iFoundation: A Breakthrough Model in Diaspora Giving

What is iFoundation?

OneVietnam is an online network that allows people to fund projects in their homeland and see the impact right away. Projects can be funded with as little as $1. In return, donors get to see their money go to work building the places they grew up in through constant updates, pictures, and videos.

One of the most innovative features on OneVietnam is called iFoundation. It allows users to create a virtual foundation with causes they care about. I’ll explain how it works later on, but in effect, it makes philanthropy extremely personal.  Everyone’s iFoundation is unique and speaks to what matters most to them. It adds another dimension to their identities. I see Facebook as your social profile, LinkedIn as your professional profile, and iFoundation as your philanthropic profile.

The model is working out well. We’ve seen over 700 donations in just 20 days. I think it is something that we can easily apply to other diaspora communities.

We are supported by the Ford Foundation and were acknowledged by Hillary Clinton at the Global Diaspora Forum as an example of positive innovation in 2012. We are also a founding partner of IdEA.


How did we get started?

Uyen Nguyen, Paul Pham, and I co-founded OneVietnam. The three of us came together because we wanted to explore the intersection between technology and philanthropy.

We jumped in and started building OneVietnam’s site in 2009. It began as a side project, but it quickly evolved into something much larger as the need for it became increasingly apparent.  When we started working on OneVietnam Uyen and I were management consultants and Paul was a veteran of Microsoft and Hotmail. In 2010, we received enough funding from the Ford Foundation to allow us to quit our day jobs and manage OneVietnam full-time.


Why did we build it?

Each year Vietnamese expats send $8 billion home, but they only direct a fraction of that money towards philanthropic work due to lack of trust and concerns about transparency.

We built OneVietnam to give NGOs a central place to show the impact of their work. OneVietnam provides a view into nonprofits’ day-to-day work  on the ground, showing donors what the needs are and how their money is spent.  This process dramatically increases transparency and fosters trust.


What makes OneVietnam different from other funding platforms?

1)  OneVietnam is anchored around our shared culture.  Instead of emphasizing specific causes to which few people may relate, we emphasize our shared Vietnamese heritage that most people in our community can relate to and want to see prosper. Currently, all of the nonprofits on iFoundation work in Vietnam or provide services to the United States’ Vietnamese community.

We don’t wake up every day and think about giving our money away.  We do, however, wake up to a reminder of who we are every day in the mirror.

2) OneVietnam empowers donors through an innovative program called iFoundation that lets people own a foundation like Bill Gates but on a college student’s budget.

Your iFoundation is your personal collection of nonprofits that anyone can support. You track your nonprofits’ progress and choose where the money goes – give any amount to any nonprofit in your iFoundation. The fact that you can choose to give zero funding to a nonprofit in your iFoundation creates an environment where nonprofits are eager to show their impact and you’re empowered to direct the change you want to see.

Here are a few of great examples of people’s iFoundations:


I want to give back to my homeland with iFoundation, but I’m not of Vietnamese descent. Can other diaspora communities use iFoundation?

OneVietnam is an open community and welcomes people of all backgrounds. Some of our most active users are not of Vietnamese descent but have an affinity for the Vietnamese culture, people, or community.

We plan to bring OneVietnam’s platform to other communities.  We imagine building a OneIndia, OneHaiti, OneMexico, etc. We are looking for partners to make it happen. If this is something you would like to see in your community, feel free to contact me.


What do you want to accomplish in two years?

1) We want to make donating a dollar to a nonprofit as easy as buying a song on iTunes.  People should be able to donate everywhere: on a laptop, a mobile phone, or at a live event, and through any means: credit cards, PayPal, or mobile transfer.

2) We want organizations to easily report their work from anywhere – in the field at a distant village in Vietnam or from a computer in their headquarters in Los Angeles. This allows donors worldwide to track projects, identify the needs, and contribute to the solution.

3) We want 1% of the 2.2 million people in the Vietnamese diaspora to donate 1% of their paychecks each year. That’s around $10 million a year. If we grow that total by 10% each year, then by 2025 we will have raised nearly a quarter billion dollars.


What’s the big picture goal?

We want to restore the power and responsibility to change the world back to everyday people. A few wealthy individuals and major foundations shouldn’t get to make all the decisions. In a sense, we want to democratize philanthropy.

We envision a world where philanthropy can be as much a part of our lives as checking our emails or making a Facebook update. We want ordinary people to participate in identifying the problems and powering the solutions.


How do you make money?

We don’t, yet. That’s why we need your support.  Don’t worry, though, we have a plan for self-sustainability.

When you donate on iFoundation donation, we ask for an optional tip for OneVietnam. Our users typically share about 10% of their donations with us. At this point, the tips don’t add up to enough to support all of our operations. When we hit the $1 million donations per year mark, we will start to become more self-sustaining.

Until then, we need your help to keep OneVietnam running. If you would like to help, please head over to our donate page – a contribution in any amount is appreciated and is 100% tax-deductible.


About the Author: James Bao is the cofounder and Executive Director of OneVietnam. He was born in Dalat, Vietnam and immigrated to the California at age 8. Previously, James was a management consultant specializing in technology. A self-described nerd, James built his first website at twelve and attended his first college course at thirteen. He holds a BS from UC Berkeley, where he was a Regent’s Scholar.



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.