoP explore and apply First Nations’ “Reclaiming Native Truth Changing the Narrative About Native Americans: A Guide for Native Peoples and Organizations” in developing stories about their work and communities in a way that will resonate with their audiences and lead to positive charitable outcomes for Native organizations and programs.

A.J. Garcia (left), a program officer for the NFCoP, and Sabrina Walker (right), a First Nations’ program associate, pose with training participant Natalie Kirk, a contemporary Native artist from Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

“It has been incredibly humbling to meet these participants in our program and to hear their stories. They are on the ground doing the real work in their communities and we want to do whatever we can to support them,” says A.J. Garcia, a program officer for the NFCoP who runs the grant writing lab.

Garcia shares that strengths-based storytelling is a huge cornerstone of the NFCoP program. “Our strategy around fundraising is not to focus on the deficits of Native communities, like diabetes, addiction, and historical trauma. But rather, to advocate for equity and celebrate the strengths and resiliency of our communities. We are doing amazing things, and that’s why our communities should be supported.”

Our many donors make it happen

First Nations has received generous support for the NFCoP ― under the auspices of a larger project, “Building a Sustainable Future for Native Americans” ― from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, Target Foundation, American Express Foundation, AMB Foundation, and the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program.

Philanthropy in the United States is a multi-billion-dollar business. However, Native Americans have historically received a very small sliver of that giving pie. In a 2018 report, First Nations examined levels of community foundation giving to Native American communities and causes in 10 states and found that, on average, 15/100ths of one percent (.15%) of community foundation funding goes to Native American organizations and causes annually.

Further, First Nations research showed that in 2006, 6/10ths of one percent (.6%) of total foundation grant dollars and total grants were awarded to Native American organizations and causes. In 2012, the share of foundation dollars awarded to Native American organizations and causes decreased to 4/10ths of one percent (.4%).

Guest speaker Deonoveigh Mitchell (Navajo) talks to the NFCoP participants about the importance of storytelling in fundraising.

But the NFCoP is working hard to raise awareness about these statistics and introduce strategies to increase philanthropic investments in Indian Country. Since the program’s launch nearly five years ago, facilitators have trained close to 90 Native leaders, in five different cohorts, from a broad spectrum of tribal nations and Native-led nonprofits working in areas such as traditional Native arts, food sovereignty, Native language preservation and revitalization, resource conservation, immersion education, Indigenous activism, and youth enrichment.

Through the NFCoP, participants are given the tools to shed light on the philanthropic landscape and raise awareness of the programs and services happening throughout Indian Country that warrant attention and investment.

Making a real difference for Native communities

Many of the NFCoP participants sit at the helm of their organizations and leave the in-person and virtual training blocks with a better understanding of how to approach “The Pitch.” Presenters and guest speakers teach cohort members several formats for “making the pitch” through the NFCoP’s core values of creativity, innovation, knowledge-sharing, humor, relationships, and storytelling. Participants receive professional development and technology stipends during the cohort period, and they are offered an opportunity to write a microgrant proposal that they present to their peers and coaches for friendly and transparent feedback.

NFCoP’s 2023 cohort practice telling their own stories in a group painting exercise.

In follow-up testimonials, participants from the NFCOP cohorts have shared with First Nations how participation in the NFCoP trainings has favorably impacted fundraising efforts:

“It gave me confidence in how to tell our story.”

“I learned how to approach private foundations.”

“It taught me not to be scared to ask for funds.”

“Before going, we wrote small grants. We now have multiple grants of a million a year.”

“I brought back valuable knowledge to share with my staff.”

Lastly, “I learned it’s about relationships and inviting people to join us on our journey.”

To further illustrate the benefits of the community-of-practice approach, First Nations presents the following story from Curtis Quam of the Pueblo of Zuni’s A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center. After participating in the NFCoP’s 2023 cohort, Quam is more hopeful than ever that his ambitious plans for the Zuni Museum are well within reach.

Telling the Zuni Story from a Zuni Perspective

The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center was established by a small group of Zuni tribal members in 1992.

Curtis Quam (Pueblo of Zuni) has been the museum technician and cultural educator for the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center (AAMHC) for more than 21 years. As the only employee on staff, Quam does it all: programming, budgeting, administration, exhibition oversight, digital archiving, collaborating, project management, and planning special community events ― like the winter storytelling production that was presented live at the museum and livestreamed with more than 4,000 views.

As much as Quam would like to raise much-needed funds for the museum, which was established by a small group of Zuni tribal members in 1992, he does not always have the time, support, and staff to do it. “Running an organization by yourself isn’t easy. A lot of things can slip through the cracks, and it is frustrating. But it is just my reality,” Quam tells First Nations good-naturedly.

When a colleague from a Zuni-led nonprofit, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, nominated Quam to participate in First Nations’ Native Fundraisers Community of Practice (NFCoP) 2023 cohort, he jumped at the opportunity ― even though he said he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. “I was excited to network with other people doing similar work in Native communities and bounce ideas off them. I am alone here, and I don’t get much of a chance to do that.”

Quam says he was especially looking forward to getting support and guidance in the grant-writing process. Quam has never written a grant before, and he was eager to learn. “It’s difficult for a tribal program, like ours, to continue its programming without funds coming in. And the NFCoP made me realize that there are people out there who are willing to guide me and support the work I do here.”

In recognizing the importance of community and collaboration, Quam acknowledges First Nations for its work in facilitating the NFCoP. “They have always provided a welcoming atmosphere and now I know there is hope out there. I feel honored to have participated in this training and feel a responsibility to keep the ball rolling.”

His big takeaways from the NFCoP training

Highlights for Quam from the final, in-person NFCoP training at the Gila River Indian Community in September of 2023 included being challenged to present a mock TED Talk in front of fellow NFCoP participants.

“I went over my allotted time when I was telling my story. But I learned how effective other people were by being blunt and getting straight to the point.” He says he will call on that valuable lesson when it comes time to writing his first grant for AAMHC.

As someone who is eager to learn whenever he can, Quam adds that one of the most memorable experiences of the NFCoP seminar was simply learning with other people in a classroom setting. He shares that being part of this community of fundraisers has given him the reassurance and confidence to approach fundraising in a positive way.

Catherine Bryan, First Nations’ vice president of grantmaking, communications, administration, and strengthening tribal and community institutions, congratulates Quam on completing the NFCoP training.

“I expect some bumps along the way, and I know there’s a lot of inequity in philanthropy for Native causes. But if you believe in what you’re doing, you must trust the process,” he says.

Most significantly, Quam says he now understands how important it is to tell the Zuni story from a Zuni perspective ― a tactic he will employ when he seeks out funders to join AAMHC on its journey. “Many non-Zuni people have written on our behalf over time without a real understanding of our cultural sensitivities. As a community, we must really shape and define our own voice for our own people.”

Telling his story from the Zuni perspective has already proven to be successful. Catherine Bryan (Navajo), First Nations’ vice president of grantmaking, communications, administration, and strengthening tribal and community institutions, attended Quam’s TED Talk and found it inspiring. “Curtis’s approach was a remarkable testament to the depths of his museum’s work to perpetuate Zuni culture and arts, and the need for investment in their work.”

Based on Quam’s presentation, and because the NFCoP integrates with many of First Nations’ programs and projects across the organization, First Nations recently awarded the Pueblo of Zuni’s AAMHC a $200,000 Native Arts Initiative grant.

An intergenerational community mural at the museum entrance depicts Zuni emergence and migration history.

His future vision for the museum

Quam has big plans for AAMHC ― a vision that will require more staff and additional funding. In the very near future, he will hire two new staffers as part of a budgeting overhaul. “I’m really excited about that. I tell people I’m kind of tired of talking to myself,” he jokes.

With more hands on deck, the museum technician and cultural director can start chipping away at his “To Do” list for the Zuni Tribal Program. One of the top priorities that he will need to raise money for is creating digital resources that the Zuni community can access online. “I want to track down everything that has been published about the Zuni culture and consolidate it into one location. We don’t have to control the material; we just want to know what’s out there,” he explains.

Also on his wish list is to raise enough funds to build a collections storage facility for scores of Zuni artifacts that are slowly finding their way to the museum. “Many people are returning art and other items to the Zuni community that they have had in their homes for decades. Their kids don’t have any interest in them, and they don’t want to sell them. So, they are donating them to AAMHC,” notes Quam.

AAMHC showcases many Zuni artifacts, and Quam expects more donations in the future from tribal members and other museums in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

He suspects thousands more Zuni artifacts could be returned to the Pueblo of Zuni by other museums across the country in compliance with recent amendments to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which provides “systematic processes for returning Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, and Native Hawaiian Organizations (NHOs).”

If Quam was invited to participate in another NFCoP, he would not hesitate to do so. With a newfound confidence in grant writing, next time he would like to dig a little deeper into fundraising. “I want to learn how people are creating their fundraising opportunities, specifically those involved in agriculture, which is a very important part of Zuni history and culture.”

The Zuni Native says he hopes to add a virtual exhibition on agriculture to the website’s Google Arts and Culture page; and he is interested in starting a seed collection at the museum, as well. “We’ve been separated from our own seeds for such a long time.”

For anyone who may be considering future NFCoP training, Quam has some wise words: “Give it a shot! It is a place where you will feel supported by people who want to invest their money in Native communities in the best possible way.”

Quam adds that he felt encouragement and support the entire time he was there in Arizona. “It was a really cool atmosphere to be in!”