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.

Pierce Randall

#2.... First of all, way to insult the singer of Minor Threat by using his name, mispelling it, and advocating a point I doubt he would. Second, did you even read point three?!

Anyway, white people as a whole aren't an recent immigrant community in the US. The ones at are do have their own charities and answer these questions in their own way.

I dunno, I'm not South Asian. The first point seems the most compelling, but is unfortunately overshadowed by comparing the state of South Asians to that ephermal massive power the Jews must wield. Were it stated more simply, and better, that the best kind of immigrant-focused charity is buildling up your immigrant community, then it seems like it would be the best answer.

But all these answers are probably inevitable and necessary. Who really wants all the charitable dollars from South Asians to only go to one of these three places?

Sometimes, it seems South Asian citizens of Canada are more integrated into Canada than US South Asians are here. Is that an incorrect perception? Anyone have thoughts on this?


ejb, in Southern Appalachia

Ian McKay, if you want to help poor Caucasians in Appalachia, there are many local Christian missions that serve primarily this group. Nothing wrong with helping your own as long as you don't stop there. As Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"


I think there should be some kind of outreach and support for middle-class and working class South Asian communities and families. Perhaps a scholarship fund or higher-education mentorships.

Everyone has this false reality that all Indians grew up in professional households. It's just not true.

South Asians suffer disproportionately from Affirmative Action and EEO policies in academia and corporate America. We need real help and support to help over-ride and overcome these institutional barriers.

If anything, South Asians should put all their money to develop a legal defense fund that promotes the abolishment of Affirmative Action and EEO policies that hurt our community. It is institutionalized jim crow racism.

Samir Raiyani

Numbers like 30% South Asians having college degrees hide the fact that there are plenty of needy South Asians all around the country.

They are not hard to locate -- any hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Bay Area or New Jersey has several elderly or illegal (or both) South Asian immigrants toiling away in sub-minimum wage jobs. Then there are women who come to the US and are in abusive relationships with their spouses.

South Asians are not facing any real political or racial persecution at the moment. Their resources will be better spent on helping the socially and economically disadvantaged in their midst.

A sum of $2M (or even 10 times that amount) can be easily used productively to provide educational opportunities to women and the elderly and provide legal support to those who are not yet legalized.

If any lobbying is needed, I would recommend focus on immigration. That's the reason the South Asians are here in the first place. Very talented South Asians are very frustrated by the US immigration system. Many of them are contemplating moving back or to Canada or Australia. If the immigration environment remains tough, Australia will benefit directly compared to the US -- no question about that.



America is in this deep hole because people start thinking like

What Should South Asians Do With Their Wealth?

Jeremy C

I agree with Mark B, Indians in the US don't need as much help as those back in India do. India is losing its best and brightest to the West and although the middle class in India has grown in recent years the vast majority of people in India are poor and have little education. Although the face that India presents to the world is one of growth and self-confidence, anyone who lives in India or visits regularly will know that positive change has come to relatively few people.


I would say they get the best bang for their buck if they were to spend their money on charities or institutions in their home nations. There is certainly some need to help immigrants in the U.S., but it is nothing compared to the scarcity in the native lands. Those who have close connections to their native lands could connect with the right people to use the money to good use back home. A.B.C.D.s can find organizations with a good enough network to do effective work. Those coming from nations that need political and social change can fund certain movements.

I am an East African educated in the U.S. and I have been having discussions about giving back to my alma mater. The alumni office complains that most international students don't donate to the school or take part in homecoming+ once they leave. I have been telling them that I would likely spend most of the money I might allocate for charity on projects to help the poor people in my third-world home rather than dropping it in their $1billion+ endowment.



Something that has worked well for descendents of many ethnic groups are ethnic heritage interest clubs. One that comes to mind and has chapters in nearly every large city is Irish Heritage. Children learn traditional Irish dance; every summer, thousands (whether Irish or not) flock to Irish Heritage Festivals to enjoy traditional Irish music, entertainment, clothing, food, and drink, and learn about the experience of being descended from Irish immigrants.

Many of these groups have scholarship programs to promote education for children of their chosen immigrant group. I'm sure you could find a few like-minded individuals and start something similar for South Asian-Americans. You have something to contribute!

Tiger Khan

There must be some money allocated towards recreation. Who represented South Asians in the last Olympics, thank you. Sure we need more political officials but we also need some all-stars as sports figures we can look up to. This is set the beginning of an American figure that all South Asians can look up to.

Amit (Sammamish)

India's potential is lost every generation due to a lack of education. The most productive way to spend money is to educate a generation of girls. They will grow up to be Moms and educate all of their children. There are existing charaties with such a focus which can use infusion of charity.


I agree with the notion of assisting South Asian-Americans as they start to get more involved in the political process - whether it's a PAC or something similar. A friend of mine who is a West Point grad helped start something similar to identify and support candidates to seek local, state and federal offices and there seems to be a reasonable analogy (a dispersed group of relatively successful people looking for a way to build their collective voice).

I don't have a particular personal bias towards PACs or the desire to build political presence but given the problem description, that seems to be the best fit.

If the desire is to INCREASE the number of South Asians coming into the country to build the size of the subculture then lobbying related to H1Bs, etc makes some sense but it seems likely that the new administration will take care of that as they look for new ways to keep the country competitive.




To point 1...Can you really be a philanthropist is you are trying to turn money into power?
And , I'm not sure what the point is of helping South Asian Americans with philanthropy. Almost all of these people don't need philanthropy. The money would be better spent in India or any other under-privileged parts of the world


A very good place to start would be by dumping the word "South Asian". There is no South Asia, there is India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The immigrant communities from each country are different. 9/11 did not affect "South Asians' adversely - it affected Pakistanis and Bangaldeshis adversely. Once this essential difference is recognized then we can start thinking about what to do. Notice how all the people featured in this article are Indians, BTW.


It is naive to see South Asians in monochrome. May be they can help establish South Asia/India Centres in as many places as they can and then bring in artists from abroad for tours; in a well organized and publicisized way. It helps the poor artists from South Asia

No complusion in religion

How about establishing a non-profit organization that supports South Asians who has left or are leaving Islam?

Many people in the community still fear for their life when they leave Islam. Look at what happens in Britain.


I hope that in addition to supporting race-based charities these individuals also consider making charitable contributions to race-blind organizations. The country which made their success possible works because of its aspiration to ensure opportunity to all individuals regardless of their heritage. To become rich in America, and then give back only to those who share your skin color is a betrayal of the principles which allowed you to succeed in the first place. Thank you for raising this delicate issue.


I agree with the other commenters, this is pretty morally bankrupt.


Thanks for mentioning The South Asian Philanthropy Project, Sudhir. Your column raises so many great issues about philanthropy and what it means to be an American. In our interviews and conversations, we've found that there is a real generational divide on the question of giving here versus back in South Asia, and what kinds of organizations appeal to younger South Asian Americans. Aside from the generational differences, there are also questions of class, ethnicity, religion, and immigration status - our community is indeed quite a diverse one.

I'm so glad to see South Asians featured so prominently in the national conversation - it indeed feels like the beginning of a new era for our community. For a list of organizations serving South Asians in America, visit our website at http://southasianphilanthropy.org.


I am glad this article has come up. I am sick of the older generation bringing up topics of lets not forget our culture etc. I am glad the writer has brought up issues of today and our generation. We are in USA, we have to blend, we have to accept the societal and cultural values here. Yes we can channel this in a correct way and not forget our roots.
I wish we had groups/organizations where well educated South Asians can come together and work for South Asians and all other communities in USA and back home. There are so many South Asians who are struglling in USA too. Set up funds to help educate their children, help them with affordable health care, open care homes for elderly, networking events. This is a never ending topic.

A. Narrain

The thing that has always bewildered me about India (not other south asian countries quite so much) is why the phenomenal human resources, huge economic growth, fantastic universities and wealthy diaspora does not translate into improved social indicators.

48.5 % of indian children under-5 are so malnourished their growth is stunted. Many of Bangladesh's social indicators are better than India's - and Bangladesh doesn't have the same educated workforce, and it floods periodically.

However, when I read this article, I understand....the people who have the ability to do something about it don't care. They want to spend their money in the US bolstering their power base and augmenting their elite status.

This article is the most depressing thing I have read in ages.