Zion Indian paintbrush, hiding behind the Golden pricklypear, Cactus family. Cable Mountain Trail, Zion Nat. Park, Utah.” Andrey Zharkikh

White supremacy is a pandemic. In this moment in time, the shared global narrative centers around COVID-19. But white supremacy is a more pernicious virus, permeating every strata of human life for at least the last 500 years.

Our Indigenous communities are still reeling from the disproportionate adversity that COVID-19 has brought, from the highest death rates (as headlined in the New York Times) to the economic devastation faced by our Native Nations, enterprises, and entrepreneurs. Philanthropy has had two primary responses—either leaning in to provide relief and real-time solutions—or an even greater distancing from Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities and organizations to protect their own “at-risk” endowments and prestige. The latter is a symptom of white supremacy.

The distancing occurs even as foundations hide behind admirable organizational mission statements aimed at reducing racial wealth disparities and building inclusive economies. This last statement is lifted from the website of the Clinton Foundation, which has announced a new initiative focused on reducing the racial and economic disparities amid COVID-19.

During a virtual conference held earlier this month, called The Power of CDFIs for Today’s Inclusive Economic Recovery, former President Bill Clinton amplified the importance of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to “address the inequalities facing Black, Latinx, and Native Americans, and other historically underserved groups who have borne the brunt of both health and economic consequences of COVID-19.”

As an Indigenous woman leading community finance work within an all-Indigenous organization, the NDN Collective—a group founded in 2018 that seeks to defend, develop, and decolonize Indian Country and which recently launched a national Native CDFI—I normally would feel reinvigorated by those words. However, the Clinton Foundation is among those in philanthropy that hide behind their mission statements while their leaders and staff too often act in direct opposition to Black, Latinx, and Native Americans, and other historically underserved groups.

Just one week ahead of the February 2nd conference, I was confirmed to speak during one of the breakout sessions with other CDFI representatives from across the country, on a panel titled Environmental Justice, Financial Recovery, and Rural Communities.

The Clinton Global Initiative team was enthused by NDN Fund’s participation, given our intersecting work of CDFI financing and climate justice that lifts up the resilience and regeneration of marginalized communities across Indian Country.

Days later, I received a short, out-of-the-blue call curtly informing me that I would be dropped as a speaker due to the “pending federal investigation” of NDN Collective’s president and CEO, Nick Tilsen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. The concern was specifically stated as wanting to avoid “negative press associated with the federal investigation.”

There never was a pending federal investigation regarding Tilsen, so they operated on gross misinformation. The charges they referred to stem from a nonviolent action taken by over 100 land defenders on July 3, 2020, at the Paha Sapa, Black Hills to peacefully protest the broken promises of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and the violence and oppression Indigenous peoples experience on a daily basis.

In fact, the only violence that day was from white counter-protestors who spit at and physically assaulted Indigenous demonstrators. (Of course, they were not arrested.) Ironically, the Clinton Foundation team’s decision to pull me as a speaker served to undermine its goals and mission, including the foundation’s history of focusing on building the resilience of Afro and Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and their current effort to bridge racial disparities exacerbated by the pandemic.

The good news is that, ultimately, the Clinton Foundation backed down and I ended up participating on the panel. My presentation was well received (even if I did not get the run-of-show on time), but that is not the point. The real point is that the Clinton Foundation’s behavior in this case was not unusual. Rather, it is a perfect example of the common hypocrisy of “do as I say, not as I do” that we see often in the field of philanthropy.

I was only reinstated as a speaker after a last-minute call held the evening before the panel between the leadership teams from each of our organizations. NDN Collective spent most of the Zoom call staring at the blank faces of the Clinton Foundation leadership team as we explained the impacts of their misinformed decision and provided them with a brief version of “Indigenous 101,” the historical legacy of white supremacy, and how this plays out in the day-to-day life of Indigenous peoples. We emphasized our desire to be in reciprocal relationship with philanthropy and that we can be a resource for them moving forward if they wanted to be in authentic partnership.

Sarah Manning, our director of communications, stated, “There’s a need for deep systemic work here. This instance shows that your organization was trying to distance itself from a Native man, conflating his charges because of some imminent ‘danger.’ This is another example of the continued vilification of our people on our own lands.”

Gaby Strong, NDN Foundation Managing Director, encouraged the foundation to engage in continued education. “This is a learning curve for your press team,” she said. “A serious inventory needs to be made to avoid an action like this in the future and to make sure that your organization’s behavior and conduct match the values on your website.”

White supremacy in philanthropy is nothing new, but we expected more. The foundation’s response was to ask our team to forgive its mistake and judge the foundation based on its body of work. The irony of the next day’s panel felt like an affront as we discussed the interconnectedness of racial justice to environmental justice and the need for CDFIs to take a stronger stance in addressing systemic racism, with our keynote stressing that, “We aren’t listening to those at the center of these impacts…[and] this is how true recovery happens.”

The Clinton Foundation’s website boasts first class ratings as a charitable foundation from GuideStar, the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch, Charity Navigator, etc., as if this were the measure of impact or success. We are still waiting for the Clinton Foundation to hold itself accountable and enter into honest and equal relationships with the communities it claims to serve.

Unfortunately, our experience with the Clinton Foundation is not a rare occurrence for many Indigenous communities interacting with philanthropy. Why else does less than one half of one percent of grantmaking go directly to Indigenous organizations and communities? For one, there is a white-dominant mindset inside the field in terms of who is lifted up as experts, who is seen as credible, and who has capacity. Further, there is a fear that philanthropic dollars will continue to atrophy because of COVID-19, as experienced by Native nonprofits in the aftermath of other recent economic crises.

The following is a short list of resources for those interested in jumpstarting their own learning of the existing landscape between philanthropy and Indigenous peoples.

  • While Indigenous podcast with Tilsen and Edgar Villanueva on “Disrupting Capital and Decolonizing Wealth”: In this podcast, Villanueva underscores the fact that virtually all US wealth stems from the labor and exploitation of Indigenous and Black people, then calls out and calls up philanthropy to decolonize their wealth, disrupt capitalism, and shift resources back into the hands of the communities that have suffered from colonialism. Villanueva talks about how colonization has permeated our policies and systems: “If you are working in finance or philanthropy, and your job is to move capital, you’ve got to be aware of the history. If we care about affordable housing, health care, education, whatever, we have to apply a lens of race to understand how to be strategic about how we deploy resources. If we do not put race at the center, we’re not going to get solutions that work for all people.”
  • A 2018 First Nations Development Institute report demonstrates that philanthropy continues to only minimally support Native American organizations and causes. Despite the high need in Native communities and the proven ability of Native-led organizations to help address those needs, mainstream philanthropy has shied away from adequately funding these initiatives. In fact, recent research has documented declining levels of giving by large foundations, as well as minuscule levels of giving by community foundations, to Native American organizations and causes.
  • A June 2020 First Nations Development Institute survey shows how COVID-19 has further impacted Native nonprofits and the communities they serve. Scholars estimate that there will be a $50 billion loss in economic activity in Native communities. In recent economic recessions, giving to Native communities and causes declined significantly. During the Great Recession, foundation grants to Native-controlled organizations specifically fell from roughly $71 million annually to about $49 million a year, a 31-percent decline. By 2014, funding for Native-controlled nonprofits had not yet returned to pre-Great Recession levels.

These three sources are just a starting point. For more, I refer readers to the webinar series on dismantling white supremacy offered by Justice Funders last year, and two articles the NDN Collective has published this year: “Building Indigenous Power and Investing in Indigenous Self-Determination” by Tilsen, and an article I wrote with Chrystel Cornelius titled “Bridging the Divide Between Impact Investing and Native America.” In both of these articles, we discuss the need for philanthropic partners to invest in Indigenous self-determination. Providing capital is one step. For example, as Cornelius and I detail, Oweesta, a national Native CDFI intermediary that Cornelius directs, has an unmet capital gap of $50 million, just to meet the current market demand of its 65 Native CDFI partners.

These resources—and others on the state of giving and investing in BIPOC communities—demonstrate that the historical legacies of systemic racism are deeply embedded in the practices of an industry that is still 85 to 90 percent white. Our recent experience with the Clinton Foundation further underscores this point and the need for leadership and staff at these organizations to not only familiarize themselves with these readings, but to also do their “cultural homework,” or “Indigenous 101,” before working in direct relationship to avoid placing an unfair burden on Indigenous organizations. There is such a thing as translation exhaustion for Indigenous peoples.

I wish there were a vaccine to stop the universally harmful impacts of white supremacy, but I think one antidote is to continue urging those like the Clinton Foundation to be the living embodiment of the words within their organizational mission statements. A good first step is to be an active listener, and to enter spaces with our peoples in humility and with open hearts.

It is equally important for funders to check any prior assumptions or conceptions of Indigenous peoples. For example, we may not fit neatly inside existing grant processes or investor due diligence, but that does not mean Native Nations or organizations are any less capable of stewarding those resources and investments. (Not to mention that these processes are likely antiquated and in need of a makeover anyway.) In fact, there is an entire body of research that supports the superior efficacy and outcomes of Indigenous communities when dollars flow directly to Native Nations and organizations versus through white-led intermediaries.

For this reason, it’s also important for grantmakers and investors to be open to exchanging their role as fund managers to the community-based organizations they are investing in. Tilsen reminds funders that those closest to the pain need to be in charge of the solutions. One friend who runs a rural family foundation told a group of other wealthy changemakers that his investing model is to redistribute his family’s fortune slowly via direct grants and investments into BIPOC communities because he knows the return multiplier will be higher within those communities, versus coming back into the foundation’s endowment.

On that note, I’d like to end this piece optimistically. The above example shows the incredible promise of the leadership of many of NDN Collective’s current and future philanthropic partners. In fact, we are working with dozens of foundations who are already exploring some of these recommendations. While there are many foundations perpetuating white supremacy, hidden in plain view, there are also a growing number that are challenging existing systems within their own ranks.

Examples can be found in foundations large and small, such as the work of the Henry Luce Foundation, which NPQ and First Nations Development Institute profiled a little over a year ago. As the Lakota remind us, Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ—we are all related. This principle, as Villanueva writes in Decolonizing Wealth, means “everyone has a responsibility in making things right.” If we do work in this way, we have the potential to both heal and thrive together.