As an Indian-American, I have found that there are a number of complexities involved in the nature and continuation of charitable giving amongst members of my ethnicity.
Successful but Reluctant?
South Asians make up a tiny sliver (only about 0.06%) of the American population. In spite of the small size of the group, South Asians stand as some of the most academically and professionally advanced individuals in the US.
There are more South Asian doctors, lawyers, political participants, entertainment professionals, etc... than there are in any other cultural group - especially regarding those of its size. There are countless studies filled with data to prove that we are actually the wealthiest, and most educated group in the US.
In 2008, an article was written about the state of South Asians and charitable giving. (See the full article.)
The discussion surrounded the following ideas:
(1) The fact that South Asians typically do not rally around a common cause (pointing to their diversity as a potential cause),
(2) the constant struggle around whether to give to South Asian causes or to those based here in the States (this is a particularly heavy issue with those currently in their 30's and 40's), and
(3) whether to give to religious or other civic causes.
In spite of the fact that many of my friends and family members have lived in the United States for more than 20 (and sometimes, more than 40) years, this consistent deliberation continues to plague them.
What We're Overlooking When it Comes to Giving:
While I understand their dilemma, there are a few key factors being overlooked in terms of charitable giving among Indian Americans.
As the next generation of Indian American begins to accumulate wealth, it is my hope that they are able to understand that that giving is not writing a check once a year to the charity your parents give to in India. Giving should be an active exercise. It is important to engage with the organizations that you are giving to, know where they are spending money, advise them on ways to do more, and volunteer your time and talent to help further the cause.
I also encourage Indian Americans to consider the fact that for any organization, volunteering time and talents is just as important as donating funds. Additionally, while it is sometimes easier to give to larger organizations, there are a number of smaller organizations that work to make a much larger impact with each dollar donated.
It is, therefore, important to take a more active role in your giving - take the time and do some research as to how far each donated dollar travels within any organization accepting charitable gifts.
The Simple Truth
Now that I've covered all of this, I am going to say the thing that we, as Indian-Americans, are not supposed to say: Our parent's generation did an incredible job building the temples, mosques, and gurudwaras across this great nation. There are a number of astounding temples in states across America - some of which are bigger than those I have seen in India.
Now that these temples are built in America, it may be time to focus our giving on the organizations that are helping to develop, educate, feed, and empower our communities - and by, "communities," I mean both those within the United States and South Asia.
While the following statement may get me into a lot of trouble, I'm going to say it anyway. Simply put, you don't have to give to the big, brand-name organizations to make a difference. Frankly, donations to smaller organizations can have just as large, if not a larger, impact. Whether it be education, a meal or a medical check-up, those small gestures add up to empowering those in need, creates agency for the individual involved, and fosters a more sustainable community.
My hope is that my generation of South Asian Americans will embrace both India and the US as the "home bases" of their communities and choose to give back to any aspect of society with which they personally connect. We at the Desai Foundation aim to enrich those areas of the world that have enriched us - and that is why we give to Gujarat, Metro-Boston, and the Upper West Side of NYC. We connect with those that we give back to.
What matters is to give to a cause you believe in personally, and take an active role in that act of kindness. Near or far.
Megha Desai is the founder and principal of Marketing. Strategy. Dharma. (MSD), a brand development and communications consultancy based in New York City. She is also the Director of the Desai Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on fostering Indian-American culture and also creating health initiatives in India.