colorful background pattern of circular loops painted with multicolored lights / Creativity103

August 2, 2016; NBC News

Foundation funding can be hard to come by for marginalized groups and grassroots organizations, as Alice Hom discovered back in 2009 when she learned that less than one percent of foundation funding was directed toward LGBTQ-focused organizations for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. She presented her findings to her boss and they created the Queer Justice Fund, which from 2009-2015 was a program of AAPIP that helped increase funding as well as awareness for LGBTQ groups.

“We knew foundations weren’t going to be the answer,” Hom said. “That is AAPIP’s long-term goal and we’re not going to give up just because we’re in a for-profit world. But we also know that’s going to take a long time and in the meantime our communities are in need. That’s why AAPIP had this other strategy of having giving circles to harness community philanthropy. People come together to have a bake sale or a fundraiser, and they donate to nonprofits. That’s how organizations have already been supporting themselves.”

The idea of giving circles is not a new one. Frank Liu, co-founder of the giving circle The Dinner Guys, relates the idea to traditions in Asian countries. He said, “A lot of women in small villages would save small amounts of money and when someone in their village or family has special needs or if there are any emergency situations, they can actually help each other by pooling the money together.”

NPQ has also covered giving circles in depth through articles such as “Giving Circles: What Makes them Powerful?” and “Could Giving Circles Rebuild Philanthropy from the Bottom Up?”, which discuss the importance of giving circles in connecting donors to their communities and to each other. Just one year ago, we highlighted the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Islander Giving Circle, truly getting at the heart of what giving circles are. In founder Leslie Ito’s words, “You don’t need to be Bill Gates to donate to your community, especially when your community has huge needs unmet by traditional philanthropy.” 

Foundations and traditional philanthropy typically want to have a big impact, so it can be incredibly difficult to secure funding for marginalized groups or groups that are not seen as having a need. AAPIP’s Vice President of Programs, Noelle Ito, believes that Asian stereotypes actually prevent their community from receiving funding, even though there is a need. She said, “People naturally give to the homeless or the elderly. Yet when it comes to Asians, they’re led to believe we’re all successful, that we rarely experience illness or setbacks. But that’s so far from true.”

Census data and philanthropic data reflect this. Although Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group, organizations serving this population receive only a fraction of a percent of all philanthropic dollars. But, giving circles are changing this. For instance, the Asian Women’s Giving Circle, a member of AAPIP’s National Giving Circle Network, has not only been able to raise over $700,000 over the last decade but also functions as a donor-advised fund at the Ms. Foundation for Women. Thus, we are seeing that communities can come together to raise funds for each other, and importantly they can also influence the trajectory of traditional philanthropy.—Sheela Nimishakavi