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Diversity Essay: Native American fundraising: Don't forget your blanket

Resource Center - Foundation

The views expressed herein are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, or the organizations with which the authors are affiliated.

By Kay C. Peck, CFRE, Flying Pigs Creative Services
AFP New Mexico Chapter

Among Native American peoples, diversity reigns. There is no one "Indian" culture. American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian peoples display great variety, causing a major challenge for anyone daring to accept the task of fundraising from and/or for Native populations. It is wise to enter this fundraising arena aware of one's own preconceived notions and stereotypes. Taking time to develop relationships with specific populations can be fruitful not just in terms of dollars raised. For the fundraiser who is unafraid to leave his or her business attire at home, joining in a Round Dance or being welcomed into a hogan (a traditional Navajo home) can be a very fulfilling personal experience.

Although Native Americans are people of infinite variety, there are some commonalities shared among Native communities that can be helpful in fundraising. The days of "off the rack" fundraising strategies and techniques are past. Simply using established techniques created primarily for white, affluent or middle-class populations can be a formula for disaster when serving diverse populations.

For example, Native Americans do not need to be taught how to give. Native traditions of philanthropy may look a little different from that practiced by professional fundraisers, but they are well woven into the fabric of native society. If there is any Native sub-culture in North America or Hawaii who does not revere the practice of seeing and meeting the needs of others, the author of this piece has yet to find them. Take, for example, the common practice of the blanket dance at powwows and other Native American functions. If someone or some organization has a need, a dance is dedicated to that person or organization, and a blanket is placed in the ceremonial circle. As the drum plays and dancers circle round, donors walk into the circle and place gifts of money on the blanket.

When a fundraiser prepares solicitation materials or plans to approach Native Americans to request funding, making a Native population aware of a need is very nearly the equivalent of asking for a donation. The actual request for money or pledges can and should be relatively low-key. If an organization can: 1) prove the need in terms of actual lives affected; and 2) earn the trust of the Native population that it is working with, then success in fundraising efforts is likely to follow.

With nearly 2.5 million (Census Bureau 2000 projections) Native Americans in the United States, this population is a major consideration for nonprofit organizations, both as a community to serve and as potential donors. This is especially true in states such as Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, and others with large concentrations of Native populations.

As stated earlier, there are no quick and easy answers for effective fundraising involving Native populations, but there are a few common points for a fundraiser who finds herself (or himself) navigating in a Native community. Examples include:

  • Build relationships before soliciting funds: Because of the complexity (and beauty) of Native cultures, nonprofit organizations should interact as individuals and build relationships with a specific community before soliciting funds from community members. Like any other community, Native groups are more likely to lend credence to what fundraisers have to say when their communities and cultures are approached with honor, respect and patience. Of course, in order to be trusted, fundraisers must establish themselves as open and trustworthy people and that means making an effort to build personal relationships with individuals.
  • Connect requests to the needs of people: Last fall, this author found herself in a Native community meeting where a primary topic of discussion was the availability of firewood for the winter. It was clear from the outset that no one at the meeting was going to let anyone in the community go cold. Everyone recognized the importance of fulfilling the basic needs of every individual. Successful fundraising among Native populations requires a case statement that clearly connects the need to individual lives ? to members of the community.
  • Respectful donor recognition: Caution is important in donor recognition. While "mainstream" fundraising has turned opportunities for donor visibility (from wall plaques to public events to the naming of buildings and facilities) into an art form, Native donors may find such public displays as a less than positive experience. It is wise to consult discreetly with the donor before planning a highly visible donor recognition effort.

Interaction with Native groups can provide opportunities and resources for nonprofit organizations that include and go beyond potential funds raised. Some Native traditions also serve as a reminder of what is important for any organization striving to serve that illusive ideal of "philanthropy" - the love of humanity.

Offered as an example is an excerpt from the Preamble to the Bylaws of the National Institute for Native Leadership in Higher Education:

As the Governing Council of this organization, we affirm that leaders exist to serve the people. People are more important than things. People are more important than time. Every member of this organization has the right to speak in Council. Wisdom comes from many sources and good counsel is welcome no matter who offers it. Leaders do not wield power. They hold responsibility in a sacred trust with the people.

On that note, this author ends with a simple statement: "Ah-Ho." Very loosely translated, that means, "I have heard truth, and I acknowledge it." Some folks would just say it means, "Amen," but that's a whole other culture well worth its own study.

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