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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.