Investing in Diversity & Inclusion

Impact Investing in Native American Communities


The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has disproportionately impacted people of color, including Native American communities. The roughly 175,000 members of the Navajo Nation, a reservation in the desert Southwest, represent the country’s hardest hit population, with the highest per capita infection rate—3.4%, compared to 1.9% in New York State. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that Native Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19 five times as often as White Americans.

Outsize rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death are closely associated with the high levels of poverty in Native American communities. Systemic health disparities like poor access to healthcare and nutritious food increase the prevalence of illnesses like heart disease and diabetes that make the virus more dangerous. At the same time, living conditions like multiple generations sharing small spaces and a lack of clean running water for handwashing exacerbate its spread.

Whether through a racial equity lens, a focus on social determinants of health, or targeted direct investment, these communities could benefit from increased attention from impact investors.

Growing Focus on Racial Equity

While persistent disparities like those described above suggest the need for investment in areas like healthcare, affordable housing, clean water, and sustainable food systems, Native Americans remain largely overlooked by impact investors and philanthropists alike. Native Americans represent 2% of the country’s population, but Native communities and causes receive an average of .4% of grant dollars.

This could change as foundations increasingly prioritize racial equity in their grantmaking. Organizations such as the WK Kellogg Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, and the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation have led the way in grantmaking that benefits Native American organizations. The Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation has donated to 14 indigenous-led initiatives since 2014, from the American Indian Law Alliance in Washington, DC, to the Traditional Center for Knowledge and Healing in Haudenosaunee Territory, New York.

The most common way to channel impact dollars specifically toward Native American communities is to support Native CDFIs.

Impact Investing in Native American Communities

Other foundations are making impact investments in these communities. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Northwest Area Foundation CEO Kevin Walker describes the organization’s mission-related investments in Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs), which provide loans and other financial assistance, along with education and training, to entrepreneurs, businesses, and farmers.

Indeed, the most common way to channel impact dollars specifically toward Native American communities is to support Native CDFIs. Of the more than 1,000 CDFIs in the United States, roughly 7% serve the country’s indigenous populations. The nonprofit Native CDFI Network has more than 70 members. Walker’s article characterizes these CDFIs as “proven allies for meeting capital needs,” citing their deep financial knowledge and local connections, as well as their track record of success.

While impact investors may have difficulty finding other investment opportunities that intentionally target Native Americans, a few options do exist. For example, Travois, a social enterprise based in Kansas City, Missouri, last year launched an impact fund to invest in affordable housing and basic infrastructure in Native communities. New Forest’s Forest Carbon Partners finances and develops carbon offsets projects for the California cap and trade market including projects on Native lands.

As demand from impact investors looking to provide financing to Native American communities increases, so should the opportunities for investment.

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