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Native American Philanthropy: Giving in Humble Ways


This post is co-authored with Nelson Bowman III, Executive Director of Development at Prairie View A&M University, and is based on research for our forthcoming book Engaging Diverse College Alumni: The Essential Guide to Fundraising (Routledge, 2013).

Although we often hear about the challenges that Native Americans face in terms of poverty and reservation life, these individuals make significant contributions to the American economy and philanthropy. In 2010, Native Americans contributed $12 billion to the nation’s economy. Moreover, Native American businesses have increased 100 percent in the last 20 years. Often overlooked, Native Americans have great potential for philanthropic giving and a long tradition of it.

Native American giving is centered on spirituality and family, with most Native Americans focusing their giving on organizations that serve members of their specific tribal communities. Over the past 20 years, many Native American communities have been reaching out and forming partnerships with other Native communities as well as non-Native organizations as a way of achieving self-sufficiency and leveraging their human and financial capital.

Native Americans have created several organizations aimed at fostering philanthropic giving. These include the First Nations Development Institute, the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, the American Indian College Fund, and the Hopi Foundation, which is one of the first independent Native American foundations.

Among Native Americans, giving and receiving in considered honorable. More specifically, giving is circular and is constantly in motion. Giving moves from one person to the next with the underlying notion that if you are given to, you will give to others. Unlike mainstream philanthropy, which often links giving to power and prestige, Native American giving is an “extension of honor” and gifts are spiritual in nature and based on mutual respect. Philanthropy is also tied to preserving the future generation of Native people, and gifts that uplift the surrounding communities are encouraged.

Native Americans are interested in distributing wealth throughout their communities. They want to see parity, and by giving, parity can be achieved. They also want to invest in their communities in order to reshape them. Native Americans are interested in empowering tribal communities for positive change and to enhance their political power. Philanthropic support for these efforts is essential as mainstream foundations and funders give only 1 percent of their gifts to Native Americans and their causes.

Native Americans give to those close to them and prefer that their giving remain anonymous. Those givers who live on reservations tend to support tribal charities and individual members of the tribes. Those Native Americans that are not on reservations tend to support more mainstream historical and cultural projects as well as social services and church activities.

As the Native American population is severely undereducated, much philanthropy is directed toward education, including efforts to reduce the high school and college drop-out rates. In addition to education, Native Americans give to efforts to assist the elderly as well as efforts to help those suffering from drug and alcohol abuse. Lastly, there is an interest in investing and supporting accurate portrayals of Native Americans and presenting truthful histories.

When it comes to engaging Native American alumni in particular, it is best to focus on causes that are concrete and tangible; causes that have visible results. Some of the most successful colleges and universities, in terms of engaging Native American alumni, are those that reach out to nearby tribal communities and interact regularly.  Successful institutions also create linkages between current Native American students and alumni and tribal communities.  Engaging these communities has resulted in tribal donations in the range of $10,000 at several universities.

Other colleges and universities solicit the help of their faculty members by coordinating cooperative research with tribal communities using alumni connections to facilitate various projects.  The results of these efforts are significant in that Native American alumni now give to mainstream causes at these institutions rather than only Native American-oriented issues.

Whereas many of colleges and universities do not have a large Native American alumni population, the student population is growing, which will result in additional alumni in the future.  Moreover, no matter how small the alumni base, the examples above indicates that if Native Americans are asked, they will give.

A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

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