Native News Pick of the Month: The Disconnect between Philanthropy and Native American Food Sovereignty

This month, PWNA director of major gifts & partnerships Mark Ford offers his thoughts on our March ‘Native News Pick of the Month’: Funders want to help ensure Native food sovereignty. Many in those communities want philanthropy to do better via The Counter.


When I first began my work in partnership development and fundraising for Partnership with Native Americans (PWNA), I discovered there were few corporate and private foundations that provided funding support for tribes. The Counter recently published an article that touches on the issue of philanthropy in Native American communities. Since reading it, I’ve thought about how there are plenty of grant opportunities for programs that address food insecurity and local food access in urban and rural settings. However, there are few funding options for the same type of work in tribal communities.

I discovered that only 0.23% (less than a quarter of one percent) of all philanthropic funds in the U.S. are awarded to Native-led nonprofits, and on average, 0.4% (four-tenths of one percent) of total annual funding from foundations go to Native American communities and causes.  

Before PWNA can pursue funding from foundations, we need to educate people about the history of Native Americans that isn’t taught in schools. So, we began providing information about tribal governments, Native American food systems (pre- and post-colonization) and the effects of colonization on Native Americans. Even now, many foundations are unaware that U.S. government policies and historical events still perpetuate food insecurity, poor health and poverty in tribal communities. This shows us there are still misconceptions about Native Americans that need to be addressed within all levels of philanthropy.

Recently, we implemented additional ways to teach both current and potential donors about tribes. We’re also developing more materials to educate funders, nonprofit partners and state/federal partners on the history of Native food systems. PWNA has been able to arrange reservation visits for donors where they can meet tribal partners who are involved in gardening, beginner farmer/rancher programs, local farmers markets and other projects that promote Native American traditional food systems. This has inspired major foundations to shift their focus and include tribes as a priority or embrace equity and inclusion in their grant programs. 

PWNA also has been able to foster cohorts of Native food practitioners, producers and nonprofits who are committed to supporting local Native American Food Sovereignty initiatives. These coalitions are committed to addressing food insecurity together by sharing best practices, resources and information. Dr. Janie Simms Hipp, CEO of the Native American Agricultural Fund and founder of the Indigenous Food & Agriculture Initiative, taught me that tribes and Native serving nonprofits, such as PWNA, need to come together. Much like a pack of wolves, we should work together to hunt for resources and share the spoils.

Even if foundations would invest just 1 full percent of their giving to Native causes, it would create lasting changes for tribal communities. However, Native-led nonprofits and tribes must continue to educate foundations about the real history of Native Americans, dispel misconceptions and invite funders to visit tribal communities. That way, funders can see firsthand how citizens are actively addressing food insecurity and restoring traditional food systems to promote better nutrition and health for generations to come.

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