By category, education got the most funding in 2009—$18 million.

Top 5 Philanthropic Foundations Make Native Education a Priority

Mark Fogarty


Following the July 30 story about Sam Simon, co-creator (with Matt Groening) of The Simpsons who has terminal cancer, looking to donate all of his money to charity Indian Country Today Media Network decided to take a closer look at some philanthropic work within Indian country.

RELATED: Where Will ‘Simpsons’ Creator Sam Simon’s Money Go?

The first decade of this century saw a marked falloff in philanthropy to American Indians. And the story of this decade may be two steps forward, one step back.

A study of philanthropy to Natives in the years between 2000 and 2009 by The Foundation Center and Native Americans in Philanthropy saw a dropoff in several years of the decade, including a 30.8 percent drop in 2009, the most recent year studied in its 2011 report. That was much higher than an overall fall of 12 percent nationwide.

In this decade, there have been a couple of positive steps and one big setback, according to Michael Roberts, president of First Nations Development Institute of Colorado.

During the recession, much money granted to Indian country “went by the wayside or was reduced,” said Roberts, whose group is funded by between 30 and 40 foundations. For this decade, he estimated that overall funding levels were “about the same.”

One development that was “a pretty big hit” was the Ford Foundation’s discontinuing an indigenous working group, said Roberts. But there also have been a couple of positive developments. “For the last two to three years, the Northwest Area Foundation has committed at least 40 percent of its funding to Indian programs,” he said. And the Bush Foundation created an emphasis area in Indian programs, recognizing tribal sovereignty by making grants to individual tribes and allowing them to decide what to do with the funds.

The Foundation Center/Native Americans in Philanthropy study, called “Foundation Funding for Native American Issues and Peoples,” found that the nationwide percentage of foundation funding to Natives fell from 0.5 percent in 2000 to 0.3 percent in 2009.

Funding topped $100 million in two years—2002 and 2006— but fell to $68 million in 2009.

The top 10 foundations accounted for 60 percent of all funding, the study found. By category, education got the most funding in 2009—$18 million. Arts and culture was second, at $12.4 million. Public affairs/social benefit was third, at $10.2 million, followed by human services ($10 million) and health ($7 million).

By recipient type, colleges and universities were first, followed by educational support agencies, the arts, human service agencies and civil rights groups.

Top Five Foundations by Dollars Granted, 2009

1. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, New Jersey. This foundation, a four-time top Native funder in the first decade of this century, gave $10.2 million to Indian groups in 2009. That came to 3.5 percent of its total funding. Some Native projects it has funded in more recent years include $153,000 for health data profiles for the United Southern and Eastern Tribes; nearly $700,000 for the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council to work on improved health care delivery for Wisconsin tribes; and $200,000 to the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council to help integrate Native health systems into multijurisdictional public health systems.

2. Ford Foundation, New York This foundation granted $8.9 million to Native programs in 2009, and that represented 2 percent of its total funding. It led foundation funding to Natives three times in the last decade, according to the report. Some of its recent awards have been $75,000 to the American Indian College Fund in 2009 to increase higher education for social justice and grants of about $450,000 in 2009, 2010 and 2011 to the National Congress of American Indians to promote electoral reform and democratic participation. In both 2009 and 2010 it granted $1 million each year to Native Arts and Culture Foundation to support art spaces.

3. W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Michigan. This big funder granted $5.6 million to American Indian issues in 2009. That was 2.5 percent of total funding. One of the Foundation’s biggest grants for the year, $1.8 million, went to the National Congress of American Indians to support tribal governance. Another, for $300,000, was awarded to the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps to help Native and Hispanic kids in northern New Mexico develop leadership and employment skills. Kellogg has an American Indian program officer, one of less than 10 around the country, according to First Nations’ Roberts.

4. Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, New York. Sloan granted $4.7 million to benefit Indians in 2009, representing 8.7 percent of its funding for the year. Almost all of this came from a $4.5 million grant to National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering for its Minority Ph.D. program and its Indigenous Graduate Program. Since 1995, Sloan has assisted 900 minority candidates through the Ph.D. program. Sloan in 2011 granted $300,000 to the American Indian College Fund to pay for six fellowships for Indian tribal college faculty in the “Stem” area (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). That followed a similar grant of $100,000 in 2010. The Sloan Indigenous Partnership Grant funds Indian master’s and doctoral candidates at six colleges.

5. Marguerite Casey Foundation, Washington. This group gave 9.2 percent of its 2009 funding to Native-related issues, for a total of $2.8 million. According to its website some of its Native grants have gone to American Indians in Texas—Spanish Colonial Missions ($200,000) for leadership development and policy advocacy in South Texas and northern Mexico, and the Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School for $300,000, also for leadership development and policy advocacy. Its 2011 grantees include the American Indian Center of Chicago and the Potlatch Fund, Seattle.


Other Notable Funders

Midwest Area Foundation, Minnesota. This is an interesting group set up by the son of the founder of the Great Northern Railway to help groups in the footprint the railroad made. It targets Indians specifically and allots a very high percentage of its giving to Indians, saying “The Foundation has committed a minimum of 40 percent of its grant portfolio in 2013 to Native American programs and Native-operated nonprofit organizations working to build community and individual financial know-how, access to capital, and entrepreneurial skills.”

Lannan Foundation, New Mexico. If your tribe is interested in regaining some of its former land base, it might get a sympathetic ear at this New Mexico foundation. Lannan granted $4.5 million to the Santa Clara pueblo in New Mexico to help it purchase back some of its former land. It said its “Indigenous Communities Program supports the resolve of Native Americans to renew their communities through their own institutions and traditions. Funding priority is given to rural indigenous projects that are consistent with traditional values in the areas of education, Native cultures, the revival and preservation of languages, legal rights, and environmental protection.”

Bush Foundation, Minnesota. Not charity but sovereignty—the Bush Foundation respects tribal sovereignty by granting money to individual tribes that determine how to use the money themselves. It also funds the Bush Fellows program for people to affect changes in their communities. In 2013, a grant went to Cheryl Kary, of Bismarck, North Dakota, who said “Although the Bismarck-Mandan off-reservation American Indian population is significant, their socio-economic realities and negative community perceptions separate them from full participation in the community. My goal is to utilize comprehensive data to develop community partnerships that provide meaningful opportunities for these urban Indians so they can become cohesive and fully integrated into the civic and community life of Bismarck-Mandan.”

Enterprise, Maryland. An affordable housing developer and funder for low and moderate income people, Enterprise, according to its website, “Since 1997, has invested more than $100 million in grants, loans and equity to Native American communities for affordable housing and economic development, developed more than 1,700 homes in 20 states and provided training to 38 tribes and tribal housing entities in financial acquisition.” It has a specific program for Rural and Native American housing. One program it has funded is a 28-unit housing development at the San Felipe Pueblo in New Mexico. This was the first major housing development on the reservation in 40 years.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Washington. The Gates Foundation is funding a massive educational effort, the Millennium Scholars program, to give scholarships to as many as 20,000 minority students, including American Indians. “This year 150 American Indian and Alaska Native students, representing communities from coast to coast, have been confirmed as Gates Millennium Scholars. These elite students, all rising college freshmen, will join approximately 850 other American Indian and Alaska Native undergraduates, graduate and doctoral degree candidates who will receive scholarship support from the Gates Millennium Scholars program (GMS) in the 2013-2014 academic year,” the foundation said. The Gates Foundation partners with the American Indian Graduate Center Scholars (AIGCS) to recruit, select and support American Indian and Alaska Native Gates Millennium Scholars. It has also funded the Potlatch Fund and in the past has helped the Navajo Nation with $6 million in grants to help bring computers to the reservation.

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