Grants Management Challenges Facing Indian Country
By Sabrina Renteria, MPA
FSA Advisory Group

There are 574 federally recognized tribes, each unique in size, resources, languages, and cultures. Native people are the essence of our tribal nations. Culture and traditions, new and old, sustain our societies, language, family, art, and lifeways. The land is our connection to a physical and spiritual place, which helps define who we are as a people. Tribal nations and their governments vary from tribe to tribe based on unique histories, cultures, and world views.
Like local governments, tribal governments must secure funding to provide government services to their people, such as policing, justice systems, social service programs, language preservation, land preservation, housing, and more. State and local governments fund most of their services through property and sales taxes. Tribal governmental activities are generally funded through the tribe’s enterprises, grants, and contracts. While enterprises provide funding in lieu of property tax, federal funds are still the primary source of revenue for most tribes. Tribes are eligible to receive federal funding because of treaties and other agreements from ceding land and other resources. Tribal governments began having the ability to manage their funds and apply for federal grant opportunities in 1975, long after state and local governments. We oftentimes are playing catch-up.
Due to the responsibility placed on tribal nations, their leaders, staff, and tribal citizens share the burden of providing needed services to their people and community. Because most tribal governments rely on federal funding, knowledge of grants management is vital to their success. Access to grants and successful grants management is necessary to provide those services. Unfortunately, Indian Country lacks professionals dedicated to the field of grants management. Below are a few examples of the struggles I have seen in Indian Country.
Professional grant writers in Indian Country are minimal. The lack of grant writing professionals dedicated to Indian Country oftentimes results in tribes simply not being able to apply for the more competitive funding opportunities. And with the shortage of grant writers, other factors hinder securing a grant writer. For example, if tribes have the financial means to hire an on-site position, geographic location, cost of living, and pay rate play a role in the hiring process and retention. Oftentimes, these positions go unfilled. If tribes have the means to contract out, they often secure grant writers who are unfamiliar with tribes or histories and have no ties to their land and people. This causes the potential for extremely hindering the success of submitted grant applications.
Once a grant is obtained, a new level of knowledge must be present: how to manage the funds. One notable struggle seen often is the work environment and immediate expectations placed on new hires. For example, directors of tribal programs are hired because of their expertise in fields such as education, criminal justice, human services, and environmental sciences, to name a few. One doesn’t learn grants management in high school or college. Grants management is a hands-on, day-by-day, and lifelong learning journey. This often leads to our experts being placed in sink-or-swim situations, which may cause stressful work environments if they cannot get the support and guidance necessary to succeed in their roles.
To address these challenges, below are notable efforts being made:

  1. Experts are creating consulting services to enhance their ability to support Indian Country and their grants management needs.

  2. Tribal governments are taking grant-writing training to the next level and providing community training opportunities to enhance knowledge of the field.

  3. Tribal governments are investing back into their staff to ensure they accomplish their professional development needs in grants management as many are coming to understand that grants management is a lifelong learning journey.

Despite the many grants management challenges Indian Country has faced for so many years, progress is being made. As both the needs of tribal communities and recognition of the grants management profession are becoming more widely known, more funds are being allocated towards tribal communities and, hopefully, additional qualified and experienced grants managers will be available to successfully manage the funding Indian Country citizens need to flourish.
Sabrina Renteria is a Relationship Manager at FSA Advisory Group, an American-Indian and women-owned firm that provides financial advisory services in Indian Country.