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Live-blogging SAALT Summit and Venu’s panel

April 25, 2009

We’re here at the beautiful American University Washington College of Law for the SAALT Summit.  And Venu’s about to start on a panel entitled “I Care About the Cause:  How Can I Help?”  I’ll be reporting some thoughts as we go along…

Sayu Bhojwani of Bloomberg Philanthropies is moderating and invited our group to introduce themselves.  Some great folks here from SAALT, AAPIP, the media, SAAPRI, medical nonprofits and volunteer groups.

Venu’s talking about how SAPP was founded, and our goal of starting a conversation about philanthropy among South Asian Americans.  We hope the website specifically brings together news about South Asian nonprofits and activists together with news about the philanthropy sector and giving.

Chaitra Shenoy is a board member of the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project in DC, and works with young people who are victims of dating violence.  She is becoming “South Asian-centric” about her own giving.  After becoming a citizen, the judge who swore her in encouraged her to use her new voice in this country to make a difference.  On Chaitra’s board, they have a consensus policy and also a very active board that is engaged on the same level as staff.

Lavanya Sithanandam is a pediatrician in DC, also on the board of SAALT.  She got involved in a silent auction by SAALT through fundraising and soliciting auction items.  Then, she got more involved in SAALT’s mission by volunteering and writing an op/ed about her work with immigrant children.  Her work has now grown to monthly advocacy meetings with medical professionals about the needs of immigrant children.

Her great advice about getting involved with a nonprofit is:  learn to be flexible, do things that might not meet your skill set at the beginning, be specific about your own talents and what you can do to leverage that for an organization, be aggressive and persistent like you are at your job.  This was a great story of discovery about philanthropy and board service!

Several panelists have now referenced Facebook and how great it is for nonprofits.

Sayu is on the board of the New York Foundation and the New York Women’s Foundation.  She is the founder of SAYA! NYF is a traditional grantmaking endowment foundation while NYWF is an operating foundation.  Sayu notes that some boards are more hands-off and strategic versus the active/managerial model that Chaitra talked about.

Sayu suggests that individuals seeking to be on boards become clear about their purpose for joining the board (giving money or giving legal/financial advice, etc.).  On the nonprofit side, you should have a clear idea of what you’re looking for in board members.  At the start of the organization, you may want more board involvement than later on, when the staff is more developed.

Sayu makes a very insightful point that among South Asian Americans, many of us have not been trained by our parents in the processes around philanthropy, board service, and volunteering that are a major part of American life.

Venu asked what is unique and/or challenging about having South Asians as board members (and philanthropists)?

Sayu says you have to account for “the process of self-actualization” that board members will go through.  South Asians who spent a great deal of their lives in non South Asian communities, but when they walk into a board meeting for a group like SAYA!, where everyone is South Asian, they may go through an internal process of change, feeling a sense of belonging and community that they haven’t felt before.  This is not unique because Sayu is also on an all-female board that can face the same issues/process.

A participant from the South Asian Health Initiative says that the board is more of an advisory board rather than a fundraising board.  They want people who know the community.  The diversity of a board in terms of linguistic, regional or ethnic or religious diversity, can lead to challenges as well.

Sujata of SAAPRI makes a plug for South Asians to serve on non-South Asian boards, more mainstream or larger organizations.  She advises that individuals still be strategic about finding groups to serve, but it’s important to “bring our voices” to other organizations and make sure we’re not just “talking amongst ourselves.”

Nitasha of the South Asian Health Education Project encourages the same.  She spends a lot of time talking to the mainstream community about why it’s important to pay attention to South Asians, as well as South Asians who may not be engaged in this work yet.

Venu notes that because our organizations are younger, they may not have the infrastructure of board processes and information flow of more mainstream and/or older organizations.

Archana of AAPIP says what you do when you get there is very important – when you get on the board.  Only 0.3% of foundation gifts go to Asian/Pacific Islander organizations – there is an increase in foundation officers and boards from APIs but not a corresponding increase to foundation gifts.

We are now transitioning from board service to philanthropy.  Starting with Venu!  SAPP is aiming to be a clearinghouse on giving, but there is a striking lack of data about giving.  A significant part of our community is coming into significant wealth.  Will there be inter-generational transfers of wealth?  What is the need among South Asian Americans?  Where is South Asian funding going?  How much are South Asians giving?  We want to talk to current and prospective donors about their challenges and their successes in giving.  How do we change the focus of South Asians in giving?  The University of Chicago does not have any South Asians on their board.  South Asians do a lot of religious giving – but how that translates into power here is unknown.  Political giving is an entirely different animal – South Asians were responsible for a lot of giving and participation.  Religious giving trends for South Asians lines up with mainstream America – because they ask.

Chaitra shared the importance of storytelling in asking for gifts.  Stories of success really compel a donor to give to a mission.

Lavanya brought up the challenge or tension of talking about social justice here in the U.S. with donors who may also be compelled by the intense need overseas in South Asia.

Venu and Sayu talked about how giving and board service is not only an investment in nonprofits but also in yourself.

Another participant talked about wanting to start a giving circle and how to document the needs among South Asians here in the U.S.

Yet another participant shared how it can be difficult to manage volunteers, but creating opportunities for qualified people with special talents to help.  He gave SAPP a call to action – to create a volunteer forum for specialists in law, graphic design, etc.  For example, the Taproot Foundation is helping them with creating a brochure.

Nitasha says that there are people out there who give.  We give to religious and political organizations because there is a direct impact.  It is crucial to share with donors the exact impact of their money.

Venu’s parting advice:  Take the collaboration we feel here and mobilize the people who aren’t here – there are a lot of South Asians out there with a lot of resources.

Sayu’s parting advice:  Not everyone has the same motivations in giving that you do in terms of helping the community.  Discover the motivations of your potential donors and play on that.

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