Tribal Grant Writing: Special Opportunities and Unique Challenges
During the last two decades, Native American nations have worked hard to build tribal unity and identity. Although tribes vary greatly in their traditional lifeways, history, economic self-sufficiency, land base, and size, most tribal communities now submit grant proposals as a way of gaining funds to preserve and restore their ancestral way of life. While tribes benefit from grants in numerous ways, they often encounter obstacles in writing them because of their unique perspective. By understanding these challenges, tribes can better equip themselves to take advantage of the opportunities grant monies present.
How Proposals Help Tribes
- New projects build infrastructure. Grant money is often used to launch projects. For tribes, these projects can create and reinforce tribal infrastructure. Examples include: indigenous language programs, domestic violence services, public health initiatives, housing projects, literacy campaigns, and membership campaigns .
- Infrastructure increases administrative capacity. In building infrastructure, tribes have created internal leadership opportunities. This has led to a new generation of tribal members knowledgeable in tribal lifeways and skilled in running modern-day government and business.
- Accountability creates organizational efficiency. The follow-through and review necessary to implement grant-funded programs has built efficiency and accountability into tribal administration. The focus on outcomes for projects has, in turn, contributed to programs that create positive change.
- New programs improve daily living conditions. New and enhanced programs help individual members improve their day-to-day existence and provide for their future as healthy, empowered, and productive members of society.
How Proposals Challenge Tribes
- Tight deadlines require quick decision-making. In general, tribes work within the framework set by their tribal administration, which more often than not requires tribal council approval for proposals before they are submitted. Since in many instances the council meets only once or twice a month, seeking consensus or approval on project details can be complicated.
- Linear logic does not allow for rich storytelling. The tribal worldview reveres connections among generations, people and place, as well as past, present and future. In this context, hierarchically organized proposals appear as fragmented building blocks that do not tell the full story of the tribe.
- Non-Native best practices are not always culturally relevant. Tribes often seek indigenous solutions to tribal problems. Best practices—which are developed for non-Native populations (and may be required in a proposal)—frequently overlook the tribe’s special context and history. They may be inapplicable to tribes and may even exacerbate problems.
- Outcomes-focused proposals put a premium on measurable change. For tribes, qualitative outcomes are as important as quantifiable outcomes. The types of change tribes value most may be difficult to quantify and measure in units or percentages.
How to Find an Approach That Works
Some clash between cultures may be inevitable in grant writing for tribes. However, it is possible to craft a proposal that speaks to both the funder and the tribal audience and furthers their growth. Here are some tips:
- Tribal grant writers should focus on tribal self-determination and needs. Tribes must be careful not to allow the grantor’s expectations to drive the tribe’s development.
- Tribes should start planning projects early. Tribes must allow for adequate time for members to arrive at consensus-based solutions that arise from their rich traditions.
- Tribes must accept that funders have a different worldview. It’s helpful for tribes to see things (even if temporarily) from a funder’s perspective. With this approach, proposals are an opportunity to educate funders and, hopefully, bridge cultures.
- Tribes must find a way for tradition and change to coexist. It is possible to value tribal lifeways and still put a premium on adaptation and change. Tribes can seek ways of infusing all aspects of their new projects–from new architecture to publications to program design—with a strong Native perspective.
Working With a Grant Writer
As increasing numbers of tribes gain experience in tribal planning and governance, much tribal development work is accomplished from within. Advantages to this approach include ownership and self-sufficiency. However, hiring a grant writer can help the process of translating between the funder’s and the tribe’s worldview. If you decide to hire a grant writer, look for one who is adept at communicating with both funders and tribal members and who will offer advice while leaving important choices up to the tribe.