DEI Grant

Native Americans in Philanthropy

A group of people have a conversation outside.
Members of the Native Americans in Philanthropy team at the Opportunity Youth Forum in New Mexico.
Members of the Native Americans in Philanthropy team at the Opportunity Youth Forum in New Mexico.

For more than 30 years, Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) has brought together a community of Native and non-Native stakeholders committed to engaging, learning and sharing resources to advocate for Tribal communities.

Together with this community of partners, NAP works to increase the visibility of Native people and communities, educate funders, establish meaningful relationships and increase funding to Indigenous-led organizations, movements and Tribal Nations.

Recently, CZI announced NAP as one of our 2022 Racial Equity grantee partners. Each grant recipient activates key levers to advance racial equity — from cultivating more leaders of color, to reshaping policies, to accelerating systemic change.

We spoke with Erik R. Stegman, chief executive officer of Native Americans in Philanthropy, to learn more about the organization’s mission to promote equitable and effective philanthropy in Native communities. Erik’s family is from the Carry the Kettle (Nakoda) First Nation.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. 

What is the big problem your work is trying to solve and why does it matter to you?

Erik R. Stegman: Our mission is actually very simple at NAP. It’s to get as many philanthropic dollars into Tribal communities as possible, but to make sure that those dollars are in line with our values and worldview as Indigenous people.

One of the reasons that we were founded over 30 years ago by a small group of Native and AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) people at a Council on Foundations conference was that we were all invisible to the philanthropic sector. And that invisibility resulted in some of the deepest underinvestment by the philanthropic sector in our communities.

A lot of people don’t understand Native people or Tribal communities. So our biggest hurdles to getting more dollars into communities are making sure that the philanthropic sector understands who contemporary Native people are, the hundreds of languages and cultures that our acronym represents, and the unique political and legal power that Tribes bring to the table with their nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government.

The other piece is making sure more of our own people are in this sector. So another huge part of our work is getting as many Native people into program officer positions, trustee positions, supporting them in national networks, and making sure that our voice as Native people are at all those tables in philanthropy to help us increase those investments.

Erik R. Stegman, chief executive officer of Native Americans in Philanthropy, wears a suit and smiles for a photo. A body of water with boats is behind him.
Erik R. Stegman, chief executive officer of Native Americans in Philanthropy. (Photo courtesy of Native Americans in Philanthropy)

When thinking about your work and the impact you have had to date, what makes you most proud?

Erik: We helped build a movement by our own people for our own people in philanthropy and worked together to create important coalitions like the Change Philanthropy Coalition. I’m really proud of our role as one of the founding partners in many of these coalitions and groups.

As Native people, we call it our superpower — the way that we relate to one another. We’re very connected to each other, to our relatives and our relationships. There’s a lot of power in that. So what we have focused on over the years is thinking about how to use those relationships to build more power in the sector.

We provide a space for groups like our Native Professionals and Philanthropy working group to build shared agendas about how to impact the sector, but to also really support each other. A big part of our work is to build the biggest tent we possibly can so that funders understand the different Native people who are working in this sector and the needs and opportunities that our communities bring to the table.

And finally, we’re really proud of our partnership with the Common Counsel Foundation and our Native Voices Rising Collaborative, which is an Indigenous participatory grant making collaborative where a national panel of Native community and youth leaders make decisions about how to fund over 100 Native led power building organizations across the country through discretionary or unrestricted multi-year grants.

We know racial equity anchors your work. Tell us how your organization approaches its work to advance racial equity — particularly as it relates to cultivating leadership among and for people of color?

Erik: There is no racial equity without the meaningful inclusion of Native people. Our very existence is a racial equity mission.

It’s one thing to just be able to provide an equity framework, a report, a set of principles and standards. But I’ve always been taught that you need to learn values, you need to understand how they operate. A lot of what we try to do is demonstrate a more equitable way to do this work in practice for the field. We do that with our partners by really putting our own Indigenous values forward. Again, thinking about the power of how you’re connected to one another, reciprocity, all of these different values that as Native people are born into who we are.

What is something you or your organization has learned in the last couple of years that has shaped what you are doing today and moving forward?

Erik: We’re always in a learning mode in our organization but it was powerful to see how our communities responded to the pandemic. We saw a mobilization of an amazing network of grassroots partners across the country, Tribal governments, youth programs, scrappy coalitions of folks who got together to make sure that resources were getting to where they needed to go.

We issued a report several months after the pandemic sharing what we learned about how our communities mobilized and philanthropy responded. We interviewed community leaders because we wanted to understand how youth leaders were responding, how elders were responding, urban Native nonprofits and their role in this landscape. There was a lot to learn.

It was one of the first times that a lot of people, particularly those who were not Native, saw the collapse of all of these major systems right in front of them. One of the issues that our communities have been working on for a long time is sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty. All of a sudden supply chains were disrupted. A lot of people who didn’t realize how much they were relying on a flawed system started to understand why we’ve been trying to push to go back to the ways that we’ve always done things. It opened new conversations in the field that are valuable for funders to think about.

I’ve worked my whole life in Tribal law and policy and working with Tribal leaders. When I started at NAP, I looked around and realized we didn’t have many Tribal leaders or Tribes themselves at the table with us in our work. We need to bring Tribal leaders to the table and to help them better understand how the philanthropic sector works. But more importantly, how to set their own table around their priorities with funders to help them better understand the role that philanthropy can play in supporting systems level change with Tribal nations. We launched the Tribal Nations Initiative and we’ve been on a learning tour for the last year, co-hosting regional listening sessions with Tribes and with the Native led nonprofits in those regions to hear from them how they want to shape this initiative. Early 2023, we’ll share a report that will give us our own roadmap to build that platform.

If you had all the resources in the world (relationships, money, time, expertise) what is the one thing you’d want to impact or shift? How?

Erik: I keep coming back to this issue around capacity building. I’ve been so inspired with how much has been happening in Tribal communities over the last couple of years. But ultimately, all of us struggle with a similar challenge, which is the lack of the right kinds of technical experience and other kinds of capacity to see our vision through.

The issue is not as much about the money — to make a lot of these projects work, they need lawyers, they need communications professionals, grant writers and the ability to administer grants. Our entire field is in need of these areas of capacity. It’s a big challenge that requires a lot of deep strategic thinking to figure out what kind of infrastructure we need to incubate to make all of that stuff a reality.

Three people walk on a path outside in a wooded area.
Members of the Native Americans in Philanthropy team at the Opportunity Youth Forum in New Mexico.

What is something most people don’t know about your organization that is important to understand?

Erik: Our organization tends to get lumped into the philanthropy serving organization realm. I am so uncomfortable with that grouping. We have to be put in some category, but we are not a typical member organization that provides a set of member resources to member foundations. I truly see us as an advocacy organization that has been in the field for over 30 years. It’s really important that our work evolves with our growth and achievements in the sector because when we were founded, there was almost no one funding Native organizations or Tribes.

That landscape has changed dramatically and it’s exciting. There’s a lot more work for us to do. But as an advocacy organization, that means that we need to evolve as the field changes, especially to create that big tent of the diverse stakeholders that are in our communities. NAP is entrepreneurial. Every time we have new partners coming to the table who see ways to get resources into our communities, we ask ‘what’s the value we can add to that? How can we get as many Native people involved in the decision making, the strategy and the guidance as possible?’ We are constantly redefining how we do our work. The mission never changes, but the work changes based on the rising leadership that we’re seeing across the field. That’s the most exciting part of what we’re doing right now.

Is there anything you want to share that we haven’t covered?

Erik: It’s important that all of our partners and stakeholders understand what the philanthropic sector is and that they feel their voice matters in it. For too long, we’ve been cut out of a lot of these conversations. The more we do the hard work internally to educate our own people about how to tackle this sector and make it work better for them, the more I see people wanting to engage. An important part of our work is not just educating funders themselves, but making sure that as many Native people across the country as possible understand how philanthropy is or isn’t working for them and what they can do to advocate like they do in other spaces with elections. We’re committed to that internal education of our own people too.

CZI’s Commitment to Racial Equity

Learn more about CZI’s investments in organizations like Native Americans in Philanthropy, who are building networks to advocate for Native communities.