Decolonizing Philanthropy: Edgar Villanueva Wants to Change How You Think About ‘Helping’ Native Communities

Edgar Villanueva was frustrated. After 14 years spent working in philanthropy, he was tired of tiny amounts of money trickling down to Native communities that made limited or no impact. He was annoyed by the lack of attention to the real issues confronting the nation’s 573 federally recognized tribes.

Edgar Villanueva

So he funneled that frustration into a mission. Over the course of two years, writing at night and on weekends while working full-time as vice president of Programs and Advocacy for the Schott Foundation, Villanueva sat down and wrote Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, a revolutionary meditation on the deleterious impacts of colonization, as well as an unflinching examination of what it means to “help” indigenous people and other communities of color that are still struggling under the very system that oppressed them.

Villanueva says the purpose of the book, which will be released by Berrett-Koehler Publishers in October, is to educate the nonprofit sector about the unique challenges and stereotypes about philanthropy in Indian country. The 235-page book is the first to tackle the sometimes thorny issues in regards to how the nonprofit world views and funds Native communities through the lens of what he describes as outdated, colonial notions of “charity.”

“I had been working in philanthropy for a long time and I felt that the mission of the nonprofit sector was misaligned with the values and realities of Indian country,” says Villanueva, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. “Oftentimes, there is a top-down approach tied to [a funder’s] agenda, rather than what works best in our communities, so it doesn’t necessarily resonate in terms of expectations and outcomes. So I decided to shift the narrative and that’s how the book came about.”

Villanueva’s book is laid out in two parts: Part One, titled “Where it hurts,” explores the dynamics of colonization and “it’s collective trauma.” Part Two discusses the seven steps to healing.

It also includes a foreword written by Peter Buffett, son of investing and business magnate Warren Buffett, and Peter’s wife, Jennifer. The couple describe the immense responsibility they assumed when the elder Buffett bestowed a gift of a billion dollars to “fund charitable work of our choosing.” Suddenly confronted with hundreds of―mostly white, mostly male―global elite, the couple began to see a pattern in the disconnect between those in positions of power and the disenfranchised.

“The more we heard, the more we realized that these rooms full of wealthy and powerful white men could not possess the wisdom we sought,” they wrote. “Far too often, they were searching for answers with their right hand to problems that they had created or contributed to with their left. Those who had benefited most from the system of wealth consolidation were seen as the experts and the saviors of those who had been exploited and harmed by it. But why?”

Subsequently, the Buffetts decided to take a different, more intimate and grounded approach to their giving philosophy and began soul searching into their own values. Villanueva’s book, they argue, makes the case for a radical approach to philanthropy by shattering and reframing the ways in which corporations, foundations and donors engage with communities of color.

Villanueva’s treatise on philanthropy in Indian country echoes a recent study published by the First Nations Development Institute entitled “Growing Inequity: Large Foundation Giving to Native American Organizations and Causes,” the findings of which are grim.

From 2006 to 2014, total grant dollars to Native organizations decreased, while the number of organizations receiving money increased. Annual giving to Native organizations decreased by 29 percent―or $35 million. The majority of grant dollars awarded in support of Native American causes go to non-Native controlled non-profit institutions. Support from America’s largest foundations to Indian country have declined by a whopping 60 percent. While new foundations have stepped up to support Native causes, they are not able to give in the same capacity as their larger counterparts.

Villanueva, who has been observing the continued disconnect and decline between funders and Native causes, says he hopes his book serves as both a wake up call and a narrative shift.

“It was important to me to educate people about genocide, slavery, disenfranchisement and their after effects. But more importantly, I want this to come from a place of love and healing. I’m not attacking people with money, but I want to compel folks with resources to understand how to help our communities without taking the standard linear approach,” he says.

“I’m proposing that money can be a form of medicine which can facilitate healing in our communities so we don’t get re-traumatized by being forced to compete for limited resources. That is my hope.”