You Gotta Give to Get: Bringing Philanthropy’s Millions to Native Causes

A Giving Nature: How First Nations Development Institute is Attracting More Donors to Native Causes

Americans are a very giving people. In 2013, an estimated $335.17 billion was given to charities by individuals, corporations, foundations and bequests, based on research by Giving USA.

Even so, not much of that windfall was channeled to Native organizations, according to Michael Roberts, president and CEO of First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit, Native-run organization in Colorado that has helped strengthen more than 800 Native communities and economies with more than $22.2 million in grants.

“We know from studies by Native Americans in philanthropy that very little money in private philanthropy goes to Indian causes — less than three-tenths of one percent -- and Native Americans represent over two percent of the U.S. population,” Roberts, an enrolled member of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, told ICTMN. He thinks indigenous causes get overlooked because of the public perception that the U.S. government takes care of the needs of all tribes, and that gaming has made all Native Americans wealthy, so why would they need donations?

Despite the misperceptions, Roberts has come up with an innovative way to draw attention to Native causes. With a $306,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, First Nations has launched a pilot program called — a website that spotlights small, grassroots Native organizations and projects in need of funding. The groups featured on the site have already passed the smell test, as they come from First Nations’ pool of previous and present grant recipients.

“The biggest issue is that no one knows these folks exist,” said Roberts, who calls the website a “one-stop shopping mall” for philanthropists who are looking for worthy Native charities to support. They simply choose a cause and conveniently donate right there on the site. And 100 percent of the tax-deductible donations goes to the designated groups. “It is very much like crowdsourcing,” said Roberts. was launched last December as a pilot program, and to date, the site has featured five Native organizations focused on Native youth, families and sustainable food systems. One of the groups, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP) in New Mexico, recently received the largest gift yet from a private donor: $500. They plan to use the money to fund afterschool youth sports programs and a summer camp.

“Our big dream is to have a multi-purpose field for our kids to play on. Right now, they play in the dirt,” said Zowie Banteah-Yuselew, afterschool program coordinator of Developing Youth Mentoring Empowerment Self-Expression Achievement (DYMESA). She said ZYEP has used a recent grant from First Nations to help fund a migration project, through which 15 adolescents and chaperones retraced the migratory path of the Zuni tribe starting at the Grand Canyon, where the Zunis originated.

In addition to fundraising, First Nations also provides technical assistance to the organizations they support. “We get them ready to tell their stories and market who they are to a broader public,” said Roberts. “We teach them how to thank donors appropriately and maintain a relationship with these donors over the long-term.”

Pauline Butler, coordinator of community happiness for The STAR School in Flagstaff, Arizona, the first completely solar-powered school in the country, said that being featured on has been a blessing to them. “They are possibly one of the best things that has happened to us. They have put us on the map and given us a lot of exposure.” To date, The STAR School has received $400 in donations and Butler said they are hoping to garner enough support from donors to fund an arts program for their students, preschool to eighth grade.

Butler, Navajo, likes the ongoing training they receive from First Nations as part of the program. “They teach us how to ask for donations from large corporations, which we have never done before. We learned how to send out newsletters and thank donors … it’s been fun,” said Butler, who believes the training piece of the program has been invaluable. “It makes us more professional, bottom line.”

First Nations CEO Roberts said that his organization is in the business of making the dreams of Native people come true. “We strongly believe that Indian communities have the creativity and wherewithal to solve their own problems. But sometimes they need some technical assistance and a little bit of capital to make those ideas a reality, and that’s where First Nations comes in.”

Traditionally, First Nations has raised money mostly through private foundations. “But we recognize that individual donors make up a much larger part of the giving puzzle,” and through, Roberts believes they can tap into some of that largesse for Native causes.

So which Native groups spotlighted on the website are expected to draw the most support from donors? “I think you are going to see a lot of interest in arts and culture, food and food systems, and causes that revolve around the health and well-being of children,” Roberts said.

Lynn Armitage in a contributing business writer and enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.