Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Culture Clash in Philanthropy

So this weekend I paid a visit to my parents and while my father flipped channels between DIE HARD 2 and a maniacally enthusiastic Taiwanese game show, I submitted to the usual unending complaint over my choice of career . Why you not making money? Your cousin so-and-so making $100,000 a year! Their opposition to the arts was magnified this time around by a filmmaker, who had sent them an email asking for donations so he could send every Congressperson a DVD of his pro-Taiwanese independence film. My mother alternately called the guy annoying, shameful and impolite. Even though she supports his political position.

I think I'm a little bit of an anomaly since most Asian-Americans who are in the arts come from an intellectual or at least a more assimilated background. My parents are pretty typical work-a-day immigrants. Though my father went to college and speaks about ten languages, my mother barely speaks English and neither of them read anything except Chinese newspapers. It's pretty discouraging trying to get their support and the support of their friends. I find myself constantly having to explain not only why the arts are important (already a Herculean task of infinite patience), but the whole concept of philanthropy.

I'm not the first person in the nonprofit world to notice this. There aren't any quantifiable records of how much is given by minorities to charitable organizations, but there are plenty of working papers on Asian-American philanthropy. Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute cites anecdotal evidence in one such paper that ''many Chinese-Americans do not give at all, and those that do, give to their university, or to their church, but not to ethnic causes.'' Neither do they give to the arts, which at 4% is depressingly one of the smallest sectors of charitable giving anyway. Or if Asian-Americans do give to the arts, it's to major organizations like the Met or Lincoln Center. Apparently, it's the same concept as voting Republican - do what rich people do and you will be rich. Giving to little arts groups like ours that really need funding never occurs to them.

But then again, if you're Chinese, the Confucian hierarchy is insidiously ingrained. From what I see, all Chinese giving is either an offering to an authority figure or it revolves around the idea of guanxi, familial relationships. This seems to be rife not only among Chinese, but among all East Asians, backed up, no doubt, by a whole bunch of ancient proverbs that I'm not familiar with. Of course, people don't generally give unless they are familiar with who/what they are giving to, but it seems doubly hard to convince Asians. My parents would never give to the filmmaker who sent them that email even though at heart, they support his cause. There's the problem of alternative arts being such a foreign concept and then there's the problem of not having a concept of philanthropy as a form of civic participation and a direct means to influence society.

I don't think this is limited to Asians - I think Latinos are also relatively new to the idea of philanthropy. Well, Latinos and Asians are some of the newest immigrants, and it's obvious that newer immigrants probably have less to give and when they do, they are most likely to be sending money back home. But with $1,620 being the average household gift to charitable organizations in 2008, I think income really isn't so much the issue as the fact that the concept is so alien. A 2003 Indiana University study among 419 immigrant households concludes that "nonwhites are about 4 percentage points less likely to participate in charitable giving even after we have controlled for permanent income, immigrant status, and other demographic variables."

There are exceptions, of course, like the Ong Family Foundation, which has given millions to nonprofit organizations, including several small- to medium-sized theater groups. In a NY Times article, Nelson Louis, the Executive Director, said of himself and founding trustee Danny Ong Yee, ''We were not the royal class; we were the peasant class...My mother did not know how to read or write; she was a seamstress. My father worked in a restaurant. Danny's father worked in a laundry.''

Studies show people are more likely to give if they are religious and if they start young, volunteering at community organizations. Both Louis and Ong Yee worked at the Chinese-American Planning Council when they were just starting out. Two of our board members are active church goers (one is Asian, one Latino). Maybe there is some key in this?

Minorities are now the majority in most cities, but it's really difficult reaching out to all but the few members of the intelligentsia and politically active for funding. I wonder how are other minority arts organizations who don't have deep pockets to pick are addressing this issue. Maybe there is a way for us to brainstorm or join together in reaching out, educating and growing minority support for the arts.


Articles referenced:

Bernstein, Nina. (2007)"Some Complain of Class Divid in Chinese-Americans' Charity" New York Times Web

Bernstein, Nina. (2007) "Asian Americans lend a New Wrinkle to Philanthropy" New York Times Web

Ho, Andrew. (2004) "Asian-American Philanthropy: Expanding Knowledge, Increasing Possibilities" Center for Public & Nonprofit Leadership Web

Osili, Una Okonkwo and Dan Du. (2003) "Immigration Assimilation and Charitable Giving" Department of Economics, Indiana University Web

"Giving Statistics" (2009) National Parks Service Web

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