Meet NancyJo Houk of American Indian College Fund

The following interview is part of the Philanthropy Roundtable’s “Free to Give” series highlighting the impact that philanthropy can have when Americans have the right to give freely to the causes and communities they care about most. Learn more here.

“The American Indian College Fund has been around for more than 30 years, serving the American Indian and Alaska Native community. We’ve grown to become what is likely the largest Native-led and Native-serving organization in the United States today.”

“Our mission is to increase access to a college education for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Right now, American Indians and Alaska Natives hold college degrees at half the rate of the general population, or about 14.5% compared to 35% of the general population.”

“We look to fulfill that mission in a couple different ways. We provide financial support and scholarships to students from certificate programs and associate degrees all the way though their Ph.D. We start with early childhood education to try to instill that love of learning and the value of education in little ones and their families so they can grow up in an education-oriented environment. We work with high schools to prepare students for college and assist them in applying and choosing their career path.”

“There are a lot of barriers for Native students attending college. Number one among them is financial. They are often unprepared to actually navigate the financial aid system and scholarships. Most Native students don’t have strong counseling and advising teams at their schools. Their high schools lack those resources that help prepare them for college, so we do our best to fill in those gaps.”

“Before the world shut down, we had just completed some survey work. Going into COVID-19 we knew how incredibly challenging it was going to be for our students:

  • 81% of tribal college students were either food insecure, housing insecure, or both
  • 26% lacked internet access at home
  • 51% are the primary breadwinners in their household and are often supporting multi-generational families

And that was before COVID-19.”

“We had to expand to include whatever our students needed—whatever it would take to reduce their stress and keep them in school. We jumped in with technology support, food, and helped keep some of the college housing open. We kept most of our students in school last spring, and the majority of our students made it through graduation. We could only do that because we got a lot of additional financial support.”

“There were many people who had donor-advised funds and the best intentions, so when they saw the world fall apart around them, that really kicked them into action. People were spending down their donor-advised funds at rates that we hadn’t seen before.”

“Those that were maybe previously unsure how they wanted to direct their funds found ways to invest in philanthropy during COVID-19. It inspired them to think a little more about who needed their help, and they responded beautifully.”

“Last fiscal year—which runs from July 1 to June 30—by mid-February we had raised $160,000 from donor-advised funds. We finished that year at $444,000 in donor-advised fund gifts.”

“Now, this year through mid-February, we have raised over $1 million in donor-advised fund gifts. So, we have seen giving from donor-advised funds almost seven times higher than at that same time last year.”

“That generosity has really continued for us. A lot of our major donors use donor-advised funds to manage their philanthropic giving. They’ve been with us for years, and we’ve had many who have really stepped up throughout all of this.”

“When the number of American Indians with college degrees is just over 14%, and the national average is 35%, there’s still a huge gap there. What that means for Native communities is a lack of diversity in the workforce. It means there aren’t enough Native educators, doctors, community planners, computer scientists and more.”

“Another way we engage our communities is through the 35 accredited colleges across the United States that are in reservation or near reservation communities. Often, they are tribally chartered and some of them are tribally supported. There are many Native educators who work at these schools and support our students. They’re in the community for the community.”

“These institutions have been critical in getting much needed community support into our tribal communities during COVID-19. Oftentimes, they have the only library in the community. They may even be the only place you can get a stable internet connection. They have food pantries and a whole range of services they provide, alongside being fully accredited colleges.”

“Every single one of those colleges has been actively participating in trying to keep their community safe. They’ve been providing PPE to their communities, thanks to a huge donation that we were able to distribute to all of the tribal colleges. They’ve been providing food and water in some communities that don’t have running water. They’ve been providing laptops and tablets and paid for internet connections. They’ve kept their campus housing open to students who didn’t have a home to go to when school went online. We’ve been incredibly proud to support all these efforts.”

“I think the recent spotlight on Native communities has really demonstrated those gaps. The media has been wonderful in sharing the circumstances of Native communities over the last year, and it has increased people’s awareness of what’s really happening on the ground. But it’s important to remember that the issues that have been spotlighted during COVID-19 didn’t materialize because of it. They have long existed and were exacerbated by COVID-19.”

“Education is at the foundation of everything that needs to happen to improve the wellbeing of Native communities. Our job is to make sure that we keep that focus and spotlight on the issues—using that awareness to address those issues in the short and long term.”

– NancyJo Houk, chief marketing and development officer at American Indian College Fund in Denver, Colorado

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