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SAPP Blog Forum – Day 1: Sayu Bhojwani

February 2, 2009

Professor Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia University:

What should we do?

I posed the following question to three people who are involved in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. “South Asians are, for the most part, an economically successful group, so why organize their charity along ethnic lines? In particular, perhaps they should think about looking outside their own base to find recipients of philanthropic largesse. If South Asians should not necessarily give (solely or primarily) to South-Asian causes, then how should they approach their philanthropy? Give us some alternatives.”

(More from Sudhir on this special SAPP Blog Forum.)

Sayu Bhojwani consults on immigrant integration and philanthropy. She is the founder of South Asian Youth Action and the former Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs for New York City.

South Asian philanthropy has until recently meant contributing to causes in the home country and to regional and religious associations here in the U.S. As the community matures, accumulates wealth, and increases in number, more South Asian Americans are contributing to institutions in the United States, targeting resources to issues of concern in the community. Strategically utilized, the “brown dollar” can boost the capacity of fledgling organizations that serve the needs of minority communities across the U.S. and can play a critical role in shaping perspectives about South Asians in the broader American community.

In the fifteen years or so that I have been working in the South Asian community and in philanthropy, I have been frustrated by the piecemeal approach that people often take to philanthropy. South Asians who give, whether they are wealthy or not, are like most others who give—responsive to a personalized request from a friend or colleague, drawn by a personal connection to an issue or organization, or motivated by the need to meet a certain end-of-year level of giving. None of these reasons are bad reasons to give, but based on my experience as the leader of a nonprofit and as a philanthropic advisor, I’d like to see South Asian Americans take a strategic, activist philanthropic approach to their giving, one that is based on (1) social justice values that support the advancement of South Asians, Asian Americans, immigrants, people of color and low-income communities and (2) a long-term perspective on the goals we want to achieve as a minority community in the U.S. Practically, this means supporting groups that provide direct services like South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!) as well as those like South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) that advocate at the local, state and federal level for policies that support marginalized segments of our communities, whether narrowly defined as South Asian or broadly defined as immigrants and minorities.

As South Asian Americans, we are wooed by South Asian or Asian American organizations, and as I say above, our support of these groups is critical. At the same time, we need to ensure that the power of South Asian philanthropy is felt beyond the corridors of ethnic-specific nonprofits. Large, established mainstream organizations need not only our dollars, but our voice in the decision-making process of service delivery, advocacy, and artistic direction. Only as donors and board members of organizations as diverse as the New York City Opera, Lincoln Center, Catholic Charities and United Neighborhood Houses, can South Asians help to shape the institutions of America into more realistic depictions of the American public they seek to serve and the American culture they aim to represent.

This dual approach – looking inward, but with a wide lens, at our community institutions and outward, at more established cultural organizations and social service agencies – ensures that South Asians can use the brown dollar to transform the leadership and capacity of a wide range of nonprofits within the next generation.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2009 10:09 pm

    Great post! I would like to see more South Asians engaging in philanthropy and giving. I agree that like many, lots of south asians are drawn to give to charities to which they have a personal connection.

  2. Sendhil Revuluri permalink
    February 3, 2009 8:53 pm

    Sayu makes some important points about taking a strategic approach to giving. I think the way to get there, like most changes that we make as people, is by building on connections — connections to friends, connections to issues, or even connections to self-interest. That is to say, I don’t think the two perspectives are at odds, but that these connections are a step on the path to a more strategic approach. Sayu also identifies the need to have clearer ideas of the values and goals we are trying to promote. I think another essential ingredient to doing so is to move conversations on giving to the center — both through spaces like SAPP, and by making giving more a part of the conversations we already have with our family, friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens.

    Thanks to SAPP for bringing us these perspectives. I hope that they will promote more conversation and help many of us think through these questions in our own individual contexts as well as that of the larger South Asian community.

  3. guptavenu permalink*
    February 5, 2009 2:06 pm

    Thank you for the fantastic post Sayu! I agree that as South Asians we need to support strategically organizations that provide direct service to the South Asian community. Because if we don’t, who will? I don’t see another group taking on that responsibility. And, despite the truth in some of the statements about South Asian American wealth and access, there is many for whom that is not true.

    I hope SAPP will become a vehicle by which we can both discuss the merits of this position, but also then take action together.


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