The Culture of Philanthropy in the Asian American Community

On May 31, I will attend a benefit for the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami called, “New Yorkers for Japan.” This benefit is organized by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office and co-sponsored by 30 New York politicians over 20 partnering organizations. I am happy to see that all but three of the organizations serve or represent the Asian American community here in New York. As an Asian American, I am always proud when my community rallies together to support a worthy cause.

Contrast this story with Japan Society’s Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. As reported in The New York Times article, “For Japanese, Learning to Receive,” the Japanese consulate in New York had no mechanism for accepting contributions and asked the Japan Society to serve as a collection agency to receive relief fund donation. The fund raised $160,000 in a matter of days. In reviewing the list of donors, Motoatsu Sakurai, the President of the Japan Society commented, “Everyone is very much touched by the sympathy and generosity of American people…” My gut feeling is 90 percent of the donors were not Japanese.

Giving to charity is an American tradition. We all grow up with nonprofits that have existed for over one hundred years. When we donate to the Red Cross, we have faith it will help disaster relief. When we give back to our universities, we expect it will help future generations of students. What happens when the institutions we give to are new or foreign? Or what happens when you grow up in a country where nonprofits or NGOs do not exist?

The Asian American community has a relatively “young” history with philanthropy in America. In my NYU capstone [thesis], I compared philanthropy in the Chinese American community with the American Jewish community and discovered what a rich philanthropic history and culture the Jewish community possesses towards giving. They have a long history of organized philanthropy that was developed even before many of them immigrated to U.S. With this long history, they have faith that their donations are making a difference. Many of them donate consistently to large federations and organizations that work on a variety of large societal issues that affect their community. In contrast, the history of giving in the Chinese American community is not as long, and many Chinese Americans give to more specific projects like paying for a friend’s funeral services or relief services for a disaster. For new donors and philanthropists in general, they want to be able to “touch” or “see” the projects they fund. They want to address problems that are immediate and solvable rather than address long term issues.

Outside of the U.S., American philanthropists are spreading the word about giving. After pledging to donate half of their wealth via the Giving Pledge, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have traveled to China and recently to India to have a conversation about their thoughts on philanthropy. The results have been mixed. While some of Asia’s ultra-wealthy have signed up instantly, the vast majority are reluctant to make the commitment or even meet with the two at all. Jamie Johnson of Vanity Fair questioned if the trip is “condescending,” and wrote, “It implies somehow that Indian billionaires require the guidance of American billionaires to act responsibly, and in the best interest of their own society. I tend to believe that super-rich Indians… have a suitable vision of their own for philanthropy.”

The situation becomes even more complicated overseas where the rules of philanthropy are always changing. “In 2008 and 2009, China experienced two large earthquakes, in Sichuan and Qinghai that required substantial disaster relief. Give2Asia, a U.S.-based charity that provides grants to assist NGO’s in Asia set up relief funds for both of these disasters. Their 2008 Sichuan Earthquake efforts funded a large number of projects from various local and national NGO groups. There were multiple projects to choose from. Their 2009 Qinghai Earthquake efforts, as requested by the Chinese government, could only contribute to eight national government-organized NGOs (it was the first time I heard the term GONGOs).” I was certainly more reluctant to donate in 2009, hearing the news of the government restrictions. I made the donation, but the risk was very minimal of my small donation not being used as I intended it to. I would want more clarity and reassurance if I were investing millions into charities there.

A friend recalls asking his two friends why they did not give to the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. One replied, in Haiti, he did not trust where the money was going and the other replied in Japan, they were wealthy enough. They did not need the money. It is easy for individuals to be skeptical about giving. Sometimes, making a donation simply relies on a person’s faith that it is helping those in need.

Faith. History. Stability. Trust. There are many who are fortunate they grew up with histories and cultures that ingrained these feelings towards giving. It will take time for others to develop them.


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