A Philanthropic Calling: Asian Pacific Islander Community Foundations

Tue, 2020-05-19

In its earliest days, AAPI philanthropy in the U.S. existed largely in the form of mutual aid to survive in a country that legislated its hostility through an “unwelcome” mat called the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Soon after, the first philanthropic foundations as we know them today were created, and while the philanthropic sector has evolved, support to AAPI communities continues to be minimal, even though AAPIs are the fastest growing racial group in the country. Feeding into the “perpetual foreigner” narrative, the sector appears more interested in philanthropy in Asia, rather than addressing the needs of AAPI communities in the U.S.

Today, there are a few community foundations with an AAPI focus, born out of the necessity to address the dearth of support for AAPI communities in the U.S. They are an inspiration and a unique addition to the philanthropic sector. For Asian Pacific Heritage Month, we spoke with the executive directors of four API community foundations – Asian Pacific Fund, Asian Pacific Community Fund, Korean American Community Foundation San Francisco, and Korean American Community Foundation New York. Hear from them, in their own words, why their entities exist, how they democratize philanthropy, and what the philanthropic sector can learn from their work. 

Please tell us why it's important to have AAPI-serving community foundations? Why a separate entity rather than expanding an existing community foundation?

Audrey Yamamoto (Asian Pacific Fund)
While Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are incredibly diverse, we share common stories of immigration and sacrifice. Our families have sacrificed everything to give future generations opportunities for a better life. This common experience is one way we engage and inspire the AAPI community to be philanthropic and support those who are now struggling to survive.

Lina Park (Korean American Community Foundation - San Francisco)
An AAPI-serving community foundation’s work is about more than just philanthropy. We represent our diverse cultures to the greater philanthropic community. AAPI community-based organizations (CBOs) understand the cultural nuances and are best equipped to serve the diverse and growing AAPI needs. Similarly, AAPI-serving community foundations approach the grantmaking process with an innate understanding of the unique cultural nuances and language needs that ultimately serve our community most effectively.

Many within AAPI communities, especially immigrants, don't know much about formal or structured "philanthropy". How do you engage more AAPIs in philanthropic giving? How do you stay closely connected to what's happening on the ground in our communities?

Kyung B. Yoon (Korean American Community Foundation - New York)
We work hard to build trusting relationships with nonprofit organizations, in spite of the power imbalance created as a result of the current structure of philanthropy. It helps to have staff who speak the language and share cultural understanding. Every year, as part of our grantmaking cycle, we issue an open call for people from diverse backgrounds and professions to volunteer for our Community Grants Committee (CGC). Many of our CGC participants have gone on to become donors and board members of nonprofits in our community.

Chun-Yen Chen (Asian Pacific Community Foundation)
APCF has heard anecdotally from our 56 Network Agencies on how their operations, programs, and communities are being impacted by the pandemic. In early April just several weeks into local stay at home orders, APCF developed an API Nonprofit COVID-19 Needs Assessment to better capture the operational and funding needs of our API nonprofits and help inform our collective advocacy to local policy makers and funders on supporting the diverse API communities uniquely served by this sector.

How do you engage more AAPIs in philanthropic giving? What impact has this already had, and what do hope to see in the future for AAPIs, philanthropic giving, and civic engagement?

Kyung B. Yoon (Korean American Community Foundation - New York)
One way that KACF mobilizes Korean Americans is through our participatory grantmaking. Every year, as part of our grantmaking cycle, we issue an open call for people from diverse backgrounds and professions to volunteer for our Community Grants Committee (CGC). CGC members get training around issues in the Korean and AAPI communities, how grant dollars are invested, and participate in site visits. Beyond the technical, CGC members also confront the dynamics of power, culture and biases inherent in philanthropic giving. Many of our CGC participants have gone on to become donors and board members of nonprofits in our community.

Audrey Yamamoto (Asian Pacific Fund)
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the AAPI community, causing a rise in xenophobia, substantially higher rates of unemployment, and severe pressure and strain on our AAPI nonprofits, it has also created an opportunity for us to engage donors in new ways and accomplish more than I could have ever imagined. We raised more than $500,000 for our COVID-19 Response Fund, 100% of which went out in grants to our affiliate nonprofits. Then, on May 1 we launched our inaugural Give In May campaign. I hope the incredible response to our COVID-19 Fund and Give In May campaign will fuel an AAPI movement in philanthropy that we will build on each year and carry our community forward for the next decade and beyond.

What are some key insights have your organization learned over the years that you'd like to share with "mainstream philanthropy"?

Lina Park (Korean American Community Foundation - San Francisco)
The nuanced and layered stories that each of us brings to the table is what makes our country truly great and complex. Racial justice takes intentional action to listen, not assume, and lift each other up. It also means we must have the courage to address our own biases as we strive to truly and deeply understand the lives and stories of others.

Chun-Yen Chen (Asian Pacific Community Foundation)
For there to be greater equity for the API community, there must be adequate funding and other resources for the API nonprofit sector that have the unique capacity to serve this underserved community. “Mainstream” funders can participate in various activities hosted by AAPI’s local chapters such as “Meet the Funders” or the annual “API Community Van Tour” to grow their awareness of the API community and the nonprofits serving this community.

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