Sunday, January 21, 2007

Asian Americans: Do We Give Enough?

I consider myself lucky. I mean, really blessed. I'm reasonably healthy, I have a wonderful wife and the best three-year-old son in existence (the kind of kid that inspires Craigslist-type superlatives: "fabulous! mint! must see!"). And as far as income goes, we're doing pretty well—certainly better than I've done most of the rest of my adult life, largely spent as a journalist, a nonprofit staffer, and an ethnic media entrepreneur...three professions that tend to put you closer to the government cheese than the cheddar. We own real estate. And a nice hybrid car. We even have some savings.

Now, I've supported nonprofits regularly in my life, but generally at the gala benefit ticket/silent auction level. You know—situations where you give a little something, get a little something. Pretty standard philanthropy for the youngish urban professional.

That said, I don't think I've ever attended a benefit where someone at the table didn't grouse about the crappiness of the food, the squalor of the decor, or the mediocrity of the entertainment. (What did you expect—Cirque du Soleil?) And as for silent auctions...don't get me started. Bottom line: If you're trying to raise funds, stimulating the Asian American bargain-hunting reflex ain't the most efficient mechanism.

Which brings up this article in today's New York Times: Class Divide in Chinese Americans' Charity. The article focuses on how there's a wealthy set of Chinese Americans that's actively giving to charitable causes...but the causes they're supporting tend to be causes already supported by the wealthy set: Art museums. Operas. Ballets.

They're not, generally, giving to social service organizations, civic advocacy groups, or other institutions that help those in need—and they're not, generally, giving to Asian American-specific causes. Says Virginia Lau-Kee of the Chinese-American Planning Council, probably the largest social services organization supporting elders, immigrants, and children in Manhattan's Chinatown: “We’re out of their orbit....We get donations from poor people that we’ve helped. We don’t get donations from the rich, who should be helping the poor.”

Worse yet, the article cites a 2004 paper written by Georgetown University Public Policy Institute fellow Andrew Ho suggesting that “many Chinese Americans do not give at all, and those that do, give to their university, or to their church, but not to ethnic causes.”

But there are those bucking the tide—mostly younger Asian American professionals, such as 34-year-old investment banker (and son of a waiter and a garment worker) Jimmy Pang, who has founded a "giving circle" called AsiaNextGen—a group of friends that pools their donations to directly and collaboratively support a different organization or initiative each year with an impact that solo donations might not obtain. In 2004, the initial five members each put $4000 into the pot, and gave $20,000 to the Queens Child Guidance Center to support the hiring of a social worker. They've continued this philanthropic pact on an annual basis, growing their membership, and funding a different initiative in the Asian American community per annum. (On a similar but more formal level, you also have organizations like Project By Project, which holds annual fundraisers and donates the proceeds to a different Asian American charity each year.)

My wife and I began giving on a larger scale this year (the kind where you write checks with more than two zeroes, but less than four—that's as heavy as we can afford to roll right now)—but I'm intrigued by this idea of pooled and targeted giving, and I'm wondering what the rest of you guys are doing by way of philanthropy, for those of you who are in a position to do so. Hey—maybe we could do an annual Rice Daddies/Kimchi Mamas fundraiser and donate a collaborative gift to an Asian American child-or-parent oriented nonprofit each year...what do you think?


Rachel said...

Interesting question. I'm white and my husband is Korean. We do give, but not in an organized way. His relatives are very generous with other family members in need, while my family tends to give more to church/ charities.

Ka_Jun said...

Here in Pittsburgh, local nonprofits hold "Chinese auctions" to raise funds. WTF is a "Chinese auction"?!?!

Robyn said...

Super interesting. This issue was not even on my radar. (Maybe i can blame that on being a grad student.) Still, I'm kind of surprised that this was in the NY Times. It seems like a pretty small group of folks would be interested in this article. Then again, maybe I should be happy for reporting on Asian American issues.

Anyway, I'm Japanese/Chinese and I don't donate--except old clothes to Goodwill! I guess that's partly to do with being a grad student, but it's hard cuz I know that as much as grad students gripe, there are folks with less than we have.

My husband (mixed Chinese, Hawaiian, white) is more generous than I am. he gave after the tsunami, for example. Not sure what else. But because of our income, really small--like the kind where you have to remind yourself (if X people give this much...).

Another angle: my mom. She's 2nd generation Chinese American, grew up in the projects and has "made it" enough to send my youngest sister to private school and invest in several properties (more than I will probably achieve). Anyway, her view is that she made it "on her own" so everyone else can too. Not sure how widespread that view is...

daddy in a strange land said...

Great topic, Jeff, thanks for introducing it.

I'm totally down with some kind of ongoing fundraiser for AsAm families. Did everybody see what our sistas at Kimchi Mamas did in December, donating their ad revenue and soliciting donations for the Asian Pacific Women's Center in LA?

This question of philanthropy in communities of color, especially among young(er) folks still getting established, is an interesting one. My wife is a member of the California Academy of Family Physicians, and this year, they gave their Philanthropist of the Year award to a 30-something Asian American activist doc, but they had to explain that his case made them revise and expand their traditional definition of philanthropy beyond mere monetary giving. I was interested in getting involved in our local United Way's "Young Leaders" group, until I found out that all they're really interested in is cultivating new donors, not getting folks involved beyond giving money--they want at least $500 a year in order to join.

I do want to give to causes and organizations that are important to me, doing good work, it's just still hard to do.

I stumbled across the blog of a new AsAm daddy who's doing his part, check it out:

thisislarry said...

My family experience echos Robyn's. Charity was just never there. You helped your family, you helped your church, but you didnt write big checks to organizations.

We have some non-asian friends for whom the end of the year is the time when they 'do their giving' to their charities, just like writing xmas cards.

Perhaps there's somethign cultural about that: The American Way is to give cash to a 'organization' in one lump rather than help in other ways?

What's the rationale behind that? Is it an assumption that these organizations can do a better job of allocating that money than, say you giving it to a panhandler? Is it just because its easier and more time-efficient than volunteering?

Hmm, I guess I'm pretty cheap, I dont have any charities I give $$ to, but the wife and i have given time to a couple of causes, during downtimes from work, etc. That's a level of involvement that gives me personal satisfaction.

Twizzle said...

My experience echos Robyn's and Larry's, too. My Korean mother doesn't believe in philanthropy and would not give one red cent to any panhandler or charity-- on priciple. Same rationale: "I made it by myself and anyone who can't is a lazy asshole."

I, on the other hand, work for a non-profit (art museum) and my job is fundraising. This past year I gave a meager amount at Xmas time, but plan on making that a yearly tradition. (I also give clothes away to the Sally Ann.)

soulsnax said...

daddy in a strange land: thanks for the shout-out about the SoulSnax Challenge. Funny thing is, baby is sitting right here in my lap smiling (she's only 15 days old) as if she knows what I'm currently up to. Ya see, family and friends keep asking us for her Babies R Us registry, but we have more baby stuff than we need. So, now I'm directing people to her DonorChoose registry which directs donations to the SoulSnax Challenge!

socio mama said...

I think the earlier comments referring to the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps/I did it myself" ideology is very dangerous, particularly for groups of color. This rhetoric dominates the mainstream discourse and is often cited by those in power as reasons why those in need shouldn't receive aid. "I did it, so you can too" However, this sorely neglects the institutionalized racism and classism that occurs in our society. While I acknowledge that there are folks out there who did do it "on their own", I think if we look a little closer we may find that most people do receive help from aid organizations, families, friends, the government (I took a Pell grant, how about you?).

This is a great post because as a new mama I recently became more generous. I wrote my first check this december (less than two zeros) to a local community organization, but love the idea of supporting asian american orgs. It's an excellent opportunity to help solidify a future for my asian-american daughter.

It just never occurred to me - thanks for the thought.

la dra said...

I definitely give more to my own family in the Philippines (I've put two cousins through college and two more enrolling this year!) than to organizations in the US. Although we did donate to the Heifer Intl people visavis a xmas gift from a friend. And maybe providing healthcare to the uninsured and undocumented counts for something? I don't think we can realistically afford to give much more... Will have to think about it.

honglien123 said...

This actually makes me think of the stereotype that Asians are bad tippers. Anyhoo, I've noticed that for the Vietnamese community, perhaps because it is still a relatively new community and still has strong ties back to Vietnam, tends to give quite a bit to charities which feed poor families and build homes and Vietnam. Ever since I had enough money to donate, my dad has been telling me to donate to the poor folks back in the old country. Why help the people in the poor in the US when they have so many social services they either are too proud, stubborn, or stupid to utilize was his argument. And in some ways, I think I believe him. Poor here is not the same as poor there and my $100 every now and then feeds a lot of families. Still, just the aspect of giving to those least fortunate than yourself is a tenet that I grew up and was taught both by my family and by my temple. I do notice that I do give much more than many of my Asian American friends; my Japanese Korean American husband included. I have to say I don't target groups that help Asian Americans specifically and your post does make a solid point that perhaps I should.

That said, I would totally support any effort that the Rice Daddies and Kim Chi Mamas put forth.

eliaday said...

Yes, I fall in to that trap of mostly giving to my alma mater, but I give $5 a year every year.

If it's too hard to restructure people's conceptions of giving, there are ways to work around that - I write my checks directly to the office on the campus that supports students of color.

I think the lack of giving to APA non-profits might just be connected to the larger invisibility issue that we as a community face. I wonder what it would look like if you compared specific ethnic organizations with pan-Asian American organizations.

Anonymous said...

I didn't really start giving to non-church-related organizations until I got married and joined my husband, who was involved with multiple AA organizations. If anyone is in the NYC area, I'd like to give a shout-out to: Asian Americans for Equality (many areas, but particularly housing), and APICHA, Asian & Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS (

Anonymous said...

Nice post. This is my first time visiting your site and I like it. It's cool to see people are thinking about stuff like this. I'm a Chinese American and I'm in the process of trying to make something happen with not only people giving say material things, but also their time.

I'll explain some of what I'm trying to do, but I'll try to make it brief. First of all, I really don't know jack about websites or non-profits, but I said WTF, why don't I be a person of action and just dive-in and start one. It's called

The focus of it is kinda two fold. One is to better understand Asian American culture and the second (and main focus) is to try to encourage Asian Americans be more active in helping others.

I'd really be interested in getting ya'lls opinion on it and see if you guys have any suggestions.