Recently a non-profit association called my studio, NativeStock Pictures, to inquire about licensing 3 of my photos for a fund raising campaign. I was honored to assist them yet at the same time I wanted to do a bit of research to find out if they were a reputable foundation. In the past I’d donated funds to them without giving any thought as I had receive a large amount of direct mail that describe conditions of poverty, hunger and despair in Indian country.
So, out of curiosity, I decided to use google to find out what causes these organizations supported on reservations. Besides, I’m asked quite often what Native American cause I can recommend for their donations.
What I found out just might make you zip your wallet shut! Donors need to be wary of a growing number of charities that claim to alleviate poverty in American Indian communities but instead use donated funds to stuff their own coffers.
"There are many, many non-Indian operations that use Indians as a way of garnering revenue," says Jerry Reynolds of the First Nations Development Institute. The number of Indian-themed charities has been increasing steadily over the past 10 years, and the money has been flowing to non-Indian organizations in record amounts.
Charitable organizations are latching on to Native American causes because they are an easy sell. Americans feel guilty about the US government's treatment of Native peoples, and they give money with the intention of correcting history's wrongdoings. These unethical charities exploit the tremendous reservoir of goodwill that exists worldwide for First Nations people.
Locations of most reservations are in America's rural outposts which helps keep shoddy charity programs hidden from scrutiny. American Indian communities are among the nation's poorest, so donated goods and services are usually welcomed regardless of how they are obtained. Any kind of assistance is looked at as very beneficial yet the inner-workings of two-thirds of American charities remain a mystery.
When the Christmas season approaches, charities gear up for a holiday push in fund raising and American households are bombarded with direct mail and telephone solicitations asking them to donate dollars to various causes. But donors should be wary of a growing number of charities that purport to alleviate poverty in Native American communities. Instead they use donated funds to stuff their own stockings.
There are scores of non-Indian operations that use Indians as a way of garnering revenue. These charities exploit the tremendous reservoir of goodwill that exists worldwide for American Indian people.
The inner workings of some Native American charities are a mystery because of federal laws that protect church-related organizations from government meddling. Southwest Indian Foundation is not a church but still doesn't have to make its financial statements available because it was founded by a Catholic priest.
Another charity enjoying similar anonymity is the Don Stewart Foundation, an evangelist group that runs several charities including the Southwest Indian Children's Fund (SWICF). Supposedly the charity works primarily with the Gila River tribe in Arizona, which is an unusual pick for a relief recipient. The tribe is well provided with money after it developed two gaming operations, a golf course and a five-star resort hotel. SWICF representatives in the charity's headquarters admit that only 15 percent of donations go to programs. So, what happens to the other 85 percent?
Although a charity's policies may seem unethical, surprisingly they're not illegal. Tucking money back into charity operations by shifting fund raising overhead costs into program expenditures is a common practice and does not violate any accounting guidelines.
Before selecting a charity to support consider how well it will spend your money. The percentages of donations spent on program services should be 60% or more. Most highly efficient charities are able to spend 75% or more on programs. Watch dog sites, see listed below, can help donors seek out a reputable organization. Charity Ratings indicate a charity's grade based on percent spent on program services and cost to raise $100, which the target is $35 or less. In most watchdog charitable guides each organization is listed with its phone number, financial performance measurement and an overall grade.
Before donors turn a cold shoulder to solicitors that come knocking, they should remember there are plenty of charitable operations doing important and much needed work on reservations.
Given the track record of these not-so-charitable organizations, it's easy to become cynical and simply withhold support for charities in general. But before donors turn a cold shoulder to solicitors that come knocking, they should remember there are plenty of charitable operations doing important and much needed work on reservations.
One of the first things to look for is whether the charity makes outlandish claims about the dire situation of Native peoples. If they're claiming that Indian people and Indian kids are starving or without food, they're probably not legitimate. There's a great deal of dignity on reservations, and a Native American-controlled organization would not be able to retain the support of its constituents by making claims like these. Donors can also weed out charities by looking at the organizations spending habits, which are listed online by charity watchdogs.
In fact, it's precisely because some charities don't serve the interests of Native Americans that bona fide programs need all the more help. There's a tremendous need out there by legitimate programs that are run by Native people and respectful organizations.
NativeStock recommends that you consider donating to a tribe located within your State. Google: Native American tribes along with your state of residence and you will find a list of tribal headquarters and their phone numbers. Call the tribal office and inquire about the tribes museum/cultural center, elderly programs, school/college funds or food drives that are in need of donations. On occasion tribal officials have called NativeStock directly to request silent auction items or specific items like books, school supplies, winter coats and canned foods.
So unzip your wallet and write a check but only after you’ve done your homework and found reputable Native run organizations that can help spread your donations to many worthy projects throughout Indian Country.
Charity Watchdog Groups:
My Favorite Organizations:
American Indian College Fund score: A-
Futures for Children score: B+
Native American Rigths Fund score: B-