#117 How to Work Effectively with Native Americans with Erik Stegman, Chief Executive Officer, Native Americans in Philanthropy

Feb 20, 2023

Eric joins us to encourage donors to think about framing, making sure we approach conversations from a place of strength. Cultural power, ancestral knowledge, and all sorts of other wisdom are at the table. Start your relationship in a way that Native communities want to partner with you. 


Episode Highlights:

  • Eric’s personal journey
  • The untapped potential of experts and partnerships in the Native American Nonprofit Sector 
  • The importance of a proper approach
  • The problem with deficit framing


Erik R. Stegman Bio:

Erik serves as Chief Executive Officer of Native Americans in Philanthropy, a national organization advocating for stronger and more meaningful investments by the philanthropic sector in tribal communities. Previously, he served as the Executive Director for the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. He has held positions at the Center for American Progress on their Poverty to Prosperity team, as Majority Staff Counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and in the Obama administration as a Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. Erik began his career in Washington, D.C. at the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center.

He holds a J.D. from UCLA School of Law, an M.A. in American Indian Studies from UCLA’s Graduate Division, and a B.A. from Whittier College.



Website: https://nativephilanthropy.org

Fund for Shared Insight


If you enjoyed this episode, listen to these as well:

#77 The Correct Steps to Support Indigenous Communities with Erik Stegman, Executive Director, Native Americans in Philanthropy

#74 How Collaborations Help to End Injustice with Nicole Bice, Executive Director, Hovde Foundation

#71 Sybil Speaks: When and How to Engage Expert Advisors


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Full Transcript

Hello everybody, and welcome to my podcast. 

This month, I'm focused on how to be a really good donor, if you care about giving to indigenous communities. Last week you heard me talk to Jim Enote, and he made a reference while we were talking. There is a great organization called Native Americans in Philanthropy. 

Well, I have to tell you, you're in luck. I also interviewed Eric Stegman, who is the head of Native Americans in Philanthropy, and I loved our conversation. I recorded this. It was episode 77, In my first series, my first season, I have now pulled out excerpts for you to enjoy and learn from in this season #2.

February is a special month for me because I'm focusing on speaking with people who have great advice on how to give effectively to indigenous communities. So, take a listen. 

Sure, thanks for having me, Sybil. It's really nice to reconnect, and I appreciate having the conversation today. 

You know, I'm one of those people in philanthropy who kind of asks himself on a regular basis, "How did I stumble into this bizarre sector?" And I think one of the things I've learned is that. Especially in my role as the organization's field leader, For, you know, a large and diverse group of people, cultures, languages, and tribal nations. You have to be kind of a jack of all trades.

And because I'm one of these people, you know I have my own background in certain areas, but I also know a lot of amazingly smart people from our communities. Who are doing amazing things in our field;   I'd spend most of my time referring the field to all of our experts. And how I got there was really, you know, I grew up in the Seattle area and cut my teeth as an organizer when I was younger.

My mom's family is from, and Carry The Kettle Nakoda Nation, which is in a coda First Nation up in present-day Saskatchewan. And my grandfather was one of those who gave me a lot of Vine Deloria books telling me to go protect the treaties, and like a lot of young native people, I decided to go to law school because it's really important for us to understand our legal and political relationship with the US government and how to honor that with all of the ancestors who've been out there fighting for what we have today.

I eventually came to Washington, DC, to work for the National Congress of American Indians. I spent a lot of my early legal career focusing on domestic violence and prosecuting domestic violence on reservations, but I worked across just about every policy issue that tribes deal with through the nonprofit sector. Spend some time up on the hill with the Indian Affairs Committee. During the Obama administration, and now that I'm running Native Americans in Philanthropy, which is a national advocacy coalition of funders and community leaders who are working to increase investments in tribal communities, 

And now for an ad, but don't go away. Eric has a lot more to tell us. 

This has been one of the most rewarding jobs I've ever had because I've had to be so entrepreneurial in what I'm doing in philanthropy, it's like we said, it's a strange sector.

A lot of people don't understand it, and yet there's so much untapped potential, not just with the number of resources, but also some of the experts and partnerships that can be developed in the field, So I think for us, we have a big mission at NAB because it's not just about going and getting as many dollars as possible for tribal communities. It's to make sure those dollars are in line with our indigenous worldview and values, which is not easy work when dealing with very large foundations. Sometimes individual donors. 

The biggest challenge in our work that's also an opportunity is the learning curve. So we spend a lot of our time really educating people about who our communities are. You know, just as one example. A lot of people who may have even met a native person or worked on a native cause somewhere in their community don't realize that over 70% of us live off the reservation and in metro areas. At the same time, they often don't understand that we've got over 570 federally recognized tribes in the country, each with its own unique history, culture, languages, and so on. 

For me, that's a big task because I have to find out where people are and their relationship to tribal communities, especially in philanthropy, and try to build relationships in a meaningful way that supports our communities and also takes the burden off of those communities to actually do that work themselves.

So that's a lot of what we do is relationship building a good way to get started or find out where those funders are? Your journey I actually joke that a lot of times I end up as sort of a funder therapist in my particular role because, you know, I think funders want a safe space. The funders who really have the right intentions and their hearts in the right place want a safe space to come and figure out how to do the best work they can in Indian territory. But it's really complicated sometimes. 

So, like in my last job, I ran the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, where I got to work with the whole national network of Native youth leaders from all over the country to design leadership platforms with them, and it was a total blast. But what was really interesting to me were some of the funders with whom I worked most closely who wanted to start bringing their youth leaders into their work differently, but they knew that they wanted to make sure they weren't being extractive as one issue, right? 

And this is something we deal with all the time in the sector, where people like me who work in the gap between our community organizations and philanthropy must be especially vigilant. Or people, because sometimes funders will invite one of our community leaders to a conversation, but they don't realize that it's a one-way relationship. 

And so, what I was starting to do was build funder engagement directly into our work, so they might have been funding a youth leadership program. But what I was doing was putting some of those resources into supporting programs for youth leaders to, like, be involved in philanthropy but make sure they were supported. Make sure they were getting paid for their time and that they understood how those dollars might come back into their own organizations. 

So, I've been doing a lot more work to think about how we integrate the funder's engagement in education into the work without burdening it. And to ensure that this results in more resources and relationships for the partners with whom we collaborate.

And now for an ad, but Eric still has more advice for us, so stay tuned.

I can see it from a lot of students' standpoints when they come in and want to learn, and learning is one of the most important ways to build meaningful and respectful relationships with our communities. However, when you're a nonprofit leader, an activist, or whomever you're trying to fund, they have 20 other people asking them about who they are, their cultures, and their languages are not unique to Indian countries. It's a massive burden, and it's draining sometimes, especially when those organizations are working on some of our deepest issues out there, you know, like our suicide crisis among our young people or some of our, you know, health disparities. A lot of times, the questions and the framing are all about tragedy. So, they are being asked not only to be educators but also to dwell on the problems that they are attempting to move past, rather than just discussing their vision for success. 

That's a real challenge, and so that's some of where we try to come in to provide the resources that we know are needed, like Indian ones. 01, "Tribal Nations 101," but also: How to put what have we learned from applying what we've learned about grant-making in our own communities? 

Those kinds of things are important tools, but it's really important that when you go into those communities try to identify resources that are out there for you as an audience, and that might be like philanthropy or some of our national partners that offer a range of resources so you can start from a different, less burdensome place and build your relationship with those community burdens.

Easily the most personal one to me. A little bit is all you need. The approach you're taking how do you see our communities after having run a youth organization? I believe the single most frustrating aspect of every youth leader I worked with was not wanting to be asked about their problems again. And you know they have amazing visions for their future. They're working on incredible programs to rebuild their language, their culture, and their developing programs with horses that are assisting in trauma healing.

They are not coming up and saying I want.to talk about all of them the challenges, I face in my community, and unfortunately, that has been one. and in such a dominant way that donors and funders have approached us. It's about if you even look at the way a grant application is structured for a lot of donors, asking for a problem. They ask for this case to stand, and just the nature of asking that is the first question. 

Great point, yeah. 

We then feel that we have to explain how we do our work in a deficit mindset, this can be extremely difficult. 

So, I think that's one of the biggest areas of work that a funder can do with real impact, and there are a lot of other resources in the field that is beyond us that is about how you get out of this deficit framing. I would really encourage donors to think about framing right, like the fund for shared insight and some of the others that we work with because I believe that if you approach those conversations from a place of strength and you understand they have consequences, they will be more effective. 

Cultural power, ancestral knowledge, and all sorts of other wisdom are at the table. That's going to start your relationship out very differently, in a way that our communities want it to partner with you. 

One of the things about being an organization like NAP is that you really do have to do your own grant-making to some extent to understand how to work in this sector. And since almost 10 years ago, we have had a partnership with the Common Council Foundation, which is a national indigenous participatory grant-making collaborative. And that's one of the only ones between an identity group and a public foundation, like CCF. In addition, we have a national panel of community reviewers who decide where funds go to over 80 indigenous LED power-building organizations. Unrestricted grants are multi-year, and it's a really tight cohort of really amazing grassroots nonprofits, and for our 10th anniversary, we're going to be launching a $10 million fund. ways to expand that cohort. Ensure longer-term planning and sustainability.

When I came into NAP, one of the things I realized was another big misunderstanding by donors: the difference between native-led nonprofits and our tribal nations. You know how many people think about tribes; you know how many people hear about them. They might know about them and their community. They may witness some economic development. 

But a lot of the issues donors are trying to solve or invest in solving are, you know, education and healthcare, and especially for the ones that are interested in trying to support that work on reservations, our tribal leaders need to be at the table, and yet we do not have a platform for funders to engage with tribal leaders as the leaders of their government. 

We are in the middle of a regional listening session tour for our new Tribal Nations initiative, which is going to be a first-of-its-kind platform where tribal leaders can really strategically come together with philanthropy, including tribes that do their own grant-making, to really think about how we solve these issues at a systemic level in a public-private partnership way, working with our federal partners.

Well, Eric, this has just been delightful. 

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule and talking to me, and I just look forward to many more conversations about how donors can be effective and support the Native American community, both in the United States and around the world So thanks a lot, Eric. 

Thanks, Sybil. It's really a pleasure to be here, and I look forward to joining you again.