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Toni Sanchez advocates for Native philanthropy amid pandemic

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic to Indigenous communities has been an outsized one compared to other populations.

It magnified Indian Country’s longtime deficiencies in infrastructure, health care, food security, housing, technology and more.

A new report shows that the Native American philanthropic sector stepped up to fill in gaps in the federal government’s response. It demonstrated the extent to which tribal communities mobilized and leveraged resources to try and lessen the impact.

Seminole tribal member Toni Sanchez is at the forefront of the organization behind the report – Native Americans in Philanthropy.

Sanchez said that between March 2020 and October 2020 – representing the crucial early and middle parts of the pandemic – $32.2 million in philanthropic funds were distributed to Native communities. The donations were led or initiated by Indigenous People – a relatively large number for a short amount of time, she said.

Sanchez attended Indigenous Peoples Day events in Los Angeles in 2019. (Courtesy Toni Sanchez)

In all, 15 nonprofits raised $23.5 million and 56 GoFundMe platforms raised $8.7 million.

Sanchez and the organization have also issued a call to action for the philanthropic sector at large to invest in Indigenous-led organizations and initiatives – including those supporting Covid-19 response efforts.

Native Americans in Philanthropy operate offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Sanchez was named the group’s engagement and communications coordinator about seven months ago.

Originally from the Immokalee Reservation, she’s lived in Burbank, California, for about four years, where she’s been involved in a number of projects, including entertainment journalism. But like it did to many, the pandemic hit and work slowed. Sanchez put her feelers out for potential new work and came across a posting from Native Americans in Philanthropy.

Her job is to advocate for more equitable funding for Native American organizations and causes. For example, from 2006 to 2016, she said, such groups received less than .5% percent of donations, but make up 2% of the

“The philanthropic sector is largely non-Native as well,” Sanchez said. “It’s indicative of the overall issue of being underrepresented.”

The organization has issued a new report that outlines donations in 2020.

The nonprofit works to correct the gap with outreach and serves as a bridge between Indigenous communities and the non-Native philanthropic sector. Funds are earmarked for a variety of projects, including infrastructure.

“As with all things in Indian Country, everything is so interconnected. A pull on one thread is to pull on all of them,” she said. “[The Seminole Tribe has] roads, cell towers, Wi-Fi, and don’t really have to worry about it or think about it – water, electricity and internet – a lot of tribes don’t have it.”

Sanchez said being a part of Native Americans in Philanthropy has reinforced to her how far the Seminole Tribe has come over the years.

“We are a very blessed tribe. We don’t have a lot of financial woes and are so self contained and self-sufficient,” she said.

Sanchez is encouraged by the new administration in Washington, D.C., and with Rep. Deb Haaland’s expected ascension to lead the Department of Interior.

“It’s not really enough for philanthropy to try and slap a Band-Aid on failures of federal government,” she said. “There’s so much history and bureaucracy – then you go ahead and pile on centuries and generations
worth of fraught relationships.”

Home sweet home

Her mother and grandmother are in Immokalee and her father – Tony Sanchez Jr. – and stepmother are on the Hollywood Reservation. Sanchez’ father is a former president of the tribe’s board of directors.

Sanchez went to school in Immokalee and later graduated from Florida State University with a degree in English and creative writing. In the late 2000s Sanchez moved to Orlando and ended up working as a marketing intern at Hard Rock’s former headquarters for three years.

“I had the best intern gig you could possibly have,” Sanchez said. “I got to
bounce around from franchise marketing, to and customer care. It was amazing. I learned a lot in a relatively short amount of time.”

Sanchez worked as a marketing coordinator for Hard Rock from 2012 to 2015.

She left Orlando for Tallahassee where she began to dabble in content creation – producing “silly little geeky videos” about science fiction movies. She bought a webcam and started to video blog about Star Wars and Marvel movies.

Those interests called her to California. She did entertainment journalism and covered science fiction conventions and press conferences. One of the last events she covered was the New York Comic Con in 2019.

“It was the first time they ever had an all-Indigenous panel in science fiction and fantasy,” Sanchez recalls. “I finally felt like it was happening – to actually have the beginning of true representation.”

Sanchez said her goal for 2021 is to see her family in Florida and to be able to meet others in person again once its safe.

“To have an opportunity to actually meet and shake hands, have a meal – that’s the modest goal,” she said.

Sanchez said she hadn’t been back home to Florida since last year’s Tribal Fair and Pow Wow in February.

“I miss my family, my grandmother. We just had a birthday and I wasn’t there for Christmas. I miss flatland, miss being able to get sweet tea in places other than Popeyes. I miss my friends and being in a place that’s
familiar. Florida is definitely my home and one day someday I’ll be back,” she said.

For more information and to read the Native Americans in Philanthropy report, click here.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at