What's Happening on the Forefront of Asian American Philanthropy?

 New york's Asian community has the highest poverty rate of any group in the city

New york's Asian community has the highest poverty rate of any group in the city

Asian Americans make up a relatively small percentage of the American population as a whole, but that percentage has been rising rapidly. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the nation’s Asian American population rose by over 43 percent. Stereotypes of a “model minority” aside, this group is also exceedingly diverse. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) trace their origins to dozens of countries and cultural backgrounds, and their income levels vary widely — more than many people appreciate—including pockets of serious urban poverty. As well, this is a group that includes many undocumented immigrants who are now living in a state of heightened fear in the wake of Donald Trump's election victory.

To learn more about how funders are thinking in regard to the challenges facing the AAPI community, I checked in with Cora Mirikitani, president and CEO of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP), which was founded over 25 years ago. According to Mirikitani, this is a “moment of transition,” not just for AAPI funders, but for identity-based funding efforts in general.

Previously, Mirikitani told me, some funders for racial justice tacitly viewed the sector as a zero-sum game: For example, support for a struggling Filipino American community was money that couldn’t benefit nearby Latino or black communities. Today, a different progressive consensus may be forming. While the needs of particular communities still draw attention, funders are increasingly backing intersectional approaches to racial justice. 

(Some have raised concerns about this emphasis, it's worth noting. We recently reported on a new push for greater funding to black-led social change organizations that made the argument that intersectional racial justice strategies will fail as long as black organizations remain so weak.) 

Related: Back From the Margins: Behind a New Call to Boost Funding for Black-Led Organizations

Following a strategic reevaluation, AAPIP’s new mission prioritizes a just and equitable society, for AAPI people and all others. To advance that noble (but general) goal, AAPIP acknowledges two things. First, the Asian American community does include people with significant assets, and traditional philanthropy hasn’t yet engaged these potential donors. Second, positive community change needs to come from the local level, with support from a range of funders and new kinds of partners.

The local approach is something we’re seeing a lot of these days, especially around racial equity. Mirikitani articulated one reason why. On the local level, philanthropy can grow beyond its traditional bounds and embrace new givers, new interests, and new stakeholders. We’ve written about how philanthropic giving circles, one of AAPIP’s key programs, can build new wells of community support. They’re also good ways to wrangle funding for underserved and intersectional interests, like LGBTQ Asian Americans

Related: The Foundation World Couldn't Care Less About Your Cause? Start a Giving Circle

Affinity groups like AAPIP can connect community assets (such as high net worth individuals) to issues they care about, but are unsure how to fund. By embracing the fact that some Asian Americans are well off, AAPIP is trying to shift the narrative away from an attitude that wealth should be downplayed in order to dispel the model minority myth. 

AAPIP intends its 10 regional chapters to operate as “test beds” for opening the community to philanthropy. In some ways, it’s an advantage that AAPI communities are concentrated in major urban areas and suburbs. But systemic racism and structural inequalities in those very cities means these communities must often “help themselves” by tapping into all their resources and strengths.  

Mirikitani also emphasized the importance of research and storytelling. By translating data into narratives, funders can combat ongoing misconceptions and stereotypes that AAPI communities face. As well, this affinity group sees a big payoff from cultivating stronger partnerships and networks. That's a common strategy among funders, of course, but one with particular potential here — given how far AAPI communities still have to go to become more than the sum of their parts.