Evolving American philanthropy

I remember as a child my mother waking me up in at the crack of dawn to go with her to look for aluminum cans in the alleys of Chicago. It was our way of making extra money to send something back to my grandparents, whom we left behind in Thailand when we came to America after the Secret War in Laos. It taught me a valuable lesson about how we practice generosity in the Hmong community. Even though we were poor, we were still able to do something for others in our families.

As an adult I entered the field of philanthropy and have learned more about how American philanthropy helps – and hinders – generosity.

Most Americans would say philanthropists are rich, white men. Few people would identify someone who looks like me.

I’ve experienced this firsthand a few years ago. I decided I would give what I considered a substantial monetary gift to a community foundation. As a donor, I attended a special event, and I introduced myself to other donors. Almost everyone I met assumed I was from a project that they had helped fund.

There is a troubling paradigm that enforces a hierarchy of generosity in the field, which assumes that people who look like me are just charity cases, not generous donors.

By the end of the evening, I was frankly tired and upset. It made me realize that American philanthropy has a long way to go to fully include philanthropists from our diverse communities. So what can we all do better?

First, let’s begin with an understanding that all communities practice generosity, and the field can do more to learn why and how generosity is practiced in different cultures.

Secondly, let’s explore what American philanthropy can offer in terms of useful tools for our growing diverse communities.

Lastly, people who look like me must claim that we are philanthropists. We also must continue to be constructive critics because the field of philanthropy (and more largely the nonprofit sector) will not evolve without us, nor will it make real investments in supporting how we practice philanthropy.

One way I am doing this is through a giving circle. I co-founded the Building More Philanthropy with Purpose (BMPP) Giving Circle. Together with several families we are indeed building more philanthropy with purpose. A giving circle allows me to give the way I learned from my Hmong upbringing – we pool our funds together to support those who are doing good work.

It’s a win-win-win situation, because we are funding those organizations that well-established foundations would otherwise consider too small, too risky or too new. We win because our families get to learn how our collective giving helps to make the world a better place. Generosity also wins because American philanthropy now includes our new dollars, and we bring new faces to help redefine who is seen as a philanthropist.

This year, our giving circle of six families will gift over $30,000. It may not seem like a lot, but imagine what might be possible if we build on the cultures of generosity that exists in every community.

Bo Thao-Urabe is a community builder and is senior director at Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. She lives in Eagan.

FFI: www.bmppgiving.org