Growing and Better Recognizing Indian-American Philanthropy: An Emerging Action Agenda

Growing and Better Recognizing Indian-American Philanthropy: An Emerging Action Agenda

September 16, 2018 | Author: Alex Counts, Senior Philanthropy Adviser, Indiaspora

Over the last few years, a number of studies and surveys of Indian diaspora philanthropy (and Indian philanthropy generally) have been published.  This interest is in part a reflection of the impressive and growing capabilities and stature of Indians around the world and their potential to impact pressing societal problems through philanthropy and volunteerism.

The most recent of these reports was published by Dalberg and Indiaspora in July, with the support of many civil society organizations.  It estimated, based on more than 1,000 survey responses nationwide, that people of Indian origin in the United States volunteer at double the rate of the U.S. population. It also found that they donate roughly one-third as much money per capita as typical Americans do.

These findings were released at Indiaspora’s Philanthropy Summit in Washington, D.C. in July, generating significant interest in the media.  At the recently completed Indiaspora Leadership Forum 2018 in San Jose, California, the findings were reviewed (with the benefit of a few hundred more survey responses) and a roundtable discussion was held to begin developing an agenda for responding to this information.  I was honored to have been asked to moderate the session, and this post is meant to summarize what this group of more than 50 business and philanthropy leaders came up with.  I invite others to build on this emerging agenda so that it can be improved upon and gain momentum.

As a prelude to the discussion, the group was briefed on three other surveys and studies of Indian and Indian-American philanthropy: “Giving Back to India” by Bridgespan, Stanford Social Innovation Review and Dasra in 2015, “Stimulating philanthropic giving and impact investing for development in India,” by the MacArthur Foundation in 2016, and “Diaspora Giving to India” by Dalberg (with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) in 2017.

The main findings and recommendations of these earlier reports were:

  • GIVING GAPS: Indians and Indian-Americans and other Indian Diaspora populations were, in general, giving far below their potential.
  • EXISTING BARRIERS: Donor distrust of philanthropic organizations, lack of information, lack of connection to India among second-generation Indian-Americans and millennial, regulatory and tax constraints that disincentivize giving, and lack of a giving culture.  It was noted that there are distinct archetypes of givers and non-givers who may require customized engagement strategies.
  • POSSIBLE RESPONSES: Manuals, trainings and role models for emerging philanthropists; policy reform in India; new certifications and ratings for Indian nonprofits; journalism and research fellowships for writing on philanthropy; national campaigns for giving; build capacity for recipient organizations; improved impact measurement and reporting; and focus on U.S. markets that have been neglected to date, such as Florida, the Carolinas, and the Midwest.

After the new survey results and these earlier studies were presented at the roundtable, Nishant Pandey, the CEO of American India Foundation and Vaishali Sinha, Chief CSR Officer of ReNew Power, kicked off the discussion with compelling presentations about the potential of effective philanthropy based on their organizational experiences.

Two primary objectives of an action agenda based on these findings were proposed to the group:

  1. Increase Indian-American giving (i.e., fill the donation gap).
  2. Gain more visibility for the robust tradition of Indian-American volunteerism.

Two additional, secondary objectives were presented as well:

  1. Improve the quality of giving (from industry-building and impact perspectives)
  2. Increase giving from other actors (high net worth Indians, Indian companies, non-Indians in the U.S., and Diaspora populations outside of the United States).

Prior to developing a list of concrete action steps to address these and other related objectives, the group discussed some important realities that these surveys may be missing.  These include the impact of volunteered time, donations that are not captured because they are not given through registered nonprofits or to temples, and the framing of questions and surveys using Western philanthropic terminology and models that may lead to underreporting and misreporting.  A few participants asserted that Indian-American giving, including giving to local causes and religion, exceeds that of the general U.S. population.  Clearly, the substance of these survey findings is open to challenge and the means of presenting them is best handled sensitively.

Regarding the validity and presentation of these surveys, two concrete recommendations emerged:

  1. Quantify the estimated value of donated time so that a dollar value can be assigned to the excess or surplus of Indian-American volunteerism in order to make the findings more balanced and complete; and
  2. Engage academics to try to uncover giving that is missed by the measurement and survey instruments used to date (also known as “grounded giving”).

In terms of addressing the findings and the proposed objectives for responding to them, a number of pragmatic and exciting proposals were put forward during the roundtable as well as later in the Forum.  The most basic one was to set a goal for increasing Indian-American philanthropy within the next 4-5 years, such as from $1 billion to $2 billion by Indiaspora’s 10th anniversary in 2022.  A quantifiable, time-bound goal could be a powerful unifying and motivating force for the entire community.

The tactical steps suggested to reach that visionary goal (or some alternative aspirational benchmark) are summarized below.  (Due to the policies of the Forum, attribution of these ideas to those who put them forward is not possible.)

  1. Increasing the number of delegations and visits to India by second and third-generation Indian-Americans in order to develop stronger ties and include philanthropic exposure and activity into those visits wherever possible.
  2. Inculcate a culture of giving among young people. One of many possible strategies could be encouraging the recent trend (among people of all ages and all ethnicities) that friends and family members consider donating to a cause that someone cares about in lieu of giving birthday presents.
  3. Better integrate impact investing, funding for social impact bonds, and other non-traditional social change financing vehicles into discussions and measurement of philanthropic activity.
  4. Leverage technology and related expertise in the Diaspora to improve nonprofit management and impact tracking, and to communicate proactively in ways that build of confidence of donors about the efficacy of giving and trust in established nonprofit partners.
  5. Experiment with innovative financing models being used in India for medical devices such as pacemakers in the philanthropic context.
  6. Increase Indiaspora’s focus on philanthropy, in part by creating a shared database of philanthropists in both countries.
  7. Establish a binational task force of business and philanthropy leaders to define a public policy agenda for incentivizing and growing philanthropy and then advocate for adoption of that agenda at the highest levels of government.
  8. Study and celebrate nontraditional philanthropic traditions in the Indian-American community, such as the extension of unsecured credit to recent immigrants to become hotel owners from those who are already well-established in that industry.
  9. Better recognize and celebrate local giving by Indian-Americans to meet the needs of the broad needs of their communities in the United States, including but not limited to struggling Indian-Americans and victims of domestic violence.
  10. Strive to create a culture of tithing, in part by drawing increased attention to the urgent humanitarian needs in India and also to the credibility of established nonprofits that have underutilized execution capacity to make a positive impact.
  11. Educate more Indian-Americans about the entire value proposition of giving, including how meaningful involvement in nonprofits and strategic giving can open doors and ensure access to leaders in business, politics, the media and academia.
  12. Create pathways for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s to serve on the boards of directors of India-focused philanthropies as a way of promoting a culture of giving among the next generation.
  13. Study, promote and replicate effective philanthropic models such as the Gandhi Memorial Scholarships in San Diego.
  14. Better recognize philanthropic role models and create opportunities for them to mentor emerging philanthropists. This could be done, in part, by individuals, organizations, or coalitions of organizations holding philanthropy speaker series where role models are featured and their positive behaviors described.
  15. More actively promote the idea of applying spiritual beliefs outside of places of worship in order to solve social problems.
  16. Draw greater attention to the often unrecognized absorptive capacity, unfunded plans, and underutilized execution capabilities of well-established nonprofits focused on India.

Clearly, there is no lack of pragmatic and visionary ideas about how to grow the philanthropic pie and also how to shine a brighter light on current activity.  A coalition of respected India-focused nonprofits might be an important player in advancing this bold agenda.  Perhaps a landmark gift from a member of the Indian-American community in the spirit of Ted Turner’s commitment to the United Nations in 1997, which influenced a generation of business leaders’ philanthropy, could also play a catalytic role.

My colleagues and I from Indiaspora welcome input from all actors in the philanthropy ecosystem about how this list can be enhanced and improved, and how it can be implemented by this vibrant and generous community in the years ahead.  Please send me ideas, critiques, corrections, and suggestions to and I will publish a part two to this post later this year that reflects the input I receive.

Alex Counts is Indiaspora’s Senior Philanthropy Adviser. He previously served as President and CEO of American India Foundation, and prior to that, worked with Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus in several capacities, including founding and running Grameen Foundation for 18 years. He is author of “Small Loans, Big Dreams,” published by John Wiley & Sons.