The philanthropic world does a lot of good; some problems get solved by throwing a lot of money at them. In 2015, foundations gave away $62.8 billion to charities and nonprofits that do everything from fighting hunger and housing the homeless to retraining coal miners to curing cancer. But with a culture rooted in capitalism and endowments invested in Wall Street, bighearted foundations too often fail their missions. They are limited by the narrow mindset of the financial industry status quo. So says Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018).
Villanueva was born into a poor family in North Carolina, where his single mother worked three jobs. As a self-described “Southern Christian Native American,” he began his career in philanthropy as a junior programming officer at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust with the goal of reaching more rural communities of color. He is now vice president of programs and advocacy of the Schott Foundation for Public Education and board chair of Native Americans in Philanthropy, a nonprofit that promotes equitable philanthropy in Indigenous communities. His book describes a personal journey reconciling his values with those of a profession steeped in old-money colonialism.
He describes “decolonizing wealth” as a way to put philanthropy on a more sacred path and ensure the important work of redistributing the nation’s private wealth is done in a manner that doesn’t add to problems in marginalized communities.
Villanueva spoke with YES! senior editor Chris Winters. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Chris Winters: I am aware of a couple of foundations that are making an effort if not to really “decolonize” then at least to make sure that their charitable giving is consistent with their mission and that they’re not undermining it elsewhere. The Ford Foundation, which last year committed $1 billion toward “impact investing,” and the F.B. Heron Foundation, which is smaller but got there first.
Edgar Villanueva: Yes. They’ve been the first.
Winters: Are any other foundations picking up on this? And at what level are these conversations being held in the philanthropic world?
Villanueva: I think it’s really the next wave of a major trend in the field. Foundations are looking at mission-related investments. It’s becoming sort of a main-stage conversation at all their conferences.
The most recent big announcement came from the Nathan Cummings Foundation. They, I think about a month ago or two months ago, put out a statement that they’re putting 100 percent of their assets in some mission-aligned investments. … Ford committed $1 billion. They have about a $12 billion endowment. And so, I basically said that’s a start. It’s not really moving the needle or anything. What about the other $11 billion?
What I’ve heard … is that they are with their $1 billion actually trying to focus on affordable housing in some of their investments. And affordable housing is helpful, but it’s not necessarily shifting that needle. When someone builds affordable housing, there are a few apartments that are affordable and intensive. And so, folks are like, well even with the $1 billion, when you start unpacking that, what is really the value that’s really hitting people who live in poverty? But you know, the fact that Ford is Ford, if they are taking that one step … it’s going to draw a lot of attention, and other foundations, I hope, will begin to have those conversations about what they can do. Ford’s always been a trendsetter in the field.
Winters: You mentioned that you yourself went through a decolonizing process; you were having to check your assumptions in spite of your upbringing. When we talk about decolonization, we often talk about it from the Native perspective to White people who normally don’t think about these sorts of things. Were you raised in Native culture, or were you more secularized, as it were?
Villanueva: Very secularized. … People have a lot of assumptions about other people in general. Being from North Carolina, literally from the state that is the first point of [European] contact… my tribe [Lumbee], I would say, has adopted some practices or assimilated. Kind of forced to assimilate hundreds of years before tribes on the West Coast, right? My tribe does not have a language anymore. We have a history of the Trail of Tears and all the Removal Acts that happened, so I say it’s a miracle that there’s a shred of community left. After all of that, Natives found each other and settled in Robeson County, North Carolina, and created this collective identity and organization to maintain that Native identity.
“When I started working in a super-White space like philanthropy, I realized there were just a lot of differences between me and other people.”
All that being said, I grew up in Raleigh … I never went to school with another Native until college. There were no specific Native practices that I was aware of. We didn’t have ceremony and the kinds of things that you see folks doing. [We were] very Christian. Later in life when I got to college and I got connected to other Native students… I later learned there were a lot of things that my beliefs or values that my family held that I now see were actually Indigenous values. And I just thought that’s just how we were because we were Christian. I didn’t distinguish those things to be Native characteristics.
When I started working in a super-White space like philanthropy, I realized there were just a lot of differences between me and other people, and some of that was class, some of that was me being Brown or them being White. But the main thing was how [differently] I interacted with people and how I built relationships: what I perceived, who I perceive to be expert, or who I lifted up as a leader. [But] in order to be successful, I had to … be in alignment with the culture of the organization. When I first got into philanthropy in North Carolina, I had to sign a character contract. … There was no public drunkenness, no public swearing, and there were sort of unspoken hints about how we [should] dress. This particular foundation had come out of a bank, so that old-school banking culture, Southern banking businessmen kind of culture, existed in this organization, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in Winston-Salem. Kate B. Reynolds is an amazing foundation, but it is on the estate of R.J. Reynolds, you know, which was a tobacco plantation.
Winters: How did you survive and thrive in this environment, or come to realize you needed to, as you say, find your own definition of success?
Villanueva: I was there six years. As someone who had zero power and influence in the world, all of a sudden I was a very popular person. I enjoyed having some power and feeling important and feeling heard. My mom was so proud, and we were a health-focused foundation, and I just remember my mom not having health insurance and needing to go to the doctor; all I had to do was make calls and whatever my family needed, she got the best.
I always understood this is not my money. I’m a steward of these resources. If you come from my family, it’s very easy to stay grounded, very close to my family. One trip back home, and it’s hard to forget where you come from.
Where I started noticing the challenges were one—there’s a major good old boys network, right?—looking at where the money was going. When we said that this money was explicitly for low-income families, communities, and when you looked at disparities, we were finding well-resourced organizations, Duke University, all these health care systems, hospice networks who had multimillion dollar [budgets]. And this wasn’t something that just I noticed. This was a sentiment that also the [foundation] president shared. We worked together to change that, right? So, it wasn’t like I came in with this analysis about it. But that was something that we collectively saw and wanted to change.
By saying that money can be medicine, I’ve taken something that has a really negative connotation associated with it and put it with something saying that it can be sacred.
[We started] to say “no” to some groups, “yes” to other kinds of groups, changing our expectations or requirements that have eliminated groups from being eligible. And then we actually got out of the ivory tower and went into the community. I actually rewrote the job description of the program officer, which historically was like a loan officer job description out of the bank, to be more like a community organizer. Because there were communities in eastern North Carolina where I did a lot of work, and I could go there and say I have money, and they wouldn’t know where to begin to even apply, or how to apply. You would have to go and convene groups and lead them through a process to imagine what was possible, and then help them put together a plan for that.
Winters: I want to pick up on something you just said. “I always understood this was not my money. I’m a steward of these resources.” You would think that should be what every person working for a charitable foundation would think, that it would be carved into the marble above the entrance to the building. I get the sense that it’s not that way at all.
Villanueva: It’s not. My personal experience—and again, I’m one of, I don’t know, 2,000 program officers—my personal experience has been that there’s a lot of folks who get into philanthropy who have not had a lot of power, and definitely haven’t had the type of power of sitting on $700 million or whatever to make gifts. And that can influence us to behave one or two ways. One is like you recognize that, appreciate it, you use your power for good. But I’ve also seen the other side of that, where people come sort of obsessed with the power.
Edgar Villanueva author of Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance. Photo by Kisha Bari.
Winters: In your book, you raise the concept of medicine, not as a physical thing but something that can make you whole or heal you in some way. This is something that comes out of Native spirituality, to be incorporated into an environment that does not typically have a spiritual side in that regard.
Villanueva: Yeah, so I tell the stories in the book about me, going through my decolonizing process. Beyond Western medicine, there’s a holistic approach that Natives have in thinking about the mind the body, mind, soul, and spirit. An approach [that includes] spirituality and faith. The nonprofit sector was born out of the faith community. [But] we have drawn this really firm line around not allowing ourselves to feel [spiritual about] anything, like everything is so black and white.
I’ve been in the belly of this beast, and I think of philanthropy as sort of like my dysfunctional family that I love, but it needs to change.
That is another challenge for sort of connecting philanthropy to communities of color, because in a lot of places faith tradition is a part of the [organizing] work that’s happening, the healing work, the ministry work. Look at restorative justice, for example, which is a practice that was taken out of Indigenous communities, and they’re beginning to implement that in schools, and people are using that as a criminal justice reform strategy. In a lot of places they took the spiritual component out of it, and it’s not quite as effective as the original model. That’s because it is about making things right between two people, but also acknowledging that there are other consequences for your spirit other than just the harm you might have inflicted on another person.
So that concept of medicine really is, for different people it means different things, and it can evolve. … It literally is just something that really feeds you and restores balance. I think medicine is so sacred. By saying that money can be medicine, I’ve taken something that has a really negative connotation associated with it and put it with something saying that it can be sacred.
I firmly believe that money is neutral. It’s how we deploy and use those resources that matters. So, I’m being really intentional about saying, “Yes, money is just paper. It can be medicine.” The idea is that … to close the racial wealth gap and right the wrong that has happened in this country because of capitalism and the harm that has been caused by the accumulation of wealth, how philanthropy has marginalized certain communities or redlined communities, that if you move money to where they are hurt the worst, then you are using money as a tool for healing.
By being in relationship with those communities, being outside your network or everyone that looks the same, and learning from those countries and building a reciprocal relationship, it’s an opportunity to have mutual healing.
Winters: Charity is kind of set up in our capitalistic society as the only way to help the poor that’s accepted by everyone. So, short of, you know, reaching for the pitchforks, what’s a way forward for people to create a different structure or a different framework in which to guide this thinking? How do we get away from “this is the way we do it” to “you should have these other ways that are less exploitative or less self-congratulatory.”
Villanueva: There’s a camp of folks who just think that philanthropy should be completely dismantled, and I have many days that I agree with that. Ideally, we would live in a world where philanthropy did not need to exist, right? We’d be like Wakanda.
In writing this book, I reached out to a couple folks for endorsements or whatever. One person wrote back to say, “Absolutely not. I don’t want anything to do with philanthropy. I think philanthropy is inherently connected to capitalism and is a part of the problem.” And I was like, “I could not agree more.” I mean it’s true.
This system exists. I’m inside this system. I tell a story in the book about a man who went into the belly of the serpent, allowed it to gobble him up so that he can get to its heart and kill it and cut himself out of it. That’s sort of the position I find myself in. I’ve been in the belly of this beast, and I think of philanthropy as sort of like my dysfunctional family that I love, but it needs to change.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.