Indian-Americans discuss their community’s potential for strategic philanthropy

BAPS Temple in Los Angeles, California (Courtesy: BAPS)

A recently released survey of Indian-Americans who contribute both time and money to charitable activities has set leaders in the community thinking about how to target the potential of this high-achieving group, which also nevertheless has its own needy population.

Though 90 percent of the respondents in the “Indian American Community Engagement Survey” commissioned by the advocacy non-profit, Indiaspora, surveyed those who were already donors, skewing the results somewhat, the survey’s main finding could help target strategies for making a bigger impact nationally and locally.

The survey revealed that Indian-Americans volunteer significant time toward philanthropic causes but that a large money “giving gap” exists between the potential and the actual – that they were meeting $1 billion of their $3 billion potential for annual giving.

Several Indian-American leaders and researchers News India Times spoke to made common points – that this new immigrant group’s giving could not be fairly compared to older immigrants; that Indian-American philanthropy was weighted toward India; it was a generational divide; that religious giving outweighed mainstream giving; that remittances and faith-based philanthropy and volunteerism were underestimated; and that the future looked bright for philanthropy not just by older Indian-Americans, but more so, by the Millennials and second generation youth that is on the road to accumulating wealth. Virtually all those interviewed, both secular and faith-based, agreed that philanthropy had to be “leveraged” and “strategic,” going forward.

Not meeting the potential does not belie the fact that a number of Indian- Americans have donated heavily to mainstream and community initiatives. Various chairs at universities, like Chandrika Tandon and her husband Ranjan, who endowed $100 million for the New York University Tandon School of Engineering; At least one Indian-American couple, Drs. Pallavi and Kiran Patel of Florida, began giving to higher education institution, capping it with setting up the Dr. Kiran C. Patel Center for Global Solutions at the University of South Florida as far back as 2005. The couple’s foundation has committed hundreds of millions since then, among them to set up a School of Medicine and School of Health Sciences at USD.

Deepak Raj (Courtesy: Pratham USA)

Deepak Raj, founder and managing director of Raj Associates in New Jersey, is chairman of the non-profit Pratham USA. He established a chair in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, recently funded the creation of Impact Project and Impact Fund to support Indian-American political aspirants. He believes Indian-American philanthropy has grown exponentially in the last 5 to 10 years, even in his own engagements. “So as time goes on, it will reflect the giving of the rest of America. I see very positive trends and am very optimistic about the direction of giving,” he told News India Times, adding that he has seen the next generation which has had the benefit of a good education and “terrific” opportunities, rising to give more.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate professor at University of California, Riverside, and founder of AAPIdata, says random sample surveys done by his organization showed the rates of giving were lower for Asian Americans compared to the national average, which can be explained by their more recent immigration. Donations to religious organizations were higher than to other causes, he found.

The Indiaspora survey, despite its limitations, said Ramakrishnan who was an advisor for it, is a very important step in trying to get Indians to pay attention to philanthropy, which is not just about money but also about expertise. Shikha Bhatnagar, executive director of the California-based non-profit South Asian Network, told News India Times she has seen the “incredible” amount of money that organizations are able to raise too send back to India, and was “astonished” with the gap between money for India and that for U.S. organizations. She launched the U.S. office of Akshay Patra Foundation, and was executive director of Teach for India in Pune, and has two decades of programming, advocacy, and policy experience on global and domestic issues. Bhatnagar contends many Indian- Americans believe they came with little and built their lives so why can’t others do the same, unaware of problems within the community. And some are uncomfortable with pushing the envelope on highlighting issues of sexual assault or the LGBTQ community, and neglect of seniors, not to mention “Indians are one of the highest undocumented group,” she said.

“A lot of attention has been given to the growing political and economic success of Indian-Americans, but philanthropic involvement and influence is yet to be recognized,” Ramakrishnan said.

“For me, born in the U.S., there is a natural affinity toward philanthropic institutions here and there’s already been a significant increase in Indian-American philanthropy which will only explode in the next 5 to 15 years,” according to Raj Goyle, former Kansas State Representative, who co-founded Impact. “As there is more engagement and more study, I hope we will see more leveraged philanthropy,” Goyle added, emphasizing the need for “strategic philanthropy.”

Shekar Narasimhan (Courtesy: Twitter)

Shekar Narasimhan, a greater Washington, D.C. businessman and founder of AAPI Victory Fund, says there is a moving away from India-centric philanthropy, even though legitimate needs persist there. “There are 300,000 Indians who need help in the U.S. Also 400,000 undocumented kids. We have high levels of domestic abuse. So the issue is how and what are we doing about these,” Narasimhan questions.

Indian-Americans have been giving to needs within the community in this country, such as scholarships for higher education, he noted. Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, founder of Parikh Worldwide Media, Inc., is one of those who gave scholarships for ten years, 2004-2014. Plus, he says much of what ethnic media does is philanthropic – highlighting the issues and achievements of the community, as well as foreign policy concerns and minority rights. “We want to empower our people and the second generation to do more here and in India,” Parikh told News India Times. Parikh is chair of the non-profit Life Global; involved with major non-profit philanthropies, Share and Care, Akshay Patra, and Ekal Vidyalaya, as well as involved with the American India Foundation from its founding when President Bill Clinton led the organization. “It is one of the ‘sanskars’ we must instill in our children – that making money is important, but not giving it away makes it useless,” Parikh said. Any philanthropy by Indian-Americans must take into account issues, including domestic violence and other problems within the community. “We should help these NGOs that are dealing with these and empower women here in the U.S.”

Anju Bhargava (Courtesy: Twitter)

Anju Bhargava, founder of Hindu American Seva Communities says her views are conditioned by her faith and service, and she wants Indian-Americans to approach philanthropy as an intrinsic part of what their faith teaches them. “We give in Anna Daanam – soup kitchen giving is huge and underestimated,” but she sees a gap in giving “to our country of adoption.” When Hindus get involved in giving, it is seen as fundamentalist, she complains. “We don’t use our tradition to, for example, define environmental conservation- protecting Mother Earth,” she says. Youth, in particular, she contends, needs to see the path to philanthropy through their faith which already calls for it through the Vedic tradition. Sikhs and Jains, she believes, have done a good job of combining philanthropy with their faiths.

“Our philanthropy needs to be re-evaluated and re-purposed so that it remains selfless, but also purposeful,” Bhargava says with passion referring to those of the Hindu faith to which she belongs. “The revolution we need to have is in the temples,” she says and poses the question, “How do we make them sustainable through seva activities and actions?” Temples can be houses of philanthropy, serving as community centers “dealing with all the issues, including domesticviolence, addiction, mental illness …,” says Bhargava, who served on President Obama’s White House initiative on faith-based institutions. “Places of worship, must deal with human failings. Building that ‘compassion’ is what we don’t leverage, or practice enough,” Bhargava says.

Narasimhan estimates that the Indian-American community has spent around $10 billion to build religious and community infrastructures, not counting what it takes to maintain these. While places of worship are doing many philanthropic activities including feeding the homeless, health fairs, etc. “The next step in our philanthropy must deal with rising issues of elder care, poor people, those abandoned.”

As M.R. Rangaswami, founder of Indiaspora, said at the July 17 conference on philanthropy among Indian- Americans, “… We are in the early stages of strategically planning what we should do to move the needle – which is to say, increase the amount of Indian American philanthropic giving in America and to India, and make it more effective.”

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