Literature review – Indigenous people’s legal needs

The Law Foundation of Ontario regularly funds work to address Indigenous people’s legal needs through our various granting programs. However, the Access to Justice Fund (ATJF), which was launched in 2009 after the Foundation received a $14.6 million cy-près award, represented the Foundation’s first major round of dedicated Indigenous grantmaking. As the Foundation prepared to enter its second major round of dedicated Indigenous grantmaking, staff reviewed our experience to date and conducted research into good practices in Indigenous grant-making. The Foundation’s review made several findings that are consistent with the findings of other organizations and scholars.

We looked at Canadian, American and international research and reports prepared by Indigenous and non-Indigenous funders and researchers.

Perhaps because “the literature that informs this topic is sparse and little has been produced within Canada,”1it is consistently recommended that organizations engaged in this area contribute their knowledge to the public sphere.2 In this spirit, we have prepared this overview of our research and review of our own grantmaking.

10 good practices

The Foundation’s research and review suggest 10 good practices to guide the next stage of the Foundation’s Indigenous grant-making.

  1. Build reciprocal and trusting relationships: There is significant benefit in creating reciprocal and trusting relationships with Indigenous grantees and recognizing that both grant-maker and grantee can learn and benefit from the grant-making process.3
  2. Support self-determination: Grantmaking processes are more successful when they respect self-determination by supporting Indigenous communities as they establish priorities and identify solutions and projects.4 This may require more participatory decision making processes, which can take time.5
  3. Build long-term relationships: Because it can take time to build trusting and meaningful relationships with grantees, long-term relationships are more successful than short-term relationships.6
  4. Give to Indigenous organizations directly: Internationally, it is considered a best practice to give to Indigenous organizations directly7. When working with intermediaries, it is important to ensure that Indigenous peoples are actively engaged8 and that intermediaries have the support of the community9. While many foundations hesitate to fund government organizations, research suggests the need for careful consideration of how that policy applies to First Nations governments as funding to increase the capacity of First Nations can have a positive long term impact on a community10.
  5. Work with grantees with credibility and experience in the community: Successful grantees have expertise and contacts that allow them to engage the right people in the community. Grantees must work with community members, Elders and others to get permission for their work and build support for and participation in the project11.
  6. Build cultural competence and work with culturally competent grantees: Successful grantees are culturally competent and have experience in the relevant communities12. Grant makers must also build their own cultural competence13. Both grantees and grant makers must understand history and the ongoing nature of colonialism14. Both must understand the culture, leadership, politics, socio-economic status, education, traditions and “approaches that work within the particular community”15.
  7. Remain flexible and tailor processes and solutions: Foundations must work to bridge cultural differences and adapt foundation processes – from application to evaluation – to allow for a more flexible and inclusive approach16. In particular, foundations should consider allowing more time to develop projects and secure community participation and should carefully consider reporting and metrics17.
  8. Support infrastructure and build capacity: Australian grant-makers emphasize the need for capacity building and infrastructure funding and the challenges created when grant makers’ guidelines preclude this kind of assistance.18
  9. Consider non-financial supports including:
  • Networking groups19
  • Alumni networks bringing together grantees and others who have completed training or successfully completed a grant project20
  • Leadership support and organizational development21
  • Formal training and information exchanges relating to grant application processes22
  • Help developing technical capacity and disseminating best practices, case studies and other information23
  1. Other tips for successful Indigenous grant-making:
  • Small grants (in the $5,000 – 10,000 range) can have “huge impact on smaller groups”24 and can be a good introduction to an organization or community25
  • Consider co-funding projects and cooperating with other funders26
  • Consider seed funding to set up a project27
  • Site visits can be very productive28
  • Programs that are successful with one community may not be generalizable to other communities29


1. The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal People in Canada, “Aboriginal Philanthropy in Canada: A Foundation for Understanding”, online: (date accessed: September 17, 2015) [Circle Report] at page 12.
2. Sciafe, Wendy, “Challenges in Indigenous Philanthropy: Reporting Australian grantmakers’ perspectives” (2006) Australian Journal of Social Issues, online: QUT E-Prints (date accessed: September 18, 2015) [Sciafe] at page 18. See also: First Nations Development Institute, “Telling Our Giving Stories”, online: (date accessed: September 19, 2015) [Giving Stories] at page 41.
3. LFO staff attended the Circle’s “All My Relations” Gathering in 2013 and 2015. At this conference, staff learned about the importance of “decolonizing” philanthropy and creating a more reciprocal relationship with grantees wherein Indigenous people have a platform to share their knowledge. The LFO incorporated this teaching into its review and created opportunities for grantees to provide feedback about the grants process and their projects. See also International Funders for Indigenous Peoples, “A Snapshot of Indigenous Peoples: Grantmakers’ Guide”, online: (date accessed: October 14, 2015) [“Snapshot”] at page 20 and Circle Report at page 42.
4. Susan Smyllie and Wendy Schaife, “Philanthropic Capacity to support Indigenous causes” (2011) Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, online: QUT E-prints (date accessed: October 14, 2015) [“Smyllie”] at page 15; Circle Report at page 24.
5. Snapshot at page 37; Sciafe at page 11; Smyllie at page 15.
6. Smyllie at page 15; Snapshot at pages 21, 24 and 33; Sciafe at pages 13 and 14; Circle Report at pages 26, 37 and 38.
7. LFO staff heard about the importance of giving to Indigenous organizations and communities directly at the Circle’s “All My Relations Gathering.” See also: Snapshot at page 37; Sciafe at page 13; Foundation Center, “Foundation Funding for Native American Issues and Peoples”, online: (date accessed: October 14, 2015) [Foundation Center] at page 12.
8. Snapshot at page 19.
9. Snapshot at page 19.
10. Foundation Center at page 12.
11. Sciafe at page 16.
12. Smyllie at page 15; Sciafe at page 2; Giving Stories at page 54.
13. Circle Report at pages 26 and 33.
14. Circle Report at page 22.
15. Circle Report at page 28
16. Circle Report at page 26 and 28; Smyllie at page 23; Snapshot at pages 19, 21, 24 and 32; Sciafe at page 13.
17. Sciafe at page 17; Snapshot at page 23.
18. Sciafe at page 14. See also Circle Report at page 24 and Smyllie at pages 15 and 18.
19. Smyllie at page 18.
20. Snapshot at page 21. See also Connecting Communities Model <Link>
21. Snapshot at pages 21 and 32.
22. Smyllie at page 18.
23. Snapshot at pages 21
24. Sciafe at page 17. See also Giving Stories at pages 44 and 47.
25. Snapshot at page 32.
26. Sciafe at page 17; Giving Stories at page 56; Smyllie at page 16.
27. Snapshot at page 22.
28. Snapshot at page 31.
29. Sciafe at page 13. See also Smyllie at page 19.