#149 Indigenous People's Day Special Episode with Erik Stegman, Chief Executive Officer, Native Americans in Philanthropy

community honor indigenous communities indigenous peoples day initiative native americans philanthropy solidarity Oct 09, 2023

For Indigenous People’s Day, we are replaying a conversation with Eric Stegman. Eric joins us to encourage donors to consider framing, ensuring we confidently approach talks from a place of strength. Cultural authority, hereditary knowledge, and other forms of wisdom are all on the table. Eric explains how to begin your relationship in such a way that Native communities will want to collaborate with you.


Episode Highlights:

  • Eric’s 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 was 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. 




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Hello, everyone. I'm working on my podcast schedule. In looking at it, I saw that one of my episodes is on Indigenous Peoples Day, so I decided to take a break from my regularly scheduled programming and rerun one of my favorite interviews with Eric Stegman, who has such great advice on how to give well to Indigenous peoples in the United States. 

Eric, I'm really happy you're on my program today. It's just great to talk to you. I've had so much fun getting to know you, Eric, because you are working with Native Americans in philanthropy, a very important organization. 

And I just think you have. I have so much to offer my listeners, who are donors who want to support so many amazing people doing good work in the world, and this very much includes the Native American community. And you just have such great advice for me, for me, and my listeners. And also, you have some really important initiatives. And there are great gatherings that you're organizing in the next month. So, I just wanted to ensure we talked so I could. Get this out there. 

So, Eric, can you talk to me briefly about your journey and what brought you today? And your professional career?

Sure, thanks for having me, Sybil. It's nice to reconnect, and I appreciate having the conversation today. I'm one of those in philanthropy who asks himself regularly, "How did I stumble into this bizarre sector?" 

I so know that feeling. I think we all sort of stumbled backward into it, right? It's like, wait, I'm a funder. What the heck?

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, I have my background in certain areas, but I also know many amazingly smart people from our communities. Who is 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, you know, I grew up in Seattle and cut my teeth as an organizer when I was younger.

My mom's family is from and carries the Kettle Nakoda Nation, a coda First Nation in present-day Saskatchewan. And my grandfather was one of those who gave me a lot of Vine Deloria books telling me to protect the treaties. Like many young native people, I decided to go to law school because we need 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 much of my early legal career focusing on domestic violence and prosecuting domestic violence on reservations. Still, I worked across almost 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,

You are a rock star, so hats off to you. So, let's talk now… With all this experience you have, you're now focused on philanthropy. And how exactly are you working in philanthropy to make sure that the grants that you're working with donors on to give to Native American communities are going to the right places, going to support the right causes, and making sure that the voices of the Native American communities are strong? Talk to me about some of the Successes you've had. I like that kind of piece. And then I also want to talk to you about some of the challenges in this work.

Sure. I've told many people in this particular part of my career: 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.

Many people don't understand it, yet there's so much untapped potential, not just with the number of resources but also with some of the experts and partnerships that can be developed in the field. So, I think 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 ensure those dollars align with our indigenous worldview and values, which is difficult when dealing with large foundations. Sometimes, individual donors.

The biggest challenge in our work that's also an opportunity is the learning curve. So, we spend much time educating people about who our communities are. You know, just as an example. Many people who may have 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 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 do that work themselves.

So that's a lot of what we do: relationship building is a good way to get started or find out where those funders are on your journey. 

And now for an ad. But don't go away because Eric's got lots more to talk to you about.

Yeah, Eric. And can you tell me something when you sit back and think about your work here? A grant or a particular relationship with the donor that you supported, and giving grants or donations that make you smile like that makes you happy? This is why I do what you do—the work.

Yeah, I think you know it happens a lot. And one of the reasons I went into this job.

I often joke that I often end up as sort of a funder therapist in my particular role because, you know, I think funders want a safe space. The funders with the right intentions and their hearts in the right place want a safe space to come and figure out how to do their best work in Indian territory. But it isn't very easy 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 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 always deal with 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 invite one of our community leaders to a conversation, but they don't realize it's a one-way relationship.

And so, I was starting to build funder engagement directly into our work so that they might have funded a youth leadership program. But I was putting some of those resources into supporting programs for youth leaders to be involved in philanthropy and ensure they were supported. Ensure they were paid for their time and understood how those dollars might come back into their organizations.

So, I've been doing a lot more work to consider integrating 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.

That sounds great, and I love that your inspiration is working with and supporting youth. That power dynamic is real, especially if you're supporting youth. 

And the younger generation wants to have funds and money to do their work, and that's a great story where you're working. It feels like that, and it naturally transitioned into your broader role now in Native Americans and philanthropy. 

So, thanks for sharing that. 

You talked a little bit about the challenges where donors have come in with good intentions to fund an Indian country, but then they do need a guide, or else they can make mistakes that could be damaging. 

You have seen some of the mistakes folks have made in general, of course, confidentially big picture and not pointing to or pointing fingers. But what have you seen, and what do you know? You came into this role because you didn't want those mistakes to happen. 

So, can we talk a little bit about some of them?

I think the number one is the educational issue.

I can see it from many funders' 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 why 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. Often, 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 they are attempting to overcome 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 "Tribal Nations 101," but also: How to put: What have we learned from applying what we've learned about grant-making in our communities?

Those kinds of things are important tools, but it's really important that when you go into those communities, you 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.

So you can start from a different, less burdensome place in building your relationship with those community partners.

Yeah, that's a great recommendation. So, suppose you're a donor and don't already have experience but want to support. The first question is: Where are those support organizations like Native Americans and Philanthropy? 

And there are others as well. I interviewed Jim Enote, who is also helpful in certain parts of this country, thinking through those questions, and many other folks who can provide valuable resources there. So that would be a great first question, so you don't act as a donor. Make that mistake with all good intentions but overly burdening folks. 

How about maybe one more mistake or challenge you've seen that folks don't want to fall into the pitfall that a donor might not want to fall into even though they have great intentions?

Sure. Right.

And now for an ad. But don't go away because Eric's got lots more to talk to you about.

Easily the most personal one to me… I touched on it a little bit, which is with your approach: how do you see our communities after running a youth organization? I believe the 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 and culture and developing programs with horses that assist in trauma healing.

They are not coming up and saying what I want. To talk about all the challenges I face in my community, 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 how a grant application is structured for many 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 must explain how we do our work with 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 are beyond us that are about how you get out of this deficit framing. I would encourage donors to think about framing right, like the fund for shared insight and some of the others we work with, because I believe that if you approach those conversations from a place of strength. You understand they have consequences; they will be more effective.

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

Thank you for that. And we'll have those links in the show notes. So, you'll share those with us. Anybody interested can check out the various places to go. 

So let's talk a little bit now, Eric, about how you have some cool stuff coming up right now, and I want folks to know that first, you have a big, major initiative, and then you also have an actual meeting. You know what power and solidarity mean. Philanthropic gathering in June, so let's talk about those two things and anything else. Are there any other key initiatives you want, folks? To know about what you're

Sure. I'm going to hit on three exciting initiatives. Top three. I think #1 is that I want to honor our partners, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, in philanthropy. I didn’t realize we were founded together; we were intrigued by this origin story about these two identity-based groups and philanthropy. We came together over 30 years ago, and it was because we faced a lot of the same challenges. We were, you know, a small group of native and API professionals in the sector who were being told by funders that our populations were too small. We were invisible. We were off in the asterisks and the Data, comprising hundreds of languages and cultures. And you know, over 30 years ago, our two organizations were founded together, and Pat, their CEO, and I decided, you know what we're going to do? We're going to co-host a conference. 

And we will show what solidarity means because, trust me, it is not easy for two organizations to come together and put on an entire conference. But we will do it in Seattle in the last week of June, June 26th–29th. And I hope anyone listening can join us. It will be an incredible and moving celebration of our culture for people in the sector and one of the only opportunities you'll have to have, you know, two networks of API and native people, funders, and nonprofits are all coming together. So that'll be in Seattle, and we'll have the information. And through the show, which I'm excited about, I think the second major thing I'm looking forward to this year is that we will also work collaboratively with our native voices.

One of the things about being an organization like NAP is that you have to do your grant-making to some extent to understand how to work in this sector. And since almost ten years ago, we have partnered with the Common Council Foundation, 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 that decides where funds go to over 80 indigenous LED power-building organizations. Unrestricted grants are multi-year, and it's a tight cohort of amazing grassroots nonprofits; for our 10th anniversary, we will launch a $10 million fund—ways to expand that cohort. Ensure longer-term planning and sustainability.

So, you'll also be able to meet many of those folks at our Power and Solidarity Conference. So, encourage anyone to participate, and we'll share the link. And then there was the last one.

When I came into NAP, I realized another big misunderstanding by donors: the difference between native-led nonprofits and our tribal nations.

Great point.

You know how many people think about tribes and 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 strategically come together with philanthropy, including tribes that do their grant-making, to think about how we solve these issues at a systemic level in a public-private partnership way, working with our federal partners.

And so we will be coming out with a report this summer summarizing everything we've learned from our tribal leaders and community members throughout the year. And I'm excited to see what kinds of opportunities there are. Funders are going to have to invest in those kinds of

Solutions. That's great, and we'll have everything in the show notes, but if somebody's listening to the podcast running around, it's a very easy website to remember. It's native philanthropy.org, right, Eric? So, a lot of your information is all there. Yeah, native philanthropy.org.

It is not complicated.

Awesome. Well, Eric, this has just been delightful. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to me. And I just look forward to many more conversations about how donors can be effective and supportive. For the Native American community, both in the United States and worldwide. So, thanks a lot, Eric.

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