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.
“Having said this, I would also say that, on average, Asians do tend to give to causes related to their roots or ethnic background. Although we are a Pan Asian umbrella group, there are many nonprofits that focus only on specific Asian backgrounds, such as Korean, Indian, Chinese or Japanese, etc. And some do not want to partner with or collaborate with other Asian organizations not of the same background. This is, of course, due largely to history and the history of Asian countries.”
FS: Are there religious considerations that influence how Asian Americans give?
MT: “There are many large and well funded Buddhist temples in the metropolitan area. Each temple is organized for specific backgrounds. The majority of the Korean population is Christian, and so churches are often well funded from within that community. We all know that in general, churches and religious institutions are the largest recipients of donations by individuals in this country.”
- Direct mail including bi-annual appeals.
- Spirit of Asian America annual gala
- Volunteer Programs: “We currently have two different types available. One is to engage anyone to volunteer their time by participating in an outing. For example ... taking a group of underprivileged public school students to the Museum of Natural History for a Saturday afternoon. We did this in July 2004 and created a scavenger hunt for the students of Shuang Wen Academy in lower Manhattan, the first dual-language, English and Mandarin Chinese public school in the country.) “The other volunteer program we offer is for young corporate types to volunteer their time and skills with our member agencies based on the needs of our agencies. We are presently working with Harvard Business School’s 4As group to establish a long-term program that helps agencies with specific problem areas, such as fundraising, IT services, accounting or management and so forth.”
- Networking events: “We invite executive directors of different agencies to speak about what they do and how people can get involved. Our last two events, held in 2003 and 2004, each garnered 300 young Asian professionals in the New York/New Jersey area. Both events were sponsored by Mercedes-Benz USA, and we were able to raise approximately $6,000 at each (even though the events were not meant to be fundraisers). We promote philanthropy and giving back at these events and try to help people learn where and how to get started.”
- Asian-American Community Fund: “The Community Fund raises funds from various sources and runs several grant programs for Asian-American community organizations in the New York area. Since 1993, the fund has raised and awarded nearly $2 million dollars to more than 100 worthy, well-managed community programs through its Annual Grants Program. It provides donors with various ways to contribute to the community depending on the amount of time and effort they would like to spend.”
Fundraising philosophy: “This is more about our philosophy in general, not so much for fundraising, but to promote philanthropy and giving, but not necessarily just for ourselves.
“We strive to do more outreach and educate Asian Americans about community issues locally and, one day, nationally. We are more recently seeking to target young Asian-American professionals and involve them at an earlier stage, so that they may contribute to the community throughout their lives. We promote volunteerism as a method to contribute to the community, using one’s skills and time, especially for those who cannot contribute much financially but want to help others.
“We are also looking to target the elder population with the idea of creating a Community Foundation run by Asian for Asians. We seek to link community assets with community needs and would like to offer a greater range of giving options and vehicles in which donors can achieve their personal wishes. We hope to educate Asian accountants, lawyers and bankers, and financial-service providers with more information on estate planning, trusts, and donor-advised or field-of-interest funds and show that there are many options for their clients to choose from. We hope to arm these professionals with more knowledge and information to help promote charitable giving within their businesses and communities.”