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Native American Communities > First Steps to Building an IDA Project in Native Communities

First Steps to Building an IDA Project in Native Communities

Native communities are asset-rich in both culture and community. "Assets in Native communities can include spirituality, resources (such as land), education, and sovereignty.”[1] As noted in a 2007 report on Integrated Asset-Building Strategies for Reservation-Based communities, “the problem faced by Native communities is not ownership of assets, but rather the question of who controls Native assets.”[2]

Individual Development Accounts and financial literacy training - like that offered by AFI projects - provide an opportunity for Native communities to cultivate their existing assets and expand asset building services within their communities. Although Native communities continue to face a variety of barriers to asset development, these challenges also present an opportunity for expanding asset building services. This article, which identifies some of these challenges, describes first steps to building successful IDA projects within Native communities.

Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities for IDAs in Native Communities

Native communities and the organizations serving them often experience multiple challenges when working on asset building programs due to numerous factors.  One potential set of barriers relates to the economic conditions in native communities. Low-income families and individuals in these communities represent a large percentage of the population. These families and individuals consume most of their incoming resources for basic necessities, which naturally restricts their ability to save.  However, research and the AFI experience indicate that low-income individuals can and do save. While the economic conditions of Native communities certainly makes it difficult to save, these conditions also illustrate both a need and opportunity for asset building services.

Beliefs and cultures in native communities, such as a cultural emphasis on collective rather than individual accumulation of resources, can also pose a challenge to asset development. A history of unsuccessful asset building experiences also further complicates the development of IDAs in Indian Country.  The principal asset of many low-income community members is social capital (networks, norms, and trust relationships). While the nature of these social capital/peer networks sometimes does not facilitate IDAs or other personal asset building efforts, the community network is itself an important asset.

Another possible set of barriers discouraging the development of effective IDAs or asset building programs revolves around leadership and funding issues. Turnover of tribal council leadership or program leadership can disrupt the IDA project planning and/or implementation process. In addition, tribes and native organizations sometimes face challenges when seeking funding for IDA programs for program administration, as well as match funds. Because of this frequent turnover, it is important to not only have the support of tribal leaders, but also the support of community members.

The barriers mentioned above can build on and reinforce each other.  Native social capital/peer networks that do not facilitate IDA or other personal asset building efforts can result in unsupportive tribal councils. Similarly, tribal councils deciding to jettison an approved IDA project reflect networks suspicious of asset building. The next section highlights important first steps in building community support in order to overcome this challenge and successfully develop an IDA project.

First Steps in Developing an IDA Project in Native Communities

Listen to Community Concerns about Asset Building

Conducting an open and honest discussion with community members on IDAs and asset building is a critical first step in successful project development. These discussions can explore how to build wealth and self-sufficiency through asset creation, facilitating an understanding of cultural norms creating barriers to developing IDAs. These initial discussions will be helpful in determining why previous efforts to save and build assets did not have positive results.  Facilitators of the discussions should encourage sharing of all aspects of previous experiences. The goal is to share all doubts community members may have in regard to asset building activities and discuss the long-term, positive personal results of asset building. 

Elicit Suggestions from the Community

After these discussions, elicit from participants how assets are traditionally built and managed. Have them describe opportunities for building a resource base they would like to see available to community members now (particularly lower income community members). Use this statement as a foundation for asset building in the community. The statement will precede detailed discussions of the structure and operation of an IDA project. 

Introduce IDAs as a Tool for Asset Building and Build Community Support

Next, introduce the concept of an IDA program. Describe the purposes of the program: increased homeownership; help in starting a small business; and assistance in paying for higher education.  Have participants explain their vision of the program structure (matching rates; coordination with existing homeownership, business development, and education programs; or deposit options). Discussing the idea of individual asset building with the community can help the community explore and increase its support for individual asset building. Community support is an essential first step.

Develop an “Asset-Building Mentality”

Successfully changing attitudes toward IDAs must begin with building the belief: deferring consumption will have substantial, apparent, and concrete community and individual benefits. Providing visible evidence, such as the matched savings feature of IDAs, to support this belief will help solidify support for an IDA program. Another critical aspect is an educational process addressing more than financial literacy. Developing an “asset-building mentality” in native communities requires an educational experience to assist participants in resolving negative feelings about their ability to save, enabling them to feel comfortable postponing consumption (i.e. building “the belief”). This educational experience can and should start with resolving community doubts regarding asset building initiatives and involving the community in program design.

These basic steps of listening to the community concerns, eliciting suggestions, building community support for IDAs, and developing an “asset-building mentality” can pave the way for the successful development of an IDA project in Native communities. These steps build on the strengths and resources of the community, thereby recognizing the community is an asset in and of itself.


[1] Finsel, C. (2008, September). Asset Building: Is It A Cultural Fit? Paper presented at the Assets Learning Conference, Washington, D.C.

[2] First Nations Development Institute (2002). Integrated Asset-Building Strategies for Reservation-Based Communities: A 27-Year Retrospective of First Nations Development Institute. Longmont, CO: First Nations Development Institute.

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