Yesterday in the Seattle Globalist, Anna Goren wrote a wonderful piece on the way increased diversity — and the growth of immigrant populations in particular — is changing the way people do philanthropy in the U.S.
For all its merits, philanthropy still suffers from a bit of an image problem in this country. It’s true that at least 62% of Americans give charitably, but most people probably do not describe themselves as philanthropists. Philanthropy is still largely seen as an inaccessible activity — something only rich people with an abundance of wealth can do and get buildings named after them as a result. Like Goren, I also think that “rich people wanting to give their money is never a bad thing,” but the very idea of philanthropy can make people uncomfortable because they recognize that philanthropy is, in ways, a byproduct of inequality. The American satirist Ambrose Bierce probably captured the exclusive connotations of philanthropy best back in 1911 when he defined a philanthropist as “a rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket.”
So in contrast to the elitist associations of big ticket philanthropy, it’s very refreshing to see Goren pick up on how immigrants in the U.S. are actually at the vanguard of democratizing philanthropy and reviving its image. Goren particularly applauds the growing phenomenon of giving circles, which are basically groups of people getting together to raising money and pooling funds to support organizations and causes that they agree upon. It’s a lot like the concept of huei in China, tanomoshi in Japan, hui in Vietnam, tong-tine in Cambodia, and geh in Korea, which is probably one reason why so many giving circles are championed by Asian Americans and Asian immigrants. The whole process of discussing issues, gathering opinions, fundraising together, and building a consensus on what to give to is what makes giving circles so democratic and transparent. On top of that, because giving circle participants are usually diverse in their backgrounds and from the communities themselves, they can send much-needed philanthropic to areas overlooked by larger institutional donors.
With these more communal approaches to philanthropy growing in popularity, I think perhaps one day, philanthropy will no longer be seen as a byproduct of inequality, but as a tool for driving social equity.
H/T: Seattle Globalist