Sherry Salway Black

Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Lori Pourier, president of First Peoples Fund, a grantmaking organization that supports Indigenous arts and culture bearers. Our chat focused on Pourier’s career, how arts can boost economic development in Native communities, and the fund’s $6 million gift from MacKenzie Scott.

Pourier offered to put me in touch with the fund’s chair, Sherry Salway Black, to get her take on key issues facing Native American nonprofits. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

Black has worked for more than 40 years in Native American issues with organizations like the American Indian Policy Review Commission, First Nations Development Institute, and the National Congress of American Indians. In addition to chairing the First Peoples Fund, she serves on the boards of directors of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and as a trustee for the Native American Agriculture Fund.

A member of the Oglala Lakota nation, Black was the recipient of the 2019 John W. Gardner Leadership Award in recognition of her precedent-setting work addressing Native causes.

Black’s experience as a nonprofit leader, consultant and fundraiser has given her a unique perspective into funders’ historically tepid support for Native American organizations. While the field is still far from anything resembling funding parity, Black is encouraged by the increasing number of Native people on foundation boards and in the philanthropic sector overall, plus funders’ growing recognition of historically undercapitalized Native organizations in the wake of the pandemic and nationwide movement against systemic inequity.

Building community assets

Black’s entry into the world of philanthropy took place in 1985, when she joined the First Nations Development Institute, a 501(c)(3) that seeks to improve economic conditions for Native Americans through direct financial grants, technical assistance and training, and advocacy and policy. Founded in 1980 as the First Nations Financial Project with a $25,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the organization was renamed First Nations Development Institute in 1991 and launched its grantmaking program two years later.

“Over the 20 years that I was there, we really focused on opening up new doors for Native development with foundations,” Black said. For example, Black helped launch the institute’s Strengthening Native American Philanthropy program, which aimed to increase the number of Native American philanthropic institutions and programs that actively support the Native American nonprofit sector.

Through mid-year 2021, First Nations has awarded 2,276 grants totaling $46 million to Native American projects and organizations in 42 states, the District of Columbia and American Samoa. Last July, First Nations announced it received an $8 million gift from MacKenzie Scott.

It was at First Nations that Black met Lori Pourier, who eventually left the institute in the 1990s to join First Peoples Fund. The two kept in touch and Pourier subsequently asked Black to join the fund’s board. “Laurie and I have similar backgrounds,” Black said. “We both focused on this idea of building community assets and this idea of Native communities kind of taking control of their own work.” In addition, Black and Pourier hail from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “We consider each other family,” Black said.

“Taking back the narrative”

Last July, IP’s Michael Kavate noted that institutional support for Indigenous issues in the U.S. has long hovered around 0.4% of total foundation funding. Support increased during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, but a 2019 report by Candid and Native Americans in Philanthropy found that gains in 2016 were “modest” and that total funding was still comparable to its pre-recession level in 2006, when adjusted for inflation.

Black had a similar assessment. On one hand, the field continues to receive crucial support from “the usual suspects” like the Ford, W. K. Kellogg, Robert Wood Johnson, Charles Stewart Mott, MacArthur and Rasmuson foundations, plus regional funders like Minneapolis’ Northwest Area Foundation. But at the broader level, support for Native causes “is not what it needs to be,” she said.

That said, she pointed to areas where the field has advanced considerably in recent years. For example, Black dialed into a virtual conference session back in June and heard an attendee say that there is only one Native person on a private foundation board.

This didn’t match Black’s experience, so she did some cursory research into the composition of foundation boards. She found that there were at least 28 Native people who serve on the boards of 13 private foundations, and nine Native people on the boards of seven community foundations. “Should have been more?” Black asked. “Probably. But that is very different from when I started, and even probably 10 years ago.”

Black also noted that communities of color are “taking back the narrative or putting the narrative out there.” This was a huge takeaway from my chat with Pourier, who explained that the United States’ “dark history” of placing Indigenous children in boarding schools in the early 20th century wiped out generations of Native culture.

Native communities’ efforts to take back the narrative were years in the making. Black worked at the National Congress of American Indians in the latter part of the 2010s. One of her top priorities was assessing the American public’s perception of Native issues. She’d ask questions like, “Why are we invisible? And when we are visible, what do people know about us? And how can we get a handle on that story?”

“Those studies really formed the basis for a lot of the work that folks are doing now to change and control the narrative moving forward,” Black said.

“Doors are opening”

Another influential player in the field is Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP), an organization that promotes equitable and effective philanthropy in Native communities. Black told me she’s been encouraged by the organization’s recent efforts to build out its networks to include Native program officers, in addition to CEOs and board members.

NAP received a multimillion-dollar donation from Scott last summer, underscoring what is perhaps the greatest cause for optimism among Native American leaders—the possibility that Scott’s philanthropy will compel other funders to help organizations “get over get the hump of struggling day-to-day to have the funds to do the work,” Black said. “Hopefully, she’s leading a larger trend.”

In the case of First Peoples Fund, Scott’s $6 million gift eclipses the fund’s $4.7 million operating budget in 2021. Its leaders plan to use the money to “expand on its decades of impact and success, increasing the number of artists and practitioners the organization funds, increasing the size of the grants that artists can receive, and expanding into additional tribal communities across the country.”

Black currently serves as the board vice-chair for the Florida-based Johnson Scholarship Foundation, which has awarded scholarships to Indigenous students studying business or entrepreneurship since 1992. In August, the foundation published a piece by Black titled “The Changing Face of Philanthropy,” in which she presented her findings on the growing number of Native Americans on foundation boards, among encouraging observations and data points.

“From the social unrest of 2020 and growing attention to equity, diversity and inclusion in both the public and private sector, change is happening faster, opportunities and doors are opening in more places, and more resources are available for social justice,” Black wrote. “Will this continue? It should and it must.”

Food insecurity, agriculture and climate change

Black cited multiple funding areas where philanthropy can build on this momentum, including closing the digital divide, providing scholarships, strengthening connections between the arts and economic development, and ensuring food security.

According to Feeding America, 1 in 4 Indigenous people experience food insecurity compared to 1 in 9 Americans overall. The pandemic amplified this stark inequity by revealing critical failure points in the food distribution system, creating food deserts around Native American reservations.

Black told me that “agriculture is really going to be a focus for funders moving forward, in the sense of, how do we ensure food security, but also in how it’s related to climate change.”

As a trustee for the Native American Agriculture Fund, Black spends a lot of time thinking about this issue. In 1999, a class-action lawsuit alleged that the United States Department of Agriculture had engaged in discrimination in lending against Native American farmers and ranchers dating back to the early 1980s. In 2010, the parties agreed to a settlement that created a compensation fund for nonprofits and other eligible organizations that support Native farmers and ranchers.

NAAF began awarding grants in 2010 from a fund of $266 million, making it “the largest private foundation serving Native communities in the country,” Black said. The fund is scheduled to sunset in 2028.

In 2020, the fund published a study titled “Reimagining Native Food Economies,” which explored ways to create a sustainable and resilient food infrastructure post-COVID-19. One of the report’s key themes was helping Native farmers implement adaptive agricultural practices. “Native agriculture has always been climate-smart agriculture,” the report read. “Native agriculture must be fully included and supported in all efforts to ensure agriculture is the leader in response to climate impacts.”

“I see the fund’s role as helping farmers adopt climate mitigation and conservation practices,” Black said. “And I think you’ll be seeing other funders doing this as the impact of climate change becomes more vivid.”