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More on Sudhir’s post – does money equal power?

November 26, 2008

As we mentioned below, Sudhir posted on South Asian philanthropy at the Freakonomics blog yesterday. Debates are raging in the comments and there is a lot to unpack there. To begin, I thought I’d take a stab at writing my answers to Sudhir’s three questions in some upcoming posts – and hopefully those of you reading will chime in as well!

The first question he posed is, “Should we give it away or turn money into power?” I’m not sure the two choices are exclusive. Isn’t the act of giving away money a powerful thing? It is a way to influence change and gain stature in society. It’s a way to make an impact on a cause or change an outcome for the better. I would ask Nikhil and readers what “power” really means to them. Amit hints that it means getting the presidency. Is that it? And more elected officials who are South Asian? What about business advancement? Educational opportunities? Raising the profile of our community to non-South Asians? It could be all of these things and more.

The great American tradition of philanthropy has been a way for immigrants to become Americanized, to become part of the fabric of our country, to gain power and rise to leadership in civic and business institutions, to become respected by mainstream culture. But I’m torn as to whether that can happen if the giving takes place within one’s own community alone – especially a community as small as ours.

Philanthropy at the levels Sudhir’s talking about often leads to serving on boards of community institutions – universities, foundations, museums, and also smaller community nonprofits, shelters, schools. It is through this kind of giving and service that connections are made, power is brokered, favors are trafficked, cultures are assimilated. Is this motivation for giving any less worthy than pure altruism? Or is it the most American motive of all?

On a side note, I thought Nikhil’s comment comparing Indians to the Jewish community was fascinating – and echoes something that many Indians have talked about forever. Here’s a New York Times article about Hindus consciously modeling themselves after Jews in community centers and political advocacy, an oldie by a goodie.

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