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SAPP Blog Forum – Day 3: Aly Kassam-Remtulla

February 4, 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.)

Aly Kassam-Remtulla, a Rhodes Scholar, is an independent advisor to foundations and non-profit organizations. Until 2007, he was a Program Officer at the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.  Aly serves on several boards including the National ACLU and the Oxford University Society.

What can South Asian Americans learn from Jewish American philanthropy?

Sudhir and several of his young philanthropists have suggested Jewish philanthropy as a model to consider in thinking about how South Asian Americans should spend their wealth. In this short piece, I compare these two communities to highlight what we can learn from the model which Jewish Americans have developed.

First, a couple of differences:

Religion – South Asians are unlike Jews in that they are much more religiously diverse. They represent two major religions (Hinduism and Islam) and many smaller faiths (Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Judaism). This diversity is significant and divisive, as manifest in the longstanding conflict between India and Pakistan, ongoing tensions in Sri Lanka, and a Sikh separatist movement. While these areas of friction have been attenuated in the U.S., especially among the second generation, they are still palpable and relevant. In contrast, Jews share a single religion and although there are tensions between its sects, these rarely result in violence.

Focus – While the overwhelming majority of American Jews support the state of Israel and many focus philanthropic giving in that unitary direction, South Asians have no single cause to rally around. In fact, South Asians could easily find themselves on opposite sides of the key regional issue in their ‘home’ region (India/Pakistan political tension) providing an easy opportunity for nationalism and sectarianism to creep into a South Asian philanthropic project. In addition, the extent of philanthropic need in South Asia (population of almost 1.5 billion and per capita GDP of $2500) is much larger than in Israel (population of 7.4 million and per capita GDP of $26,600) making a narrow focus even more challenging. Domestically, there is little consensus about priorities for giving in America, but that can only be determined through sustained dialogue.

Despite these differences, much can be learned from the Jewish philanthropic model:

Pluralism – An overarching lesson from Jewish philanthropy is the pluralism that exists within the sector. Some Jews give largely or exclusively to Israel, others support Jews in America, and many support non-profits with no Jewish focus. A number of Jewish foundations do all three. I think this model is one that the South Asian community should adopt, especially given the diversity of its backgrounds and interests. Trying to focus or limit joint philanthropy early on will prevent many people from coming to the table. The benefit of a ‘big tent’ approach is the opportunity to educate and influence people’s positions and funding priorities.

Strategy – Pluralism does not mean that you can’t be strategic in your giving. The goal is to find projects or issues where South Asian American philanthropists have overlapping or mutual interests, and where aggregate giving can have disproportionate impact. For example, a donor with a primary interest in India and another with a focus on Pakistan could collaborate on funding United States immigration reform groups, Hindu temples and mosques engaged in interfaith dialogue, or English language training for new desi immigrants.

Collaboration – We should learn from the active participation of Jewish Americans in civil rights advocacy for African Americans, women, and LGBT people. South Asians can magnify their impact by collaborating with other constituents. There are natural affinities with Latinos on immigration reform, African Americans on diabetes education, and Muslims on racial profiling.

Peace – Like Jewish philanthropic support of peace initiatives between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine, there may be a role for South Asian Americans to play in easing the political tensions in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and between India and Pakistan. Creating financial and political incentives for increased trade, communication, collaboration, and exchange between these countries could help to thaw relations.

My vision for a South Asian American philanthropic initiative is something similar to the United Jewish Communities which is a North American umbrella group of 157 local federations and 400 other groups. With the motto of “live generously”, UJC is the second largest philanthropic network in North America after the United Way. UJC has an office in Washington, DC that lobbies the federal government on foreign policy and domestic issues of interest to Jewish Americans, and also maintains an office in Israel. Among many others, this organization actively partners with the Israeli government on a program to bring young Jews to Israel for a free ten-day tour and on the acculturation of Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society.

The power of UJC lies in having a local presence with national oversight. It provides opportunities for people to support a large number of diverse initiatives. A South Asian American equivalent should have six basic characteristics:

Education – expose South Asian Americans to new opportunities for philanthropy, as well as the political and policy contexts surrounding these issues. In addition, the organization could engage donors in conversations about issues not yet on their radar screen. For example, a couple funding college scholarships for low income Afghani Americans might also be persuaded to support high school enrichment for this community or education reform in Afghanistan.

Advocacy – leverage the giving of South Asians for strategic aims. This might include influencing government policy (U.N ., U.S. or South Asian) or collaborating with other non-profits or communities on issues of common interest.

Community – provide opportunities for people to connect with others like them in their local community. This will enhance their giving as well as their allegiance to the organization. Philanthropy has never been completely altruistic, and providing an opportunity to catalyze greater connectedness can have social, business, and philanthropic benefits.

Inclusivity – cater to everyone by allowing anyone to participate. You don’t need millions of dollars to be a philanthropist. Start with regional Giving Circles for young professionals and new givers, donor-advised funds for people with more wealth and experience, and a Davos-type forum and high level advisory services for the heavy hitters. Create a trajectory for givers to start small and work their way up.

Facilitation – make it easy for people to donate money. This would include finding and vetting potential recipient organizations, managing the paperwork involved in grantmaking (an area which is especially complicated for overseas funding), and offering evaluation tools or status reports to donors.

Volunteerism – create opportunities for the community to share its vast knowledge and skills (in addition to its wealth). Such programs might enable professionals to advise or consult to non-profits, teach in schools or colleges, or work pro bono in resource-poor programs. College students, recent graduates, and retirement-age professionals are a great resource to capitalize on.

With the substantial financial wealth and social capital that the South Asian American community has amassed, opportunities to ‘give back’ are significant. There are many great organizations to support and others that have yet to be founded. On the cusp of a new era in American politics, what we need is a group of diverse and committed people to make the initial investment of time and money in crafting a vision, building an infrastructure, and engaging the community in this endeavor.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. asridhar permalink*
    February 5, 2009 3:18 am

    I believe I had posted the NY Times article from a few years ago about how Indian-American groups are following in Jewish American groups’ footsteps on political advocacy and philanthropy. I think there is a lot to learn there – thanks, Aly, for mapping it out so well! I also like your guidance about what a South Asian philanthropy movement could be. For now, SAPP seems to focus especially on the “education” and “community” aspects, but perhaps we’ll grow to do more activities in the other areas eventually as well.


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