AAPIP Voices

Native Americans in Philanthropy: An Interview with Erik Stegman


November is considered Native American Heritage Month, although like other such designations, it is important to recognize and honor the indigenous peoples on whose land this country called the United States sits on. This month, Pat spoke with Erik Stegman who started in his role as Executive Director of Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) in February of this year. These are some excerpts from their conversation. 

Pat: AAPIP and NAP share a common origin story dating back over 30 years ago. Can you share with us some reflections you have about this history and NAP’s trajectory over the last few decades?

Erik: I didn’t always know that NAP and AAPIP shared their origins, but when I found out from folks like Barbara Poley at the Hopi Foundation and others from back in the day, I was really inspired. Both NAP and AAPIP represent communities that really struggle with a very basic misunderstanding by the public about who we are. I know that we each deal with invisibility in different ways, but that’s always the first hurdle to doing our work. Then on top of that, you have the rich diversity that exists within the acronym that is used to encompass our work. 

Over the last 30 years, we’ve been able to build networks that have done a lot for our communities, including starting different conversations in philanthropy that are really lacking in other spaces and sectors. I went to my first NAP conference in 2004 and looking back, NAP was a really important resource to organizations who were just trying to better understand the philanthropic landscape. This was also true for the funders. NAP, like other philanthropy-serving organizations, has reflected on how it balances important responsibilities to our primary audiences of funders and philanthropy, and communities and community-serving organizations, which can be tricky because the needs can be so different. 

The biggest resource we bring to the table is the depth and trust of our networks. These are the folks who hold the knowledge and relationships to steer philanthropy in a good direction for our communities. We have a role to play in translating this knowledge and these networks in a sector which operates in so many different ways. When I came into the organization in February 2020, I acknowledged and understood that inherent tension in the work; we are an advocacy organization, we’re building leadership pathways for Natives into the sector, and we also find ourselves strategically advising some funders. Now, we’re putting even more time and energy to invest in these networks, whether it’s connecting with Native program officers at foundations, community organizations through our Native Voices Rising Fund, or tribal government leaders who have their own philanthropic arms at the tribes themselves. 

Pat: What are your thoughts about how we can simultaneously advocate on behalf of our vast communities without detracting from the impacts on fellow communities of color? What does it look like to walk the line of solidarity and self-advocacy?

Erik: We’ve always struggled with how we work together as a coalition across so many different communities who in some ways deal with very similar issues and in many ways deal with very different issues. Organizations and coalitions like ours who are so focused on equity need to think about youth organizing. I cut my teeth as a youth organizer and have always believed in the power of young people to push us to do things differently, and especially with everything going on, we’re seeing the value of youth-led movement now more than ever. Next year at NAP, we’ll be developing a Native youth leadership team in philanthropy to bring their experiences and perspectives to the sector. This program would then build up to allow Native youth leaders to determine investment strategies for Native youth-led work. I also know that these youth leaders will be strong advocates for coalition work; I’ve seen over the years that Native youth leaders have been building coalitions, even on the most remote reservations. I actually think that the youth are waiting for folks like us to catch up. 

I’m also looking forward to focusing on data, and the coalition of CHANGE Philanthropy is working with big partners in the field like Candid and thinking about how we frame and present data to accurately portray who we are. Another question for us in the sector is how we might continue to challenge a broader set of funders, particularly donor advised funds where capital is parked that should be helping all our communities. How can this wealth be better redistributed to actually support all of us? This is work that CHANGE Philanthropy is doing well already, and I’m very glad NAP is part of it. 

Pat: There have been many struggles between federal administrations and tribal nations since this country was founded. What are some hopes you have for this new administration and the implications for NAP’s work?

Erik: For our communities, it was beyond a sigh of relief. For us, this continues an important commitment developed by President Obama who was one of the most committed presidents to tribal communities we’ve ever had – he campaigned in Indian Country! My last job included bringing many Native youth leaders to the annual White House Tribal Nations Summit. I so appreciated initiatives like the Generation Indigenous Youth Initiative which has empowered a unique generation of Native youth who feel like they have a voice not just at the federal level but in the White House itself. The Tribal Nations Plan that the Biden-Harris team has released is excellent. The annual Tribal Nations Summit will happen again, tribal nation to nation consultation will be restored again, and there is excellent Native leadership on several of the transition teams. I am excited about the potential for more initiatives to be born from more intentional and meaningful dialogue between the administration and tribal communities. 

NAP will be organizing convenings and other learning opportunities between members of the transition team (and eventually those who will be leading federal agencies) and funders so they can better understand where they can gain the most impact with their dollars in supporting Native communities. In the policy space, there’s a serious lack of community planning and development dollars going into our communities — there are important federal resources out there, but aren’t accessible to our communities – some communities aren’t afforded the luxury of planning long-term visions for themselves. So these are some areas that private philanthropy can play a pivotal role in. 

Pat: What is one last thing you want to leave us with?

Erik: The most challenging thing for me as Executive Director in this organization right now is not being able to be in community in the ways that I used to be. Not only did it ground me, but it also kept me accountable. I’m used to being on the res talking with groups of elders, hanging out with youth, and just feeling the pulse of what’s happening and where we need to direct our energy. We need to ensure that the resources we’re using from this very finite philanthropic pie are turning into a platform and voice for the local and regional organizations who are really the ones creating change out there. So, once we get to the other side of this pandemic, I can’t wait to be back in community. 

Pat: Thank you Erik!