How do you get a diaspora community to give when there’s no perceived culture of philanthropy? That’s a question that many Asian-American fundraisers, including those in the Vietnamese-American community, seem to face. After all, “Asian” in popular parlance is more likely to be associated with frugality and conservation than charity and generosity
Fortunately, these stereotypes are entirely false. We know that Asians give frequently and generously to charitable causes. At VNHELP, we have been able to expand our operations and provide humanitarian assistance to poor communities in Vietnam thanks to the US-based Vietnamese diaspora’s philanthropic support.
Philanthropic culture evolved in different ways in the East and West. The giving instinct for many Asians, particularly those from East Asia and parts of Southeast Asia, is often rooted in emotional ties to their homeland, Confucian values (duty to family and community) or religious traditions (compassion and generosity). For these reasons, many Asians aren’t compelled to institutionalize their giving as is done in the Western world.
Instead, many prefer to give on an informal basis through remittances or personal acquaintances. Vietnam alone received an estimated $9 billion in remittances during 2011, and 58 percent of Vietnamese-Americans in a Pew Center study reported sending remittances to Vietnam in the past year. While much of the money sent is used to support relatives, anecdotal experience tells us that a lot of these funds are also used for assisting orphanages, helping the needy, developing old hometowns, and other philanthropic causes. Although no official numbers exist, we also believe that the community also gives substantial funds informally through family, friends, and church and temple groups for charitable missions.
These informal models have served the Vietnamese diaspora community well. Even now, institutions and the citizen sector in Vietnam remain relatively weak, so carrying out philanthropy through personal contacts is often perceived as being more effective. But times are changing and the potential for philanthropy to power real and positive social impact in Asiais growing. The informal practice of giving through personal contacts certainly continues to have its place in 21st century philanthropy, but giving to organizations that have experience managing funds, scaling projects and evaluating impact is also important to developing sustainable solutions.
Instead of wondering, “How do we get the diaspora to give?” fundraisers should be asking, “How do we prove that we’re worth your investment?” Re-framing the question is especially important when approaching first-time donors who are also first-generation immigrants, as later generations of Asian-Americans tend to be more cognizant of institutional giving practices. Considering the continued high flow of emigration from Asia, re-framing this question will likely continue to be relevant for many decades to come.
At VNHELP, we have developed four principles for engaging the Vietnamese-American community in philanthropy that that is easily transferrable to other diaspora communities:
- Relate: Everything starts with relationship building. With diaspora donors, relationships are particularly important because these individuals tend to be accustomed to one-on-one connections rather than institutional support. As a fundraiser, you have to learn how to make the institutional personal. You’ve got to earn their trust and prove that your organization’s mission is in line with a prospective donor’s personal values. Remind them that it’s not about a donor writing a check to an organization; it’s about like-minded people combining resources to create positive change.
- Educate: Once you’ve built a solid relationship with a donor or potential donor, begin to educate them. We don’t mean pulling out the pen and projector to go over organizational history or proposal writing cycles (although both are certainly conversations you should eventually have); we mean helping donors understand the role of organizations in charity and social development. Remind donors that you’re not just an intermediary; you’re providing value-added services like donor reporting, scheduling site visits, tax benefits and ensuring fiduciary responsibility—services that informal or peer-to-peer giving mechanisms might not be able to provide. And most importantly, show new donors how collective action through organizations can create sustainable impact beyond a single charity project.
- Assure: Finally, assurance, which is really just another part of relationship-building. If philanthropy through institutional giving is still new to a donor, keep them updated, let them know what’s going on and let them get involved in the organization whenever possible. Never close the door just because you’ve received the contribution.
- Engage the Next Generation: For American-born diaspora members, the engagement process is similar, but crafting the message may be a little different. Most young Asian-Americans make charitable contributions, but many do see philanthropy as a way of connecting with their cultural roots. Often, members of younger generations fear that their donations would not be properly used or managed. A study of Bay Area philanthropists by Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy found that “a number of younger, second generation professionals do not give internationally and expressed concerns about transparency.” Nonprofit leaders should see these concerns as a call to step up their game and commit to transparency and fiscal responsibility, things we should all be doing anyway.
These four principles have helped VNHELP develop the financial support we needed to evolve from a small of group of friends who just wanted to help alleviate poverty to one of the largest Vietnamese American-founded NGOS with projects across sixteen provinces in Vietnam. Even during the economic recession, our community outreach efforts helped increase our annual receipts by fourteen percent between 2010 and 2011, and we’re optimistic about our future growth. Additionally, the minor time investments we’ve put into social media and virtual fundraising platforms have already shown returns through new micro-donors, greater awareness, and an increased amount of volunteer applications coming in from Vietnamese American youth.
Now is a time of great progress and maturation for many of us in immigrant communities. As we solidify our influence in business, civics, culture, and technology, a bigger push from nonprofit professionals can also ensure that philanthropy becomes part of our legacy.
About the Author: Anh Ton is the programs and communications associate at Vietnam Health, Education and Literature Projects (VNHELP), a nonprofit organization focused on providing humanitarian and development assistance to Vietnam’s poor. Before joining VNHELP, she was a philanthropy development intern at Give2Asia, where she worked on a forthcoming whitepaper on Vietnamese-American philanthropy. She is also a regular contributor to Vietnam Talking Points, the community blog of OneVietnam Network. She graduated from University of California, Berkeley with a degree in English literature and a minor in Southeast Asian Studies.
The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.