SAPP Blog Forum: Q&A with Aparna Sharma of Asian Giving Circle
SAPP’s new intern Asma Ali spoke a few weeks ago with Aparna Sharma, who co-chairs the Asian Giving Circle (AGC) in Chicago. AGC was formed in 2002. With over 50 members, AGC has expanded its grant making to over $20,000 per year to Chicago-based organizations and agencies that serve Asian-American interests and causes.
1. Please tell us a little bit about the Asian Giving Circle. How did it come about? What does it aim to accomplish?
The Asian Giving circle formed about eight years ago. There were several Asian American social service and philanthropic leaders who wanted to promote giving in the Asian American community. This was around the same time that a report by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy was being widely distributed among Asian American leaders and organizations. So, many Asian leaders were taking note of giving trends and issues in their area.
In Chicago, our founders noted several things about giving in the pan-Asian American community. First, Chicago’s Asian Americans were already a generous group. Many Asian Americans were either giving to causes back home, in their mother countries, or giving through their faith-based institutions. Second, the pan Asian community is the fastest growing immigrant community—I think Indians are the fastest– representing very diverse interests (refugee, poverty, many ethnic groups). Finally, if we are to believe the AAPIP report from ten years ago, the need among Asian American organizations is not being fulfilled by current giving. The percentage of giving to Asian American causes and groups is less than 0.4% of all philanthropic giving.
The Asian Giving Circle (AGC) was a path to address these issues. To my knowledge, it was the first giving circle in the country. It is housed at a local community foundation– the Chicago Community Trust, which provides administrative support and donor services. Our initial goal was to raise $10,000 in our first year– for each donor to pledge $250/year for two years. We have given over $100,000 in grants in our 7 year history. It really is a way to see collective impact, for the individual, the community, and others.
2. Philanthropy and foundation work, in particular, is often criticized for being focused on majority interests, efforts, and causes. Is AGC an answer to this criticism, or is it a new type of philanthropy?
AGC was responding to a need in our community. You know, the Asian community is really seen as a model minority by many outside of our community. However, there are real needs in our community including dire poverty, health care, and education needs that are not adequately addressed by mainstream philanthropy because of this perception.
The origins of AGC are really is about the need for collective impact—broadly for the community, the donor, and the organization. The most recent AAPIP brochure highlights what the circle has accomplished in the last five years and its impact has been on donors. This type of giving empowers donors; they are acting in community for their community. You don’t have to have a ton of money and you don’t have to be in the nonprofit field. Whether it is $250 or $2050; it makes a difference. AGC also empowers organizations that are new to the field. Our giving can showcase new organizations that do not have a track record yet– Young Asians with Power, Chinatown Free Clinic are examples. Now we have our annual awards which further support the organization; their work is also highlighted in our monthly newsletter. AGC helps the community to elevate its organizations, issues and its interests.
3. It what ways has AGC been successful and what type of challenges does it face?
We have been very successful in finding members of the community who may not have otherwise donated to Pan-Asian causes. Our network is really spread through word-of-mouth; it builds upon itself. Our members often get involved and then tell friends to join us. Our current membership is in the mid- to- high 50s. Of course many members sign over a check to the circle, and we are grateful that they do this. However, there are these other means of participating in our work. Of our 50 plus members, almost twenty (20) donors are active volunteers. These volunteers actively participate on the giving committee or membership committee. The giving committee evaluates the grants, conducts site visits, and makes funding recommendations to the committee. Other AGC members are active in the membership committee. This committee hosts small intimate events of 3-5 potential people for conversation about the circle and its opportunities. Often hosted at a grantee organization, they include information about the grantee, how to join the circle and other such information. In the past, we hosted larger membership recruitment events and found that 1 or 2 out of the hundred attendess would join the AGC.. At our smaller more intimate events attended by 8 to 10 people, often 4 of the 5 people at the event will join.
Recruitment has always been our challenge. It can never stop and must always be a focus of our work. When we first started we gave small grants. Our initial grant making pool was just $10,000. Now we give almost $20,000/year in larger grants to fewer organizations. There are now expectations associated with our giving—organizations and the community see us as a source of community funds. The AGC membership committee istalking about incentivizing giving and recruitment, using new methods such as family donations and company matching funds. We are also trying to be smart with our fundraising efforts by using more personal touches.
There have been many changes in the last five years as we have learned better ways of operating. One thing that has really helped has been changes in our infrastructure. We have staggered leadership with two co-chairs. Each co-chair is appointed for two years. This month, I will step off and Jennifer Tani will continue as co-chair with another co-chair, and so on. In addition, we have one or two point people for each of our subcommittees – giving and membership. Our infrastructure has really evolved in the last 5 years including membership lists, the awards ceremony, and ways of preserving the historical information of AGC. All of this helps to support our recruitment.
4. Are there other Giving Circles that focus on South Asian interests nationally? Where?
Almost every giving circle that focuses on South Asian interests is housed at AAPIP. We are different because we are housed at Chicago Community Trust. However, we maintain a relationship with AAPIP in many ways. AAPIP supports our work and Kathy Im, one of our founders, is on the AAPIP board. AAPIP maintains many resources which have been beneficial to us, including a network of Asian giving circles. There are giving circles all that represent many interests—for example, the Muslim Women’s Giving Circle or the South Asian Giving Circle in the Bay Area. As a community, we have just started to tap the potential of this network and giving across our groups.
5. What role can South Asians play in community philanthropy, in particular? How can giving circles expand this role?
There is a clear need out there and South Asians can contribute in a unique and supportive way to these ventures. The Asian Giving Circle maintains a list of former grantees, and there other institutions such as your local community foundations that know which groups are effective and accountable to the community. Giving circles are becoming popular—a group of friends will get together, pool resources, and decide how to help. Some of these groups start with as little as $1000, but they do contribute to issues important to the South Asian community.
When exploring organizations for donations, you must ask “Where is the need? Is there an organization to address the need? If not, why not?” Sometimes it is lack of awareness about a need, other times there are organizational/ institutional reason why others are not giving to a particular cause or organizations. Donors must be aware of these issues when selecting organizations to receive funding or other resources from community members.
Most important, South Asian philanthropists, like all philanthropists must do their due diligence, to protect their investment as well as the community – this is where giving circles can really be helpful. Finally, I want people to know that they don’t have to give away a lot of money. After all, the literal translation of philanthropy is “love of people.”
In AGC, the $250 contribution is a stretch for most of our members. However, we give because of the collective impact of this type of giving. We give because our place of privilege allows us to serve our community.
6. What are some resources for those interested in giving circles or giving to South Asian Interests and causes?
There are many resources for those individuals who want to give to South Asian causes and interests. There are corporate giving programs and AGC maintains information about our former grantees. In the metro-Chicago area, we are looking to expand our network of donors. Of course AAPIP maintains information about Asian and South Asian giving circles on their website (www.aapip.org). Interested individuals or organizations may contact AGC or AAPIP to find out how to set up their own giving circles.
Giving circles are becoming more and more popular. Certainly, many members of the community have joined with friends, pooled resources, and given to their particular interests and causes.
It is important for South Asian’s to remember that giving increases our positive impact—socially, politically, and as a community. And it is also a great way to meet others in your community who share your interests. This is one of the main reasons for us to give—the impact of like-minded individuals contributing to an effort together.
— Asma Ali