How nonprofits can better ally with Indigenous organizations

Considering that The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established over 14 years ago, why has the sector failed to take a more meaningful role in an area where its support could make a real difference? In our recent episode of CharityVillage Connects, we hear from Indigenous leaders about how the nonprofit sector can better support, and ally with, Indigenous-led organizations and communities.

In the podcast, we heard from Tim Fox, Vice President of Indigenous Relations and Equity Strategy at the Calgary Foundation, about how a “systems change” approach has benefitted the Foundation.

The very word “systems change”, I think, is very new to many sectors and many systems. It means something different depending on what sort of area of focus that you are working on. But, ultimately, what I’m trying to do is mobilize the work of reconciliation, mobilize the work of racial equity by changing our system, by changing us as an organization.

When you’re working in philanthropy, and for the Calgary Foundation, the mental model was, ‘oh, we exist to help support charity. We’re doing all of this great work in the community.’ When I came on board, I sort of had to help…really amplify and surface the fact that there’s a big portion of the population, specifically the First Nations Metis, Inuit population, and now racial populations, who are missing out on a lot of that wealth distribution. So it’s it challenged our mental model. And now that’s the work that I’m focused on. I’m trying to incorporate a change to all operational areas of our system as an organization.

The “change from within” that Tim initiated with the Calgary Foundation is reflective of Peter Dinsdale’s work on organizational change within YMCA Canada.

I became CEO of YMCA Canada in 2016 after an entire career, frankly, with Indigenous organizations, never outside. Coming in, I was on the board at YMCA Canada for a couple of years prior to becoming CEO and [three were] lots of conversations about what can happen around reconciliation. But I will say, at that time, probably not unlike today, there was a lot of nervousness about making a misstep, doing the wrong things, not sure how to move forward. So in 2017, then into 2018, we developed a national statement of reconciliation that talked about our commitment to working with Indigenous peoples and communities that wanted to work with us. And what role that YMCA Canada in particular could provide and could play in reconciliation. We’re clear that we’re not responsible for 400 years of colonization, but we’re responsible for what we do today and how we move forward.

And that’s what our statement was all about, and encouraging local Y’s to take action, because, you know, my view is reconciliation will only be meaningful when it happens on the ground through meaningful actions. So all of our work was really around preparing local YMCAs for that journey. We did things like having our entire national delegation, including representatives from each YMCA, their board chair, youth and CEO, to go through the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, which really touches them emotionally. And it was a great opportunity to hear from indigenous leaders about the impact that organizations like the Y could have with them. I don’t want to suggest that we have it all figured out, but we started in 2018 and we continue to learn and continue to grow.

Peter was also clear that nonprofits need to look at their own structure and identify potential biases or other in-house obstacles to fully engage with Indigenous organizations and communities.

I mentioned some of our successes, but certainly one of our challenges that might resonate with people, is not long after we developed our statement of reconciliation, I was in a Y and I asked them, how’s it going, working with their Indigenous community? The response I got was, ‘It’s not going great, because they don’t come here.’ And it wasn’t intentional, but it’s this idea that it’s us and them and…it takes a lot of work. It’s the impact of history, of poverty, of not seeing YMCAs as someone that your family could go to, could afford to go to, or felt that was for them, or that the services were ever really directed for them that could be directed for someone else. So how, how do you break down that in your community?

You break it down by inviting people in. They’re no longer the other, you’re doing that work together. So it’ll take hard work with your board, in terms of understanding the history. It’ll take hard work with your staff, to make sure that there’s not unconscious bias or different things going on, preventing people from access to programs and services.

But I would also say in the Indigenous communities, it’s okay to work with people and allow mistakes to happen. Things won’t be perfect. And we can’t be waiting for a gotcha moment to jump on a misstatement. We have to work together through kindness and caring to find pathways forward. So I would encourage all organizations to start that first step of relationship building, as difficult as it is and challenging as it can be. I think reaching out and having those conversations is a great way to begin.

Peter’s call for nonprofits to undertake this important work is echoed by Tim Fox, who told us that nonprofits had to find the will and the way to act now to support Indigenous-led organizations.

When I think about philanthropy, when I think about the Indigenous community and how I was raised on the Blood reserve, and even how I exist in these contemporary times, when you see, and when you’re a part of an Indigenous community, and when you are, have these strong relationships, you’re going to witness this community of kin.

What I mean by that is we become sort of this family, our family concept from an Indigenous perspective goes beyond the biological connection that we have to our parents. It extends to that extended family. And that is definitely true in how we exist as communities. It exists in how we practice our philanthropy.

That paradigm of practice that is coming to life for us at the Calgary Foundation just doesn’t mean wealth distribution. It also means how are we convening people? How are we sitting in relationship with one another? We’re trying to amplify, and innovate on how we practice our philanthropy. When I say ‘innovative’, I don’t mean something new. I mean, these old ways, how are we looking back at these old ways, bringing them back to this contemporary time.

What I’m trying to say is this work can happen right now. And it should be happening right now. There are ways for organizations to adapt, to shift, to support other partner opportunities, collaborative efforts. There are ways that they can increase the wealth distribution. They don’t have to wait for a lot to change.

How can nonprofit organizations get started on this difficult but necessary work of reconciliation? Listen to the full episode of the podcast to hear more from Tim Fox and Peter Dinsdale, as well as Kris Archie from the Circle on Philanthropy and Bill Mintram from the Rideau Hall Foundation, click here.