Playing Catch-up: Philanthropy and the API Community

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One of the more damaging assumptions that stems from the “model minority” myth is that Asian Americans don’t need anyone’s help — they’re too busy quietly succeeding.
Perhaps this is contributing to the stagnant rate of philanthropic giving to the AAPI community. According to a recent report by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, only 0.4 percent of foundation dollars have gone to AAPI communities, although AAPIs now make up 4.5 percent of the country’s population.
Giving to AAPIs has increased by just 0.2 percent during the past two decades.
Funding towards the AAPI community is not keeping up with the growing population, according to Dr. Albert Yee, program director at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. “A lot of not-for-profit organizations work on very lean budgets,” Yee said. “It’s much more difficult for them to carry out their mission, which is to help people.”
Lack of communication may be one factor slowing infrastructure support and capacity-building among smaller community-based AAPI organizations.
Getting a large national foundation to fund a small, understaffed non-profit can seem like a daunting proposal. “You may not go back to a certain foundation four or five times” after repeated rejection, said Kiran Ahuja, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.
It can be difficult to get the right people to hear you, as successful funding is largely based on relationships with groups foundations already trust, Ahuja says, and is a question of access. “How can foundations make these smaller groups feel that they have access to them? You can’t always call up the program officer. If you don’t have a relationship, how much will they pay attention to you?”
Steven Lawrence, senior director of research at the Foundation Center, which serves as a clearing house for information and tries to identify grant sources for groups, says that “institutional advocacy” might be the more realistic strategy for nonprofits to gain better access to funding. “Grant makers like to hear from other grant makers,” Lawrence said.
In this way, some suggest an intermediary might be helpful, such as national mainstream organizations with AAPI outreach programs, or large national AAPI-led organizations that have established relationships with both national foundations and local groups.
These groups may have a better understanding of a particular community’s needs. Lawrence says that community foundations are apt to know about immigrant populations that may not be connected politically, and can thus advocate for them at the top or even re-grant their dollars to them.
But Pronita Gupta, lead researcher for the Asian American/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, said though the report does not account for re-granted dollars, there is certainly not enough of it at current pace.
Ahuja agrees. “It’s great if that intermediary says ‘I’m going to help you,’ but what you normally see happen is very top-down” and not enough grant money is going to smaller groups in order for them to operate.
“The biggest obstacle,” says Gupta, now with the Women’s Donor Network, “is that there isn’t that deep institutional understanding of the Asian American Pacific Islander community.” In other words, for the AAPI population needs to be taken seriously, there needs to be a deeper awareness of its specific characteristics.
One method that seems to have consensus is that U.S. data on the AAPI population needs to be disaggregated in order to be useful. “Funding tends to be more subject-based than population-based,” Lawrence says. Though a non-race-based policy is a noble idea, many agree that it may not necessarily reflect the needs of diverse communities in the U.S.
The data that is available, Yee says, “is at such a high aggregate level, it masks the vulnerable sector, so you don’t see the part of the API world that is not doing well. You have to get the information to the policy makers, decision makers, the private sector. Visibility is a major hurdle.”
Gupta says that a race-based approach in collecting data could get help to where it is needed the most.
Up until now, she says, “it’s almost become a detriment to communities because they are trying to compare lots of different communities across the board; that’s easier to evaluate. They don’t bring a real, deep race and cultural analysis, so it just doesn’t work. What may work for an African American community in Baltimore may not work for a Hmong group in Baltimore.”
Bo Thao, a program director at Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, says that “‘Asian American’ is just a political construct, so it’s difficult when a specific ethnic group goes for a specific issue.”
Yee thinks that there needs to be a period of catch-up for funding for such community groups, and that one funding strategy should be to try and allow these groups a broader access to successfully liaison with granters. The Kellogg Foundation has partnered with the Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum to do just this. They solicited what’s known as concept papers, or informal proposals, with the request that APIAHF would fund eight communities, with support from Kellogg, to do work around improving the health of underserved Asian American, Pacific Islander and Hawaiian Americans. “We expected about 50-60 concept papers and received over 130,” Yee said. After narrowing down that number to 30, those communities were then to submit a full proposal. “We are now in the midst of looking at 17 communities and making flight visits” to go in and see if what the communities say they need are in fact significant, Yee said. “We spend some time with them and then select eight communities and make four-year grants of up to $150,000 each year to each community group.”
The answer to the question of how to make the decision to fund AAPI communities doesn’t seem to lie in an “either/or” scenario but a “both/and,” as Yee puts it. Strategy of a combination of intermediary advocacy and institutional outreach to smaller community groups seems to be just one step towards sustainable communities and growing philanthropy.
“There is no one right method. But it’s important to be strategic, because different issues might impact the community very differently,” Thao says. “It’s not just about one lens, when funding the community … Access is a problem that is further magnified by the fact that the needs of the AAPI community remain largely invisible to the philanthropy community.”

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