More Funding is Flowing to Support Indigenous Peoples. How Much Is Making it to the Front Lines?


More philanthropic dollars than seemingly ever before have been pledged to support Indigenous peoples in recent years, topped by a $1.7-billion-dollar commitment made in 2021 for land rights in tropical forests. But how much is actually reaching community-led groups on the front lines around the world? 

A trio of reports released last month took the latest passes at answering that question while also addressing how to correct the reality that only a tiny share of philanthropy is going directly to local organizations, with the bulk instead landing with large international nonprofits and intermediaries, a dynamic long decried by Indigenous communities.

Bright spots? One of the studies, the annual report by the Forest Tenure Funders Group, the collection of governments and philanthropies behind the mega pledge, found that grants are flowing out the door at an impressive clip. And all three publications offer examples of how communities are creating and expanding the infrastructure to help more money move directly to the front lines in the future.

One of those new efforts is Shandia, a new multi-member platform launched in 2022 by the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, and which last month publish its annual report, another of the trio considered here. The study gives an overview of its unique model and how it aims drive more attention and support directly to Indigenous hands. The global alliance was also behind a third report on the topic that reviewed the funding challenges facing Indigenous communities and a roadmap for overcoming them.

This flurry of publications arrives amid a time of rapid change in the landscape of Indigenous-led funds and alliances. In the United States, Native Americans in Philanthropy and NDN Collective have each launched new funds or partnerships in the last year-plus, among other activity in the field, while sources like MacKenzie Scott and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have issued millions of dollars in awards to such funds. Internationally, new local, regional and global outfits are opening their doors, such as Shandia, while established organizations are maturing and gaining new supporters.

“Since 2021, we have seen a changing trend when it comes to direct financing to our peoples and communities,” said Juan Carlos Jintiach, of the Shuar people of Ecuador and executive secretary of the global alliance, in a statement. “It is often slow but it is certainly in the right direction.”

The upswing of funding and interest seems laden with both promise and potential pitfalls. Indigenous communities have long received only pennies out of each dollar of philanthropic funding, so if this influx continues, it would be a profound realignment. Yet Indigenous communities say that if all those new dollars flow through business-as-usual channels and do not make use of the structures created by people on the ground, little will have fundamentally changed.

Funding is “not responding to the urgency of investment and is not keeping up with the work Indigenous and local communities are doing to set up their own national or regional funds,” Jintiach said.

A look at overall funding levels for Indigenous peoples

The global alliance’s new 17-page report, Tracking Funds for the Indispensable Partners, paints a stark statistical portrait of the funding gaps facing Indigenous peoples and local communities (the terminology used by the pledge and many other international groups to describe beneficiaries), while showing their vital importance to our planet’s health.

It cites research from the Rainforest Foundation Norway that funding for tenure rights and forest management carried out by those communities came to less than 1% of international climate development aid over the past decade, as well as data from the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples showing that just 0.6% of funding tracked by Candid benefitted Indigenous peoples, with 89% of that amount going to communities in North America

The result is an underdeveloped field, at least financially. Just six Indigenous peoples’ organizations, networks and funding mechanisms have a budget of more than $1 million across Africa, Asia and Latin America, according to data collected by Charapa, a consulting firm that helped organize a workshop in Paris that led to the alliance’s report. (Charapa also contributed to the report on the $1.7 billion pledge.)

What is accomplished by Indigenous peoples and local communities, despite those shortfalls, is remarkable. Consider this very different set of figures: Thirty-six percent of the world’s remaining intact forests, at least 24% of above-ground carbon in tropical forests, and 80% of the world’s forest biodiversity are found within Indigenous people’s territory, according to research collected by the report.

How’s that mega pledge going?

Two years after the $1.7 billion pledge was announced, the signatories — which include five countries, nine foundations and nearly a dozen members of the Protecting Our Planet Challenge — have granted nearly half of that total, or $815 million, according to the second annual report from the pledge group.

With billionaire-funded backers like the Bezos Earth Fund, Childrens Investment Fund Foundation, Wyss Foundation, and Rob Walton Foundation, as well as the governments of Germany, Norway and the U.S., the commitment kicked off in 2021 with the hope of expanding forest tenure rights related to tropical forests around the globe, and thereby fight deforestation and its impact on climate and biodiversity. So far, funding is on track to easily meet if not exceed the pledge, and set a new funding baseline in the process. 

“I expect that even after the pledge, we will be in a kind of new world where annual funding for this topic has increased. That's certainly our hope,” said Kevin Currey, a program officer with Ford Foundation’s natural resources and climate change team.

That’s the good news. The challenge is that just 2.1% of that funding, or $8.1 million, went directly to Indigenous peoples and local communities, according to report from the group behind the commitment, known officially as the Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Tenure Pledge. As Jintiach put it, the report “shows what we witness and experience on the ground.”

That percentage actually marked a decline from a first-year rate of 2.9% in 2021 — itself reflecting an estimate that was revised downward after the group’s initial report overestimated funding. While all of the funding related to the pledge supports work intended to benefit Indigenous land rights, it seems the largest share of the funding is going to international NGOs (43%), governments (20%), and national NGOs and multilateral agencies or funds (both 11%).

“Stated simply, funding remains insufficient, inequitable and inflexible,” wrote Darren Walker, Ford Foundation’s president, in the report’s introduction. “Our challenge is large — perhaps larger than we realized.”

Ford is among those trying to shift that power balance. After measuring the share of the foundation’s own funding going directly to Indigenous communities, Currey was surprised that the level was lower than he assumed. The team has now raised that figure from 17% to 24% of its grantmaking. He emphasized that the foundation still sees a key role for intermediaries and international NGOs and will continue to fund its long-standing partners. But it hopes to add new relationships with local groups where feasible.

Currey sees peers committed to change, but stymied by “the inertia of large organizations with fixed systems” that are not “fit for purpose,” he said. “We have to fight the long battle to convince our managers and organizational directors of what needs to change and why.” The report details measures foundations can take to scale up direct funding.

One promising development is the growing number of trusted Indigenous-led funds. Such operations simplify the challenges foundations face in getting money to the front lines. If needed, funders can help a single fund build its capacity and meet donor requirements rather than trying to do so for 100 local organizations, said Currey. Nor do foundations have to understand all 100 groups, or even try to choose among them. “It's also a way of devolving responsibility for decision-making closer to the ground,” he added.

It is worth noting that a share of the funding to other groups does filter through, ultimately reaching Indigenous peoples and local communities. While the entire amount granted could not be analyzed due to lack of data, the group closely examined a subset of grants totaling $132 million and found that about 60% of that amount benefitted communities “in ways they can influence and control.”

Unfortunately, the report already reflects a dated analysis, with figures covering only 2022 grantmaking, due to the varying reporting timelines of partners. Currey said he hopes future reports can come early enough to inform the following year’s grantmaking.

How can funders get dollars to the front lines?

There’s a fast-growing — and quickly maturing — group of local regrantors hoping to help change these dynamics. Currey named the Indonesia-based Nusantara Fund and the Mesoamerican Territorial Fund as examples, and there are counterparts on every continent, if not quite every nation. If that sounds overwhelming, the still-new Shandia is here to help. The outfit recently published an annual report outlining its work.

Launched by the global alliance in 2022, it serves as a common platform to promote the funding and support of Indigenous peoples and communities, and act as a unified force to advocate for those groups in global policy debates. Shandia does not, however, serve as a regrantor, with its organizers preferring to direct funding to national and regional funds that work directly with the communities they serve. 

Even as the number of local funds expands, funding has been hard to come by for many, especially from larger potential partners. Jintiach sees a catalyzing role for philanthropy.

“Foundations and philanthropies have the unique opportunity to set the pace and example of how to work in results- and trust-based relationships with us; they have more flexibility than governments and multilaterals and thus can lead the pack in showing how successful it can be to fund Indigenous peoples and local communities,” he said.

There remains a lot of ground to cover if the pledge is to fulfill its stated aims, and if front-line organizations are going to secure the funding needed that is commensurate to their role in the climate crisis. There are plenty of technical and organizational challenges to overcome to get there. Jintiach also sees a trust gap.

“My message to the institutions that do not yet trust to invest in us is: The most cost-effective climate investment is with us, Indigenous Peoples and local communities,” he said. “I will challenge them to invest the same amount in us as they do in new, emerging technologies and to see what results yielded from both at the end of two years.”