The Moral Imperative of the International Philanthropic Community

By Edgar Villanueva, author of the book “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance”


Whenever we are faced with a problem, there is a tendency to embark on paths for new solutions. We over-appreciate new research but underappreciated the lessons of history, passed down via oral traditions, storytelling and written documentation. But what does history teach us? To be more precise, what does the history of indigenous people across the globe offer to contemporary problems?

This is hard to sort out given the impact of colonization. Colonization seems normal because our history books are full of it. And it’s discussed in flattering terms. To this day, many colonizing powers talk about colonization not with shame, but with pride in their accomplishments. They boast about their conquests. It’s important to remember however, that colonization is not just conquering but it’s destroying all that gets in the way, and then sticking around, occupying the land, and forcing the existing indigenous people to become carbon copies of the colonizer. Colonization may begin as conquest and exploitation, but it is maintained by a belief in God-given superiority. Its mantra is: divide and conquer, command and control, and above all, exploit.

Globally, we’re seeing the colonizer virus at play in prominent ways. Consider Brazil for example: Brazil recently elected their most conservative and right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, in decades.  Within days of his election, Bolsonaro gave the country’s Agriculture Ministry control over areas reserved for the region’s Indigenous peoples and the descendants of slaves. In the process, he made it nearly impossible for the new lands to be demarcated or reassigned. He also removed LGBT groups from a list of groups who would be protected by a new human rights ministry in his administration. Additionally, he expanded the government’s ability to monitor international groups in the region, including nongovernmental entities. He’s done this while mirroring U.S. President Trump’s angry rhetoric about the media, refugees and climate change.

Colonization is spreading not just in one country, but in many. Further, values promoting equity and inclusion are under attack globally. We see the spread of colonization, evidenced, in part, by the spread of far-right ideology in obvious ways. In many spheres of society, we may perpetuate the dynamics of colonization more subtly, including in the philanthropic sector.

For those of us who enter philanthropy seeking to make a difference, we must be vigilant in ensuring we are not furthering colonization. We do this by decolonizing our minds, our institutions, and our communities.

In the United States, we are in a moment of awakening. One of the most under emphasized parts of our national story – African Americans and Indigenous Peoples – is the wealth that was stolen from these communities or made on their backs. Foundations and philanthropic bodies, many who have benefited from that wealth, rise up and proclaim that they are helping, but many have yet to do the decolonizing work internally that would ensure their efforts to help do not further trauma.


“Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance” by Edgar Villanueva

The American media advances a narrative that the rich are the people we should emulate without offering the full story: in many instances, the wealth we celebrate was stolen from our parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and their ancestral lands. The prior example illustrates just one way that homes have been stolen, but the practice has evolved. This is just a 21st century version of what it looks like to steal land out from under the poor and under-resourced. But in a capitalist society, worshipping at the altar of money and wealth is a natural as breathing.

If there is a silver lining, it is that those of us who have been excluded and exploited via colonization, possess the exact perspective and wisdom needed to decolonize and heal our communities. While colonization prioritizes wealth and the wealthy, decolonization is a process with roles for everyone involved, whether they’re rich or poor, funder or recipient, victim or perpetrator.

After years in philanthropy and after having invested $130 million, I have seen past the field’s glamorous, altruistic façade, into the colonizing spirit lurking in its shadows: the old boy networks, the white savior complexes, and the internalized oppression among the select people of color who gain access. The accumulation of wealth, and maintaining wealth is steeped in trauma. The process of healing from that trauma is central to decolonization.

We are beginning to see that there is a better way. We are beginning to see that while money has been used to harm, it can be used to heal. We can take steps to deal with the ethics of philanthropy so that the people who are closest to the pain have greater agency over philanthropic resources.

Those steps for healing institutions and the culture around money include grieving, apologizing and listening.

In the same way that an individual cannot move beyond trauma that he or she has not faced and healed from, neither can exploited communities or people accustomed to doing the exploiting. We must stop and process the hurts we’ve endured. Often, communities that have been oppressed have no space to grieve. We need to recognize that the accumulation of wealth can cause pain. In many countries, such as the U.S., wealth was acquired on the backs of Indigenous people, slaves and low-wage workers, most of them people of color. We need to acknowledge history, long past and as recently as yesterday. We need to re-open the wounds and collectively grieve.

It’s also important to apologize. We must apologize for the hurts we’ve caused. When it comes to money, apologies are due for where the wealth came from (which was almost always from the theft of land and resources, the exploitation of slaves and low-wage workers). Apologies are needed over how that wealth was maneuvered out of appropriate taxation (off shore, into havens, into foundations) so that infrastructure such as roads, bridges, public schools, firefighters, eldercare, has suffered. Apologies are due for the majority of investments, which support harmful industries, practices, and regimes. Apologies are due for the greed and pettiness that characterize a lot of our everyday behavior and interactions around money, all of which arise out of the separation paradigm, the myth of scarcity, this idea that we’re not together in this thing called life.

Finally, we must listen. We must acknowledge the wisdom of excluded and exploited groups. While they have been marginalized and oppressed, their perspective is valuable and they must be included in conversations around how to save not just philanthropy, but our communities. And when we listen, we must listen attentively, which means holding back our own conclusions, opinions, and judgments.

The moral imperative of the international philanthropic community is to determine, what kind of communities we want to create. Then we must align our vision with resources. Once we know the kinds of communities we want to create, we will see the importance of apologizing, grieving and listening. When we do this, we will be better positioned to heal and not harm the communities which we engage and are a part. We must continually ask, ‘who is holding power in various communities and are they are using that power responsibly.’ If the people holding power are also the people amassing wealth on the backs of indigenous, low-wealth and poor people, what are you prepared to do?



EV Circle Picture



By Edgar Villanueva

author of the book “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance”




Edgar Villanueva is the author of the book, “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance”. Edgar is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Chair of the Board of Native Americans in Philanthropy and the Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Read more on the website:

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