Diaspora philanthropy – an Asian American Perspective


In April, I attended the Asian Pacific Philanthropy Consortium’s conference on Diaspora Philanthropy: An Agent of Change in Asia Pacific Communities.  The conference brought together over 130+ individuals from all over the world to Hanoi, Vietnam to discuss the growing trends of diaspora philanthropy.  Below, I tried to provide my understanding of the growth of disapora philanthropy and some general characteristics of Asian American donors in the U.S.

Immigrants giving back

The world has become increasingly interconnected and the social distinctions between what is international and local have blurred. Global economic integration has rendered us dependent on the economic, social, religious and political activities of other countries. The growth and ease of access to the internet and other communication media has allowed people to share information, stay in contact with family members all over the world and extend personal and professional ties, even in times of disaster.  In addition, the increased mobility of workers, tourists, and refugees, forces us to redefine the concept of “community” and “family.”

Immigrants, especially Asians, generally maintain strong familial, cultural, economic and political ties to their homeland. Over the years, many Asian Americans have become prosperous compared to those in their country of origin and often wish to ‘give-back’ and help the communities to which, some frequently return or visit. Some give back informally, through remittances or hometown associations that feed, clothe, and shelter relatives, or support charitable projects such as building a new school in their village. Others choose to be more formal and thus, use legally structured philanthropic vehicles that provide tax benefits in addition to leveraging other resources, including their expertise and contacts.

Diaspora philanthropy: a perspective on why

Diaspora philanthropy is inherently individual, and is influenced by personal history, culture, environment and choice. Understanding diaspora philanthropy as “engaged” by Asian Americans requires consideration of motives and patterns of individual giving, cultural history, issues in the immigrant’s homeland, and U.S. immigration laws. In addition, income levels, family and business ties, and intermediary channels available to facilitate giving in the homeland and in the U.S. are factors that affect the rate and growth of diaspora philanthropy.

Many Asian Americans are immigrants, and like the other immigrants who came to America before them; Asians bring their own cultural and religious context to their community and philanthropy. Because of the distinctive religious, cultural and demographic identities of each cultural group, they adapted to their new home depending on their economic means, educational level and skill, ethnic background, how they arrived and their reasons for coming to the U.S. Some are non-English speaking refugees while others are educated professionals. Some are garment workers while others are successful businessmen and multi-millionaire entrepreneurs.

Similar religious and cultural heritage are also significant factors in helping new immigrants cope with the stresses of adjustment in a foreign land. Faced with racial discrimination, violence and isolation, Asian American immigrants formed many religious, mutual aid and social organizations to stay connected with their own community and to provide resources and assistance to each other. In addition, these organizations gave the children of the ‘new’ Asian Americans the opportunity to attend language and cultural classes and community events to learn about and continue their cultural practices and traditions.


The identity of each cultural group also plays a vital role for business and social associations. This is most evident in the Silicon Valley technology sector where many Asian American alliances and networking organizations are formed.

In the nonprofit sector, many organizations have specific cultural identities and programs aimed at particular ethnic communities. Thus, donors and board members of these non-profit groups usually reflect the communities they serve. However, there are also many organizations that are pan-Asian American, that is, they serve all Asian groups.

Giving characteristics

Because many Asian Americans are from countries with internal strife or socially and politically repressed environments, an additional cultivation period is required to encourage them to participate in the western traditions of philanthropy. As donors, they must understand and believe in the cause, feel that the charitable organization is credible and trust that the donated funds will be used responsibly. Most important, they are willing to give their time and resources if they have strong feelings of identification with the organization, personal knowledge of the issues the organization supports, or a friend or family member is connected with the organization.

While many identify with the organizations and issues of the community in which they currently live in, others wish to help causes abroad. The reasons vary among each donor. Some wish to help make the lives of their families and friends they left behind better.  Others are so attached to their homeland and see the business or personal potential that they wish to reshape or influence the direction of its growth.  Still for many others, they have fond memories of their birthplace and wish to share with it the financial success and expertise they have acquired in their new home. In other words, no matter the reasons for their giving back, individuals are engaged and as practioners in the field, we must do what we can to enable them to become informed and effective donors.

– Dien S Yuen