American Indian Cancer Foundation

Conversation #1: American Indian Cancer Foundation

Date: June 11, 2019

Partner: Sarah Ballew, Headwater People

Interviewee: Joy Persall, Interim CEO and Principal Consultant

Quick Stats about American Indian Cancer Foundation:

The American Indian Cancer Foundation (AICAF) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that was established in 2010 to address the tremendous cancer inequities faced by American Indian and Alaska Native communities. AICAF’s board members and employees have an array of experience serving the health needs of NativePeople.

AICAF promotes all of this with tribal nations, primarily through research and community centered research, and by working with tribes to develop their own assessment and policy equity development.


Eliminate the cancer burdens on American Indian and Alaska Native people through improved access to prevention, early detection, treatment and survivor support.

Key Considerations: 

Strengths, Keys for Success: 

AICF is led by dynamic group of young professionals, the majority of which are Native with strong ties to their home communities. They have been able to employnew strategies to focus on systems and cultural change, both within and external to Native communities for the sake of driving Native centric health and healing in Native communities. AICF looks to the younger generation who have an innovative sense of hope and creative solutions to discover and develop those strategies.

It’s key that AICF’s staff have access to their home communities that support them. They use community oversight committees and involve their communities’ elders to review how they approach their work. While foundational to their approach, given the complexity and diversity of the many communities they serve, this is an ever-evolving process.

AICF is similar to an operating foundation. While they don’t originate grants , their programs explicitly benefit communities, and they have access to philanthropy.  AICF’s size and stability as an organization develops confidence for non-Native funders and builds those funder’s capacity to learn the language, culture and systems and to do more effective work in Native communities in other organizations as well. 

Barriers and Challenges:

Recruiting young Native professionals and offering resources to nourish and develop additional skills such as management is a challenge.  AICF doesn’t have the internal capacity for a lot of skill development and an over-arching Native non-profits resource vehicle is a gap they have identified.  Tribes have more access for that kind of support, but there remains a need for Native non-profits.

Addressing the gap in awareness and understanding of prevention health issues in the communities they serve is a challenge and additionally the Cancer Foundation also has the imperative to make sure staff understand indigenous frameworks in addition to be medically trained in mainstream contexts.

Primary Funding:

  • Through contracts from the state of Minnesota Department of Health, Universities, federal and state and local government funding.
  • The Department of Health - Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative.

Insights for others:

You need to have Native people on staff, and more than just one. You need Native People with experience with organizing and community based work.

You need to be willing to go out in the field and listen and learn from mistakes. Funders need to listen for the outcomes that the Native communities and organizations are trying to achieve and measure your impact according to what community need is. Community outcomes are defined by the community. This is better than trying to dominate with a framework that doesn’t fit. You need awareness of this difference and willingness to work together and through it.