With a population of more than 370 million in 90 countries—and a culture of self-help, innovation, and sharing—indigenous peoples can be invaluable contributors toward solving today’s most pressing problems, including climate change, biodiversity preservation, and sustainable management of natural resources. For 17 years, International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP) has sought to build mutually beneficial partnerships between funders and indigenous peoples based on four values: respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationships.

“The idea is we want to increase the money going to indigenous peoples and indigenous organizations, but we also want to make sure that these funding relationships are respecting the cosmovision and the values of the indigenous communities that funders are working with,” says Ashley Hernandez, program associate for IFIP.

Two years ago, IFIP launched a Learning Institute that embodies this mission and the organization’s goals. While relationship building is ongoing for a lifetime, IFIP’s Learning Institute program is a unique six-month cohort for funders to learn from indigenous leaders who help develop the curriculum and serve as guides for the program. “What’s great about the Learning Institute is that we want to create a peer-to-peer learning community so that, at the end of six months, you take home not only learning, but also a learning community that you can go back to to brainstorm and help navigate issues,” Ashley says. “The learning community also provides space for accountability, to ensure they fulfill their commitments.”

The program is anchored by three events: a weekend opening retreat, a three-month virtual check-in, and a two-day closing retreat. From April 29 to May 1 this year, Alnoba—the Lewis Family Foundation’s headquarters at Kensington, New Hampshire—hosted the opening retreat.

“The opening retreat is where we dive in deep to several different issues,” Ashley reveals. Every year, the program is led by three faculty members representing different indigenous groups around the world. Faculty are rotated from year to year to ensure that voices from different indigenous groups are heard and geographic diversity is represented.

This year, the program is being led by faculty members from Kenya, Ecuador, and the United States. Ashley points out that they provide an approach to teaching that is different from the classroom style that typifies traditional Western education. Because storytelling is central to many indigenous cultures, the six participants in the retreat were required to focus more on listening to the leaders’ expertise and experience regarding topics such as indigenous women and indigenous territories. A workshop in which participants identified the issues they’re working on within in their own foundations or funds, and developed commitments to work on over the course of the program, closed the retreat.

The opening retreat is an incredible opportunity to see the relationships that are formed,” says Ashley. “People come together in a really intimate space for three days of learning and dialog, and that requires you to go beyond the superficial to create deeper relationships. Those deeper connections are the foundation for building a long-term learning community that help you create better partnerships with indigenous communities throughout your career lifespan.”

The current program ends on September 20 near IFIP’s headquarters in San Francisco. Click here to find out more about IFIP’s Learning Institute. For more information about IFIP’s core values, click here. You also are encouraged to join Grand Circle Foundation in supporting IFIP’s mission.

“The Learning Institute will assuredly prove that reciprocal, honest relationships can—and more pressingly, should—exist between grantors and indigenous peoples. Truthfully, the Learning Institute is what you make it—and it has tremendous potential to be a thought-provoking, authentic, and enriching three days that will (hopefully!) influence your grant-making, build a strong cohort of like-minded colleagues, and challenge you on a number of professional and personal levels.” — Claire Poelking, Program Associate, Conservation and Sustainable Development at MacArthur foundation