Foundation series

How a Colorado Health Foundation is Tackling Underinvestment in Indigenous Communities — Inside Philanthropy

For years, philanthropy has failed in Native American communities, and there is an abundance of research to prove it. In a 2019 report, for example, Native Americans in Philanthropy and Candid found that, from 2002 to 2016, giving to Indigenous communities and causes by major US foundations accounted for just 0.4% of total annual funding.

The First Nations Development Institute recently took a deep dive into philanthropic giving in Colorado, where it is headquartered, and its findings were equally dismal. According to the report, only a tenth of one percent (0.1%) of Colorado’s philanthropy is awarded to Native American community organizations in the state. In qualitative interviews, Native nonprofit leaders also reported “negative experiences in their interactions with state philanthropic institutions,” experiences that “reflect the negative experiences of Native American nonprofit leaders at the national scale”.

The Colorado Health Foundation recently launched an initiative to counter these negative experiences, as well as the underinvestment of philanthropy in Indigenous communities, with a $1.5 million gift to the First Nations Development Institute. The matching grant will be used to develop a Native American Fund for Health Equity, which will provide support to Native Nations and Native-led organizations working to advance health equity in Colorado.

In creating the fund, the Colorado Health Foundation and First Nations want to increase awareness and support for Indigenous issues within Colorado’s philanthropic community. “We hope this fund will spark greater attention leading to more investments in innovation and resilience in Indigenous communities,” said Raymond Foxworth, Vice President of First Nations Grants, Development and Communications, during of the grant announcement. “We commend the Colorado Health Foundation for not only recognizing this inequity in investing, but also for leading the philanthropic community in addressing inequity in funding.”

Build better relationships

Strengthening community health and promoting health equity are primary tenants of the Colorado Health Foundation, which is a health conversion foundation. Also known as “health legacy foundations”, health conversion foundations are created when a non-profit health organization goes through a sale or merger to become a for-profit corporation and creates a charitable foundation. audience. There are over 300 health conversion foundations across the country. Inside Philanthropy reported on several, including the Episcopal Health Foundation, the Missouri Health Foundation, and several new health legacy foundations in rural areas. Many health conversion foundations, such as the Colorado Health Foundation, use a broad definition of health care, which includes consideration of the social determinants of health.

Under the leadership of President and CEO Karen McNeil-Miller, the Colorado Health Foundation has expanded its focus on equity, which means investing in deep, long-term relationships in diverse communities.

“This work begins with relationships; it is the most powerful fuel and engine for manifesting equity,” said Sean Dollard, program officer at the foundation. “This investment with First Nations is built on years and years of building fundamental relationships, because before you can do anything, trust has to come into play. Indigenous people have experienced a lack of trust in the institutions at predominantly white, white-centric and white supremacist, and that includes philanthropy. You can’t even think of building a genuine partnership without first building trust with the person sitting across from you.

For the Colorado Health Foundation, that meant numerous meetings with Indigenous leaders and organizations across the state; the foundation has also launched a series of listening sessions with indigenous groups.

Dollard’s perspective echoes the findings of the recent First Nations report on Colorado’s philanthropies and their underinvestment in Indigenous communities. The report calls on philanthropy to build better relationships and warns that “foundations need to understand that building relationships takes time, dedication, action and intentionality.”

In Dollard’s experience, too many foundation reps don’t do this hard work. “We’ve heard this in the landscape of private philanthropy: ‘We don’t know where to put those dollars. They did not respond to our emails. This is actually an excuse I hear a lot. I don’t think we can separate this response from structural racism, attempted genocide, and the cultural erasure of Indigenous peoples. It may be easier for an institution not to be intentional and take that extra step of creating and building those relationships. »

Indigenous leaders of non-profit organizations interviewed for the First Nations report cited other barriers to obtaining funding. One is the “not-for-profit starvation cycle” – that is, funders expect funding to be spent on program development, as opposed to general support for the infrastructure and capacity building, which in turn limits the nonprofit’s ability to expand program work. Other leaders cited complicated grant application and reporting procedures, which place a burden on small organizations with limited staff.

Finally, many nonprofit leaders pointed to funders’ ignorance of the history of Indigenous peoples in the state — and an apparent reluctance to learn about this difficult history and its impact on communities. indigenous. As one nonprofit Native representative put it, “What’s tiring about being a Native American in the first place is getting everyone to know you.”

Health Equity

The Native American Health Equity Fund has just been created, and the mechanics of its operation – the criteria for funding and how potential recipients will be identified, for example – will be decided by an advisory committee that is currently being constitution. This corresponds to a growing interest in introducing democratic or participatory elements into grantmaking, by asking members of the community served to guide funding decisions.

“We really want this to be a community-led and community-designed process, and to be fueled by Indigenous values,” said Foxworth of the First Nations Development Institute. “We just received the grant at the beginning of the year and over the last few months we have been working to identify the people who will be part of the advisory committee. We expect the first meeting to take place in May.

Meanwhile, as part of the First Nations grant, the Colorado Health Foundation has developed what Dollard calls “intentional milestones” to track its own progress. I think this is the first time we’ve developed this kind of built-in responsibility step directly into the investment,” he said. “We will generate a global report to track how much we have invested in Indigenous communities year over year and share it directly with the First Nations Development Institute. This way, each year we can query and evaluate our donations to projects that advance Indigenous health equity. We must always ask ourselves: how can we do better? I think it shows a different way – a more trust-based way – of working.