A flipped power dynamic: Philanthropists must apply to a council of aunties to fund to these Indigenous groups

“This is a really big leap. This is not how things are done,” says Jess H̓áust̓i, co-lead of the Right Relations Collaborative.

Why It Matters

Funders and grantmakers often wield considerable power over their fundees, determining what gets funded, when and how. The Right Relations Collaborative flips this power dynamic by putting Indigenous aunties in the driver’s seat. The model is firmly rooted in a local territory, but offers a new approach to grantmaking that could inspire a shift in funding relationships across the country.

Jess H̓áust̓i, the co-lead of the Right Relations Collaborative in Bella Bella, a small Heiltsuk community on the west coast of British Columbia (Credit: Rhon Wilson).

This journalism is made possible through the Future of Good editorial fellowship covering the social impact world’s rapidly changing funding models, supported by Community Foundations of Canada and United Way Centraide Canada.

Last summer, Nuskmata (Jacinda Mack), talked on a headset as she walked around her property just north of Williams Lake, B.C.. It was mid July and hot. The aim of the call was to decide how she and few other Indigenous women would distribute about half a million dollars amongst several Indigenous organizations — their own and a couple of others. It was a call unlike any she’d ever had. 

“There was money coming in to support [our] organizations without us even having to apply. That was pretty awesome,” she says, laughing. “That was a new experience for me.”  

Nuskmata is a Secwepemc and Nuxalk community organizer, the executive director of the Moccasin Footprint Society, a grassroots Indigenous charity — and, most recently, one of three members of a council of aunties for the recently established Right Relations Collaborative. In this role, she and two others govern an initiative that flips the power relationship in philanthropy and grantmaking — by putting Indigenous women in control of how money flows to support their work. 

In this role, they decide which organizations they will allow to fund them. They also decide how to distribute a pool of money those funders provide — which organizations will get funded, how much money will flow to each, and on what timeline. 

To participate in the Collaborative, funders must submit an application — not unlike a thoughtful grant application — which is reviewed by Nuskmata and the two other aunties. 

In it, funders have to share their “money story”: how they earned the wealth, what harms were created through that wealth accumulation, and how they’re working to redress those harms. They also have to share what relationships they have, if any, with the Indigenous nations whose territories they work on, how they understand the concepts of Land Back and Cash Back, and how they are engaging with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. 

It’s a powerful document, one that demands a level of introspection and vulnerability not often required of most Canadian funders. And yet despite this flip, the Collaborative’s co-leads say that the initiative has been received with enthusiasm by a growing group of funders. So far, three grantmakers have applied and been welcomed into the Collaborative as funder partners and two additional funders are part-way through the “engagement” process. 

If accepted, this pair will join their trio of colleagues in committing to provide the Collaborative with multi-year funding to be divided up by the aunties; to participating in several educational programs, such as an optional, monthly, “ask-an-aunty” session; and to engaging in an ongoing relationship of accountability, including providing the aunties with an annual progress report on their work to build relationships with Indigenous communities. 

It’s a bold experiment to decolonize Canadian philanthropy and it’s built on the strength of the relationships of a group of powerful Indigenous and settler women. 

 

COVID prompted a pilot for low-barrier funding on the coast

A year prior, Jess H̓áust̓i (Housty) saw the potential for a project like this. H̓áust̓i is an organizer in Bella Bella, a small Heiltsuk community on the west coast of British Columbia in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. In July 2020, she learned that several private and public donors were opening up the taps, providing food security relief funding to support communities across the country who were struggling through the first six months of the pandemic. 

H̓áust̓i knew the need. She’s the executive director of Qqs Projects Society, a non-profit with its office near the docks in Bella Bella, overlooking the harbour. The aim of Qqs is to create land-based learning opportunities for Heiltsuk youth and families; and providing those opportunities often also comes alongside offering support to ensure community members are food secure. 

That summer and fall, H̓áust̓i worked alongside Kim Hardy, her longtime friend and colleague, and the Pacific partnerships lead at MakeWay, to connect other Indigenous communities along the north and central coast with funding. 

Given the urgency of the crisis, communities asked for funders to do things differently — for “very flexible, low-barrier funding, that’s trust-based” says H̓áust̓i. Funders responded. They made their grant applications less onerous and shrunk reporting requirements. It allowed funded groups to be more nimble, putting dollars where they needed it most. 

In February of this year, from her home in Heiltsuk territory, H̓áust̓i says it was this process, of supporting nearly 50 coastal Indigenous communities to get connected to low-barrier funding, that seeded the idea for the Right Relations Collaborative. 

“Coming out of the other side of that, we could confidently say it works to take away the barriers and just get the money out and trust communities,” she says. “CRA didn’t get mad at anybody. Everything’s fine…So, if we did it once, we can keep doing it.” 

But despite the potential H̓áust̓i saw in the fall of 2020, it wouldn’t be for another half-year before a big decision would prompt action on the Collaborative.  

 

Responding to a funder ‘craving’ to be in right relationship

In early March 2021, Kim Hardy had just arrived at her home in Victoria, when she got a text from H̓áust̓i. 

H̓áust̓i had been an elected member of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council for nearly a decade but her term was up and she was trying to sort out what was next. She’d been offered a position on the board of another organization and texted Kim for her thoughts. 

“Not if it means you can’t lead this Right Relations Collaborative with me!” Hardy says, with a laugh, of her text response to her friend in March. To talk things through further, the pair hopped on a Zoom call. “[Kim] sort of said, ‘Hey, maybe this is the time. Maybe we should do this,” says H̓áust̓i. “And I remember thinking, ‘This is crazy. This can’t possibly work.’”

Hardy had just come back from a week on Bowen Island, participating virtually in the Just Economy Institute fellowship, from her friend, Carolynn Beaty’s family home. During the fellowship, Hardy and Beaty, the executive director of the Sitka Foundation, thought about land and wealth and settler-Indigenous relationships. 

“Through that fellowship, we were exposed to these obscene places of wealth…individuals with all of this money — and you see it all across philanthropy,” Hardy says. “We see where money has been extracted from Indigenous lands in various ways and now it’s gotten stuck in these institutions that often have, like, one white person deciding where all the money goes.” 

Though Hardy wasn’t sure what a new model for funding Indigenous-led work could look like, she felt certain there was a group of funders who’d be keen to give it a shot. “There’s this paralysis across the sector where people don’t have pathways for being in right relationship,” she says. (While The Circle on Philanthropy has provided learning opportunities for many settler philanthropists, it can’t do everything.) For months, Hardy had had conversations with a group of white women funder colleagues and had heard of their growing “craving” to do philanthropy “in a good way” — in a different way. 

On Zoom, she pushed H̓áust̓i to turn down the board position she’d been offered. And her friend was convinced: “She had so much faith that this was possible. And I have so much faith in her and I really wanted it to be true. So we jumped in with both feet.” 

 

Bringing the team together: Aunties and funders  

Over the next month, H̓áust̓i and Hardy pulled together a short-list of people who they wanted to bring into the burgeoning Collaborative. 

H̓áust̓i reached out to a group of Indigenous women in her network asking if they’d be willing to participate. For Nuskmata, the decision was easy. 

Raising money for the Moccasin Footprint Society had been tough over the years. It’s a “part-time, mostly volunteer, unpaid, out-of-your-own-pocket” kind of situation, she says. “Which is not sustainable at all, of course.” 

To fund the organization’s work, she’s written grant applications to foundations and government, asked for donations at in-person events, and fundraised online, but it’s been rocky. Funders often haven’t been willing to provide core operational grants needed to sustain the organization. Or sometimes there hasn’t been good Wifi access, frustrating her attempts to send application documents online. Other times, it’s just hard as hell to navigate all of the different online application platforms. “It’s probably a couple of full-time jobs to fundraise,” she says. “And if you don’t know the funders, or if you don’t know how the funding world works, it’s very confusing.” 

This made the prospect of the Right Relations Collaborative — of funders applying to work with them — very attractive. Nuskmata was in. As were two other aunties: Marilyn Baptiste, a former chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, and K’aayhlt’aa Haanas (Valine Brown), a Haida organizer and communications professional. 

In tandem, Hardy reached out to her funder colleagues, looking for partners equally keen to build a new approach to funding Indigenous-led work in B.C.. One of the first people on her list was Carolynn Beaty. And for Beaty, too, the answer was obvious. 

For 12 years, Beaty had worked for her family’s foundation, which focuses on protecting the environment and promoting biodiversity. As part of that mission, about ten years back, she established a fund with MakeWay — what might be considered a “little cousin” or a “younger sibling” to the Right Relations Collaborative, she says. Through this fund, Sitka provided about $100,000 per year in low-barrier support mostly to Indigenous communities along B.C.’s coast, supporting knowledge gathering, governance, and youth-led projects.

In the design of this fund too, the Sitka foundation handed over control. It was up to Hardy to make granting decisions, based on the needs she observed along the coast. 

Beaty had also been doing internal work of her own that primed her for a project like the Collaborative. Alongside Hardy, Beatty participated in the Just Economy Institute fellowship, which invited white members into deeper learning about white supremacy and patriarchy. 

Without knowing much about what form the Right Relations Collaborative would take, Beaty contributed $100,000 from the Sitka foundation when Hardy asked. Two other funders joined her: the All One Fund, a low-profile family fund, and an individual donor with an interest in supporting Indigenous-led conservation. This created a pool of funding to seed the first year of the Collaborative’s work — to compensate the aunties for being involved and to provide a pot of grant money to be distributed to Indigenous-led organizations. 

Now, for H̓áust̓i, Hardy and the aunties, there was the small task of building the Collaborative — of deciding how they would engage funders, what programming they would offer, and how they’d make funding decisions.  

Kim Hardy, Pacific partnerships lead with MakeWay, removing invasive species near her home in Victoria, B.C. (Courtesy: Kim Hardy).

Creating the Collaborative: A ‘cathartic’ and ‘joyful’ task

H̓áust̓i was nervous when she brought the draft “engagement framework” for the Collaborative to the aunties for discussion on a Zoom call in August. Over the spring and late summer 2021, she’d come up with questions that could be used by the Collaborative to assess funder partners — engagement with the TRC calls to action, and the like. Sketching out the questions had been joyful and cathartic, she says, but H̓áust̓i was wary: “This is a really big leap. This is not how things are done.” 

Her fears, however, were quickly alleviated. “[The aunties] were like, ‘Yeah, this and more!’” she says, with a laugh. “‘What about this question? What if we double down on this?’”

Nuskmata was all smiles, as she recalls that meeting: “It was so completely reversed,” she says, “It was like ‘Oh my gosh, yeah. This is really happening! Like yeah, we can do this and people are wanting this.”

Through the discussion, the group came up with a basic structure for the Collaborative. There would be a “funder space,” an “aunties’ space,” and a “together space.” 

For the funder space, Hardy works alongside philanthropic partners as they complete their engagement framework, answering any questions they have along the way. In the future, she also envisions hosting a zoom coffee hour where funders can talk through issues they’re struggling with. “I think there are lots of really good questions that funders are asking that they’re afraid to ask…[not wanting to] burden their Indigenous partners,” Hardy says. The funder space aims to help alleviate that challenge. 

The Indigenous space is a monthly Zoom meeting with H̓áust̓i, Hardy, and the aunties. It’s a space to talk openly about how the Collaborative is going, review funder applications, and to decide how to divy up funds. 

The together space is envisioned as a monthly ask-an-aunty session, a Zoom call, where one or more of the aunties is present to answer questions or provide input that the funders may have.

These three spaces are deliberate, says H̓áust̓i, and were informed by her own fundraising experience. “With Qqs, there was often this unspoken expectation that you would be performing free labour to help [funders] understand all of these things…It’s valid work that needs to be done, but there was always just this complicated power dynamic because they were providing funding,” she says. Through the Right Relations Collaborative, things are different. The aunties are provided with honoraria for their time with the aim of ensuring that there are “clear expectations and boundaries, so that nobody is feeling exploited,” says H̓áust̓i. 

The creation of an application-like process was intentional too. “Funders need to experience the vulnerability of putting forward their work and asking to be accepted,” Hardy says. 

The application also provides important information fundees need and often don’t get — like how a funder earned their wealth, and what Indigenous communities may have been impacted in the process, says Nuskmata. “We have to be careful of where we take money, because it can really impact the reputation of [our] organization,” she says. Taking funds earned through oil and gas extraction, for instance, she says, could harm her organization’s reputation with other Indigenous partners. 

In addition to these three spaces, the aunties’ also ask funders to offer the Collaborative at least two-years of unrestricted funding, become a member of The Circle, and provide the aunties with an annual progress report on their work to deepen their relationships with Indigenous communities. 

It’s a clear list. And certainly more involved than what fundees normally ask of their funder partners. 

By the end of this past summer, the group had landed on a framework they were happy with. But in doing so, Hardy realized there were a couple of delicate conversations on the horizon: “[There was this] moment where it was like, ‘Oh, no. [Now] we have to ask our founding funders to go through this,’” says Hardy, with a laugh. 

 

Money stories and a motivation to ‘fund abundantly’

In September 2021, Beaty read through the framework. On a video call from her home, about a month ago, she tells me about her experience of answering its questions. She felt discomfort, she says, but was excited and grateful to have a chance to articulate some of the learning and unlearning she’s been doing — and really appreciative of the process. 

I press further, asking a bit of an awkward statement-non-question about the foundation’s money story — about the fact that her father, the main benefactor of the foundation, earned much of his wealth through mining in South America. I acknowledge that the funds that fuel the foundation’s work didn’t come from mining, but rather from sale of shares of his later green energy work.

“The bulk of our money [is] connected to a very mission-oriented business that’s building a better world in alignment with our mission,” Beaty says. “And, it’s [imperfect]. So yes, I totally honour that imperfection.” Beaty says the foundation is working to align all of its capital with its mission through impact investments and granting work; and says funding the Right Relations Collaborative is tightly aligned with that mission.   

It was vulnerable to fill out the framework, she says. Once she emailed her completed draft to Hardy and H̓áust̓i, the Collaborative’s co-leads, in early October, she wondered whether the aunties would accept Sitka, knowing they were under no obligation to do so. In their application, the foundation pledged $150,000 over two years to support the Collaborative. 

“I’m a quiet and relationship-based person,” she says. “I see a lot of ego in our world, and I try and do my best to honour who I am…What’s mine to do here, Gabe, is to fund abundantly. [To] trust the voices who know best. [To] keep my team with me. And to listen to my heart.” 

After some back-and-forth, the aunties welcomed the foundation into the Collaborative. So far, they’ve done the same with two others, and are currently reviewing two more. They have yet to reject any funder outright, but have asked funders for additional information with which to make a more informed decision. 

H̓áust̓i sees this process as “lovingly interrogating” their funders, and says the responses they’ve gotten from all of the applicant groups have been vulnerable, personal and trusting.  

The questions asked in the framework are already weighing on progressive grant officers and foundation staff, H̓áust̓i says. “And so to just have those questions, being gently put on the table, I think has been a really positive experience for people who have gone through it.” 

Carolynn Beaty (front) and Kim Hardy (back) canoeing in the Salish Sea, near Bowen Island in November 2020 (Courtesy: Carolynn Beaty).

‘It’s about time’: a new model for right relations

This past summer, before Beaty had filled out her framework, and before the final model for the Collaborative had even been sketched out, Nuskmata was gardening, surrounded by tall fir, spruce and cottonwood trees, trying to divy up that initial seed funding on a call with her peers. 

It was exciting to have those funds without having had to ask, Nuskmata says, but it was also awkward: “Money is awkward.” The group had never talked about money in this way before — never had the control to decide amongst them where it would go. And there was no pre-set way that they had to make decisions — no sophisticated rubrics they had to review or grant applications requiring their attention. Instead, there was just the five of them — the three aunties, and the Collaborative’s two co-leads — on a telephone call, muddling through. 

H̓áust̓i was nervous. She knew that each of their four organizations — H̓áust̓i’s own, and those connected to the three aunties — have many “unmet needs,” and she was concerned that the funding discussion would get competitive. “I was afraid on some level that it was going to create fractures amongst us as a group of people who care a lot about each other.”

But the opposite was true. “It wasn’t that anybody was asking for more,” Nuskmata says, “Actually, it was one group that was saying, ‘Oh, that’s too much for us right now…somebody else needs that.” 

“People were like, ‘Oh, no. We can make do with this really tiny amount because what you’re doing sounds so amazing. It sounds so amazing that you should have the bigger share of funding,’” says H̓áust̓i.

In the end, the group divided up the pot six ways, supporting each of the four partner organizations and two others. Funds were directed to advance energy sovereignty in Haida Gwaii, offer food security in Bella Bella, and help realize a film, led by Nuskmata, about the importance of salmon to Indigenous communities. 

This spring, the Collaborative is focused on creating a process for supporting other Indigenous groups to join the initiative, and on strengthening their decision-making processes — shoring up their consensus-based approach for when they invite others in. 

But though they are keen to grow, the initiative isn’t oriented toward scale. Despite requests from national funders to expand across the country, H̓áust̓i says that instead, she is keen for the Collaborative to grow “at the pace of trust,” by expanding its relationships with Indigenous communities and funding partners over time.

That’s not to say she isn’t hopeful the initiative has national impact. H̓áust̓i welcomes the potential for others draw inspiration from their tools and work — as the Collaborative did with other organizations before it — and for participating funders to model right relations for other philanthropists across the country. 

For Nuskmata, this work can’t come soon enough. “It’s about time,” she says, for funders to engage in this way. 

She says all funders earned their wealth, in one way or another, from extraction on Indigenous lands. But that this reality doesn’t have to be the end of the story. 

“If they’re benefiting or they have benefited from it, from our oppression — like, let’s work on that relationship. And let’s make it right,” she says.