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.


karpark

While nice to focus South Asians philanthropy on South Asian Americans, why not focus on all racial/ethnic minorities. Priorities are educational projects. That said, in my view, South Asians in South Asia have huge needs -- adequate, sustainable agriculture; potable water; sustainable rural electification, etc. There are a number of communities devastated by war (the Sri Lanka Tamils, for example) who are in dire need of subsistence. Projects already exist for them, but with extremely limited funds. Projects in South Asia could also provide "hands on" experience to American South Asians.

AMS

I disagree with the central premise of this post. To concentrate charity among ethnic/racial groups is wrong. By virtue of being a citizen of a COUNTRY, it is the responsibility of the citizen to define common metrics (income, family conditions etc.) to help people as opposed to ethnic boundaries. How would South Asians feel if a scholarship was established for Anglo-Saxons?

If you do not believe that charitable causes across all ethnic/racial groups in the US is going to give you a sufficiently narrow cohort to make a difference, then you should look at charitable causes in South Asian countries. Again, you are not separating by ethnic/racial divides, but instead making the same resources available to the citizenry at large.

I am South Asian and I for one would never support a charity that was established to help South Asians in the US. Currently my charitable contributions are directed towards primary education in India.

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David

Shame Sudhir.

If these Southeast Asians, want to contribute, shouldn't it be on some other basis than ethnicity? There must be other groups that they are part of that are not directly related to ancestry. Perhaps they can work on the basis of religon, immigration status, or cultural organization.

To work on the basis of ethnicity has been the cause of much misery historically.

Addicted to Friends

As a South Asian professional earning quite a bit more than the median salary - I think its quite a waste of resources for wealthy South Asians to spend on lobbying campaigns and for gaining political power. At least at present where there doesn't seem to be a central organizing cause. A good question to ask would be what would they like to change if they had more political power? Is there anything beyond H1 visa quotas?

South Asians have been successful at gaining prominence without the support of such organizations whether in corporate america (e.g., Vikram Pandit at Citi) or in politics (Bobby Jindal, governor of conservative Louisiana). Like the saying goes, if something ain't broke don't fix it. Just the fact that these wealthy philanthropists have trouble finding a worthy cause to back would indicate that there probably isn't one worth spending all that money on. How about spending it on causes in South Asia where a small amount can go a long way; as other readers have suggested? Or perhaps identifying specific groups within the South Asian community that might still be struggling e.g., backing organizations that support the South Asian LGBT community (trikone.org).

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Tseng

I agree with #34 it is naive to see South Asians or "Asians" as all the same - same history, culture, thinking, etc.

As a ABT I would donate money to promoting Taiwanese culture, language, history and the ABT cause and communities.

Smitha

As I transition through various stages of my life and from one visa status to another, the only useful, empowering help has come from 'white' Americans, not wealthy Indians. Although I do not come from a poor background and am a highly educated professional, the challenges of F1 to H1B, cultural and social transitions and active interest to be a part of the fabric have stumped me a number of times. Almost all the wealthy Indians (irrespective of the origins of their wealth or their backgrounds) I have interacted with still have or seem to acquire either a feudal mentality or disdain for the less wealthy.
Generosity and ability to treat people as equals is missing. An elbowing, survivalist mentality remains. They are not forthcoming with anything, for example even something as essential as information about dressing for the cold let alone take a few students out for an expensive dinner in return for an intellectually stimulating evening.
Even when the purse strings are opened a bit, a patronizing attitude creeps in.
Whenever I had a need for 'charity' in terms of free rent, food, assistantships, scholarships,etc, to tide over hard times, it was easier to approach white liberals as an intellectual equal than Indians. Coping with loneliness and holidays, any cultural enjoyments,etc have all come from an international group of friends and Americans. Indian families are no where on the scene. The A.B.C.Ds never want to mix, let alone talk to 'crude' desi students unless there is a 'cool' cultural event going on. If I have any need in the future, I will still turn to the American contacts I have developed and not an Indian.
If at all Indians/ other South Asians have a true itch for giving, I would advice them to shed any patronizing attitude, feudal mentality or even expectations of gratitude. Treat the recipients as equals. Maybe a place to start giving would be the international students? Not just from India but all over the globe. Every University has an international Office and will be happy to take contributions. And, the A.B.C.Ds can relive the journey of their parents too if they are interested at all.

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Ricardo

Pierce,

Yes, South Asians are very integrated in Canadian culture. Vancouver has the largest Sikh community outside of India and a number of South Asians have been voted into parliament and selected as ministers. (Ministers such as the Minister of Industry hold a lot of political power in Canada and are basically responsible for most of the policy decisions in their scope.)

I would look to some of the organizations here. There are so many South Asian community centers or specific cultural areas, things are obviously working. Having these established communities attracts South Asians to Canada where they continue to develop their community and heritage.

Greg

If you're looking to mimic the success of other American subgroups I'd suggest looking at measures to broaden South Asian participation in high school and college debate programs. The vast majority of American political leadership is composed of former debaters, and among ethnic groups, Jews, with their very wise cultural emphasis on education, are hugely overrepresented in American debate programs. As a result, huge numbers of Jewish adolescents grow up to be more articulate and persuasive than their non-debating peers. They're also better critical thinkers and more comfortable in leadership positions (since their speaking skills make them the natural choice by peers). Similarly, many black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement were former high school and college debate champions (the movie "The Great Debaters" tells the story of a few).

If you want to increase South Asian power in America, focus less on math and science education and more on activities like debate. Great engineers will only grow up to see their skills snatched up by big corporations for moderate pay. Great debaters grow up to be the political and corporate titans who do the snatching.

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Addicted to Friends

And if those aren't interesting enough, then how about just helping specific (even if not South Asian) communities in the US. There are tons of families that are in trouble today - and if one has money to give away, its truly better spent helping those families - white, black, or any other colour - than spending along narrow sectarian lines

Sanjay

How about South Asians stop spending insane amount of money building temples and decorating their deities with gold and pearls.

Here in Chicago and suburbs, we have at least 20 temples I know of and everyone of them is more extravagant than other in flaunting wealth of their followers. Go and see Swaminarayan Mandir in Bartlett IL to see what I mean.

EAS

Huh? No population centers? Every major city I've lived in has had a sizable indo-pak neighborhood, and they are distinctly split between glitzy jewelry stores and shabby, run-down groceries. I hesitate to describe these areas as impoverished, but the haves and have-nots are even more distinct than in most American neighborhoods, in my experience.

Donating to schools in those areas could only do good -- maybe starting after-school programs for optional language and/or cultural lessons for the kids, so they aren't doomed to be "A.B.C.D." But then they say they don't want to help confused A.B.C.D. Picky!

Sounds as irritating as the friend who says they don't care where you go for dinner, then turns down every suggestion you make. "Oh... not that one."

When they actually want to spend that money to better their community, they will have no trouble finding worthy charities. Sounds like these "donors" just aren't ready to let go of the money yet.

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mfw13

As a teacher, I would suggest that they focus on education, be it in the USA or elsewhere. Probably one of the best things they could do would be to set up a college scholarship fund for South Asians, especially given that the current economic crisis is going to see lots of traditional forms of financial aid for college sharply reduced.

Another thing they could focus on would be early childhood nutrition and literacy for recent immigrants from South Asia.

D

The best way to help your ethnic group in a democracy is to reproduce more of yourselves.

Look at Hispanics; both political parties are trying to suck up to them now that they are a burgeoning population. Combine numbers with income levels and you could be running things in a century or two.

Muhammad

Give it away to the truly deserved while it lasts.
But I think erstwhile colonized countries deserve more because they start from disadvantaged position. Spending on good primary education is sure fire way to make a positive impact.
No point of hoarding it. Give it away. Otherwise the next generations South Asian would not find much incentive to do anything.

dg

Invest in water, sanitation, flood control, clean power....in your home countries. A dollar spent back home will have much more impact than a dollar spent in the US.

bresson

How about serving in the military, taking lower-paying and less prestigious professionals jobs such as school teacher or legal aid lawyer, etc. - Why not start a foundation that promotes civic service among young South Asians?

This entire discussion reeks of elitism and recalls many of the Asian-American discussions I recalled years ago when I was a college student at one of the country's most distinguished schools. Twenty years later and Asian Americans still think of themselves as elite but few have ventured further professionally than high paying professions.

Adrian

This country needs philanthropists. If South Asians as a group have money to spend they should work to make a good name for their community, therefore adding to a positive multi-cultural ethos in the US. Maybe focus on traditionally wary areas like the South where integration in general needs a boost. Help make integration a positive experience and help other groups, even non-ethnic ones, in education and technology. Also, make institutions that will outlast you individually.

"Society in every state is a blessing, gov't is at best a necessary evil." - Thomas Paine

Joe

Those people (likely white) who complain about philanthropy based on ethnicity don't understand racial politics and power structures in the U.S.

First, Caucasians have a "white privilege" that provides a distinct advantage that is intangible and hard to quantify. For example, if you're white, you're "Americanness" is never questioned and you see people like you represented at the highest levels of business, gov't, sports, entertainment, and media.

Second, Caucasians easily blend in to the mainstream. Whether your parents are from Russia, Ireland, South Africa, Greece or Australia, you will automatically become a "true" American as a 2nd generation American by virtue of skin color. On the other hand, 5th generation Asians will still be asked, "How do you speak English so well" or "So where are you from?".

Why is power important to philanthropy? Because power is a force multiplier. You can give a million dollars to orphanages in india or you can give a million dollars to the cause of electing an Indian American president who can, while advancing the interests of all Americans, have the discretion to aid India by HUNDREDS of millions.

If a white person gives a million dollars to his church in Idaho (likely 99% white), no one blinks an eye. If an Indian person wants to give money to a South Asian cause, that's objectionable? This incongruity stems from the fallacious fallacy that white equals American.

This being said, I think the areas where Asians need the most help are: politics, entertainment/media, and sports -- all areas that raise public exposure to Asians and help undermine the notion that Asian equals foreign.

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mare

i think i'm with most of the posters who posted the more cynical comments. why not just do good with their money --not just good for south asians? the thesis of the article seemed patently racist to me. i say this as a white woman who has admired sudir's work for some time now.

i live in the Devon area, and i'm a minority here. there are groups all over chicago that are charities/help for black-only or jewish-only...why are there no white-only charities? or "polish-american" only, etc.

not that i would support one, but devising a charity that serves only one racial or ethnic group does seem somewhat racist to me.

Willie Freeman

Fight for this country -- go to Afghanistan and Irak, not because you agree with the policy but because you love this country. Everyone sees Indians and other South Asians hiding in the halls of Harvard, MIT and UCLA, but they don't have the guts or the love-of-country to fight for America. In the long run, it will be difficult to be as American as a Ford, a Shook, a Johnson, a Spencer or a Smith -- they fought in the Revolutionary War, in the War of 1812, in the Civil War, in World War I, in World War II, in the Korean War, in the Gulf War and now in Irak and Afganisthan. Even the blacks and Hispanics have been fightting for America since the Civil War. If you love this country, why don't you stop studying and engineering, and start shedding some blood for America!!!