What Should South Asians Do With Their Wealth?

I have been posting on this site about the trials and tribulations of young donors. I’m in the middle of chronicling the life of Michael, an heir to a trust, who must soon begin giving away $78 million (U.S.). More on his philanthropic journey in the next post.

Another group is stumbling into the American philanthropic scene. Young South Asians living in the U.S. (Pakistanis, Indians, and Bangladeshis are the majority). Some moved to America after college, and others (like me) were raised here. They are coming into significant personal wealth.

I recently brokered a discussion of six prospective donors. Their concern was: “What is the best way for South Asians to be philanthropic in America?” The half-dozen entrepreneurs I spoke with with have committed their personal resources — a collective sum of $2 million (modest relative to most charities), and they hope to raise more from others. But they need some help to meet their objectives. Allow me to explain. And as always, please chime in with comments.

They are all successful, highly educated, completely obsessed with money, and they want to do good. But they want to help South Asian-Americans, which is not so straightforward. Before you reply, “Give to the United Way,” I want to make clear that this group wants to help South Asians progress in the U.S. That doesn’t preclude mainstream charitable donation, but they want to move South Asians forward.

Of course, philanthropy is part and parcel of the ethnic experience in the U.S., and not just for the Carnegies and Vanderbilts. And South Asians hear the promise: “Come to America, make money, give it away” — for a nice tax donation and, if you’re lucky, a spot on Obama‘s transition team (see Google’s Sonal Shah).

But South Asian philanthropy is being shaped by the absence of two important attributes characterizing nearly every other major U.S. immigrant stream.

For the last 50 years, the waves of South Asians have not been working-class and poor. Second, South Asians don’t settle in bounded neighborhoods — so-called “ethnic enclaves.” A few exceptions are Devon (Chicago) and Jackson Heights (Queens, N.Y.). According to the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute, about 30 percent have graduate degrees — compared to 9 percent of Americans. They have higher household incomes and are concentrated in professional and management jobs, and they speak English in large numbers. They don’t fit the image of geographically bounded, economically struggling immigrants.

There are some community organizations, like New York’s South Asian Youth Action, that work locally, but this is uncommon. South Asians are spread out, and they come together at music festivals, parties, temples, taxi stands, and so on. I found only one organization invested in charity — The South Asian Philanthropy Project. They are just starting out, and I’ll be curious to see how they help donors in the years ahead.

So, what are young South Asian philanthropists struggling with? Three things:

1. Should we give it away or turn money into power?

Nikhil, a Silicon Valley-based engineer, issued a common refrain, comparing South Asians to Jews:

We are way too scattered; we need a power base. Look at how the Jews advanced: mostly by helping each other gain education and power. They stay together [through] synogogues and families. Why can’t we do this? I mean, we should work as elite, not pretend we are poor.

But what would it mean to create a “power base,” and how might that help South Asians in general? Postwar Jews came to the U.S. to escape persecution in Europe. Although everyone thought 9/11 made the situation for South Asians more precarious, I wouldn’t agree that South Asians are in danger. So what is the point of forming a lobby?

I mentioned to them that several nonprofit organizations in existence channel donations to South Asia, but everyone wanted to work in the U.S. Amit echoed Nikhil’s plea, but made the comparison to blacks:

You have to have power, because right now, we’re just a bunch of people who are not connected. I say we find each other, then give our money away strategically. Yes, we have money, but it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t do anything. Who will listen to you unless you get power? I think we should be looking at African-Americans. They finally got some power because they stuck together. Then people listened.

2. Should we change perceptions or attack issues?

Chandra, a Bollywood film producer, suggested that South Asians must get out of the house and become involved in American society:

We still don’t feel like Americans. I know the recipe: you come here and only when you participate — vote, protest, all of it — you become part of this country. I think we should be focusing on changing our approach to living here; we don’t see ourselves as Americans, and I wonder how we can make ourselves more a part of this country. How can you do that with money? I’m not sure, but we should be working on it.

When she spoke, I recalled watching my parents’ friends — highly educated Indians who came here in the 1960’s and 1970’s — taking minimal interest in civic issues. Discrimination played a role, but so too did cultural differences. That generation also believed that the U.S. was a temporary home. So most sent their money home — to families and charities in South Asia.

But how do you use money to change consciousness and create a sense of investment in this society? Do you pay people to vote? Do you run around the suburbs telling people to attend the P.T.A. and community-policing meetings? Funding services and causes is a lot easier — and would be seen more traditionally as philanthropic. But to date, most people send their dollars overseas.

3. How can we work across the class and ethnic divide?

Shuba raised a third issue in response to Chandra:

South Asians can really help each other by helping other people [who aren’t South Asian].

There was growing sentiment in the room that South Asians should use their education to reach across ethnic and class lines — helping spread the gospel of education and technology (i.e., closing the digital divide). They suggested bringing South Asians to New Orleans, to rural communities in Appalachia, to soup kitchens in downtown L.A., to anywhere that collective help could be provided across the ethnic divide.

Shuba invoked a popular acronym that pokes fun at people like me who lack deep connections to South Asia: American-Born Confused Desis (A.B.C.D.):

I don’t want to use my money to help these A.B.C.D.’s become better Hindus. I mean, that’s just worthless. Our money should be used to educate other people. The main thing we have is education. We should be in inner cities buying computers for schools and making sure families have access to the internet. We can help ourselves by learning how to help others.

I walked away from the meeting thinking about the ways in which ethnic communities in the U.S. amassed strength, built a collective identity, and used their assets to improve the general welfare. In the early 20th century, ethnic groups (e.g., Jews, Italians, Irish) penetrated mainstream institutions (schools, governments, unions, police departments, etc.). They became charitable within their communities because few others were providing aid; necessity bred philanthropy. After working locally, they reached for a national profile.

The same path may not necessarily be open for South Asian-Americans. There are not many “communities” and there is little consensus about internal needs. The strongest political voices are businesspeople and right-wing religious types who want India to be a pro-Hindu (read: anti-Muslim) nation. Our eyes are still not focused on American soil.

Building “civic engagement” may not be a sufficient rallying cry to create solidarity and build a “power base.” But one thing is for certain: as more South Asians become well-known political and media figures in the U.S., there is greater awareness of the need to give back. And unlike other immigrant groups, there is a lot more money at hand to act with.


Lobby like heck for rational immigration and H1B policies. Very nearly all Americans came from somewhere, or can thank their forebears for doing so. A little enlightenment, a lot of lobbying, I'm afraid.


Ian McKay

Could I start a caucasian charity? There are so many poor caucasian people in appalachia that I want to help them. Since I am white I empathize with them and want to help only them. How can I help them more than other groups in appalachia?


Become a contributor to the Venkatesh for Senate Campaign.


Ian McKay,

The Harvard and Yale endowments might be a good place to start...


Why not look for the people most in need of help, regardless of race?

Mark B

Why ask "What is the best way for South Asians to be philanthropic in America?" when the same money could save lives in South Asia where there must be some really deserving causes that are not crowded out by government spending.


Start Indian cultural foundations. Indian culture is 1000s of years old, extremely rich with popular expression in all modern media . Bring more Bollywood to the US - encourage dance and music festivals - have poetry and literature readings.

Since most South Asians in the US don't need monetary handouts, give them a psychic handout. Remind them of their proud traditions, and help those traditions become integrated into the American melting pot. After all, Jews knew they had been integrated when white-bread bagels were sold in supermarkets in the Midwest - maybe your South Asian philathropists can encourage white bread naan.


"about 30 percent have graduate degrees - compared to 9 percent of Americans. They have higher household incomes and are concentrated in professional and management jobs"

clearly a group that needs charity to advance...


How about sponsoring a graduate fellowship or two for prospective graduate students in 3rd world countries, then let me know when it's up and running :)


While you paint a broad stroke of saying that most South Asian in this country are well to do and educated, you are missing a significant portion of the South Asian populations that is, in fact, uneducated, in the lower income brackets, and without the resources to advance themselves. My own parents came to this country over 20 years ago, with little to no education, found jobs as laborers in factories, at times working two jobs at a time, to support themselves and their children. There is still significant portion of the South Asian population which toils away in factories, taxi cabs, and 7-11's, who don't have access to the resources available in other immigrant societies - such as English lessons, access to further education, transition services (how to live and work in the US), these are all very real needs that could take South Asian money and funnel it towards other South Asians to advance themselves. The immigrant communities do exist in many states - have you been to NJ? - and there are a few existing local organizations trying to fill the gap for this segment of the South Asian population. Unfortunately, they do this on limited resources as many people are under the impression that all South Asians are well off and highly educated. I think funneling this money towards scholarship funds for immigrants and children of these immigrants, community centers that provide the resources such as English classes, legal aid, and other transition/counseling services, would be a highly effective use of the money - and one which you would see a direct return on investment in these people's lives. In addition, I think South Asians are highly connected, information about available resources would spread between communities and even to people that may be isolated. Sorry for the long post - just some thoughts for uses with this money.



I'd like to second what Randy said. The current H1B program may give a clue as to why many South Asians feel that the US is temporary home. Those that come here on the program are given temporary visas that require sponsorship to stay in the program. Most I've talked to get the feeling they can be kicked out of the country on short notice, well before they get their green card. Many lost sponsorship and had to leave after the IT job market tanked in 2000. The side-effect for the US is that we gave up a large population of our best-educated and best-trained potential citizens for the short-term benefit of the H1B program sponsors.

My personal feeling on the program is that we should remove the sponsorship portion and fast-track the citizenship process. Then visa grantees could compete in the open job market and the US would gain valuable citizens.


I'm not South Asian, but not entirely unfamiliar with South Asian-Americans either. I'm not sure there's a massive need for financial help among the community. From what I see, South Asians and South Asian-Americans have massive amounts of self-reliance and work ethic that create inherent social capital over time. Sure, there are exceptions, but I'd say the future looks bright.

It's not keeping it within borders, but I think money might be better spent in South Asia itself. Emigration has had very real effects on human capital in that region ("brain drain"), and India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka could use some social entrepreneurship and financial capital to pull themselves up. It could also positively solidify both self- and imposed- cultural identification.


It must be a cultural thing.

The US has a culture of giving, regardless of race and culture. If you look at some of the richest Americans, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, both have given significant amounts to charity even if you consider giving as percentage of net worth.

I'm Asian. From what I've seen in Asia and South Asia there seems to be a "I got mine" attitude. Mukesh Ambani, one of the richest men in India builds $1 Billion Home (http://www.ballerhouse.com/2008/01/31/indias-richest-man-builds-1-billion-home/) instead of say... giving running water to his fellow countrymen.

Anyway, just start a foundation for education. If you want to focus on South Asians, so be it.


First and foremost, south asians need to break out of the artificial cultural barriers that we bring from our casteist, socio-religious and regionalist roots. Then we can talk of a "power base". there are several microcosms of associations, cultural foundations spread across the country that can be tapped into to form a larger basis for organization. I can tell you that being part of a couple of such organizations, the biggest challenge we face is that we are not unified in what we need to do. It is not just about wealth, it is about purpose. Find the purpose or cause that resonates with the community, and then talk about how the wealth will help. What currently happens is that the grassroots stuff never grows up beyond the surface, so most causes die out because of lack of single minded purpose, and where there is single minded purpose, it dies out due to lack of awareness and hence wealth.



Looks like a solution in search of a problem. Instead of starting from the position: we've got money, how do we spend it?, they should ask themselves what they want their world to look like and work in that direction.

The inability to identify an immediate and compelling problem facing South Asian community is telling. Sometimes the best answer is, do nothing.


We must acknowledge what SS (#10 above) says. There are an amazing number of super-educated and professional South Asians in the USA, but there are also a lot of working class South Asians. Probably more of the latter than the former, even if the former figure more prominently in the SA community than most ethnic or immigrant communities.

But that is not where I am going to suggest they put some money.

There are a huge number of South Asian doctors, engineers and lawyers, but not a lot of South Asian public officals. I mean judges, high level government officials or elected officals. I'm not saying that there should be, as South Asians did not begin coming to this country in large numbers until around 40 years ago. But there are probably far fewer public officials relative to the number of professionals than most other groups.

I am talking about power, in part. But I am also talking about public recognition. With more South Asian public faces -- more than just Kal Penn and Bobby Jindal, I mean -- South Asians might feel more American, and the rest of America might be more likely to recognize them as American.

How can these people you are working with help with this effort? Well, professional networking and organizations that look our for an advocate for South Asian interests and appointments. As long as South Asians are lumped in with East Asians (e.g. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.), Asian-American interests will dominated by those more established East Asians' interests.

For example, there are well established Asian Bar Associations, both local and the national organization. The National South Asian Bar Association (NASABA) is just now getting its act together. They need to be a public advocate for the promotion of South Asians to public office, and for policies, legislation and regulations that pay heed to the issues that South Asians -- including working class South Asians -- face.

They need support.

Other professional associations for South Asians also need to step up. It's time. It's time to go from individual success to collective empowerment. But they don't know how to do it, in part because the individual success has happened in such large numbers so quickly.

Underwrite them. Get them the kind of technical support and coaching that they need to figure out how to use their clout for South Asian-Americans.



Part of the wealth should be invested in high quality education, and the rest should be invested in the creation of jobs for those who received the aforementioned education.

In this way, they benefit for life from the education they received and will be able to provide for themselves and their families.

An alternative to the creation of jobs is to make credit available to them so thay can create their own companies and enterprises.

Chris in Baltimore

Why are white people the only ones who are supposed to be blind to race? Is this what multiculturists want for America- a thousand minority groups all looking out for their own best interest?

Robert McCrary

While most Europeans may hail from a wide range of countries, they are not easily recognized because of distinguishing ethnic features. This is not true for South Asians. As a result, many of the stereotypes of South Asia are associated with the most 'americanized' individual. Money would best be spent helping to eliminate those aspects of South Asian life which promote a negative world view of the culture. One such element is the Caste system where a young boy can be killed for writing a love poem to a girl from another caste. To many in the world, this is barbaric. You might want to fund legal challenges to laws that subvert your culture and help it move forward into the 21st century. Maybe even jobs programs for lower caste individuals to help them move up and out of the position in which they are trapped only by accident of birth. Become the 'enlightened' minority of your culture helping to improve the lives of all South Asians....and in the process, improve the world as well.



Create a consolidated lobby effort that encourages and funds infrastructure "back home," so that roads, railroads, water-delivery and sewage systems, the power grid, and other basic things are improved at the national levels. Make it viable and possible at the grass roots for India (or Pakistan or Bangladesh or wherever) to develop an infrastructure that will carry the country through modernization.