Fostering philanthropy within any specific donor demographic has its challenges — but perhaps none more so than in the Asian community. Cultural and historical differences between Asian countries and the United States are stark and, according to Michelle Tong, donor relations director for the Asian American Federation of New York, they explain why it’s innately difficult to get its members to give. Asian immigrants just don’t understand the philanthropic nature of this country, she explains. And, in tandem, development personnel used to courting largely American donors don’t understand the disconnect. Here, Tong discusses these issues.
FundRaising Success: What are the special challenges in attracting Asian-American donors?
Michelle Tong: “There are several obstacles given the culture, history and nature of Asians that make fundraising in this population more difficult than in the mainstream or in other ethnic minority cultures. First, there is no ‘welfare state’ per se in the history of Asian countries. There were no government-enforced means of charitable giving or tax laws benefiting those who donated money. So historically, most Asians are not familiar with any philanthropic concepts.
“Furthermore, most Asians migrated to this country having lived through civil and international wars, government corruption in their homelands and/or depressions. Having lost their homes, families and savings before, immigrants have a very strong regard for their property and possessions — including money. Disposable income is something they may need again, and so it is very challenging to get them to think beyond their past experiences and give wealth away.
“I also believe that there is an unspoken culture amongst immigrants who have made it here but do not feel they need to ‘give back’ to anyone because no one helped them. The notion that “if I can do it, then he can do it,’ may just be prevalent enough for certain people to hold back from joining the concept of ‘giving back.’ Who are they giving back to exactly?”
FS: Are Asian Americans less likely to contribute to a non-Asian charity?
MT: “It really depends. Most of the Asians that I am aware of who have ‘made it’ in this country and are financially well off tend to donate to arts and cultural charities. They are also very interested in education and schools or hospitals and health-related issues. I think it’s definitely easier for these types of institutions to fundraise for this demographic. These topics and subjects are very fundamental to the Asian culture and mentality. Family and education are top, top priorities to most, so naturally this translates in their charitable giving.