AAPI Learning Series Guest Post: The Future of AAPI Philanthropy is Now

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By Susan Lew and Joanna Kong

Board Co-Chairs, Asian American Futures

In the last two years, an unprecedented amount of media attention and philanthropic funding has been focused on mitigating the surge of anti-Asian discrimination and violence sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. While this groundswell of sympathy and assistance has been appreciated, the truth is that the needs of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities have been overlooked and under-resourced for decades, and those needs extend greatly beyond physical safety. Harmful stereotypes such as “the perpetual foreigner” and “the model minority” have permeated the Asian American experience for generations, and have led to anti-Asian discrimination in education, business, housing, and government that continues today. The same stereotypes exist in philanthropy too, and have rendered AAPI-serving nonprofit organizations largely invisible and misunderstood by funders. In a recent report, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) found that only 0.2% of foundation funding was granted to AAPI organizations in 2018, roughly the same as it was 30 years prior. To make matters worse, in that amount of time, the AAPI population nearly tripled while the percentage of philanthropic foundation dollars to AAPI nonprofits stayed the same. This is why, in 2020, a small group of Asian American philanthropists in Orange County, CA decided that it was no longer acceptable for AAPIs, the fastest growing non-white demographic group in the U.S., to remain invisible, overlooked, and underfunded. We formed Asian American Futures (AAF) to transform philanthropy for AAPI, by AAPI. Our mission is to ensure a robust future for all AAPIs in which we are seen, heard, empowered, and united.

As an Asian American-founded and operated organization, AAF brings a unique perspective to philanthropy in the U.S. We know what it means for our cultures and our self-worth to be colonized; to have our knowledge and experiences devalued, and to be rewarded for adopting someone else’s system of power. Many of us have experienced the powerlessness of feeling voiceless in a top-down philanthropic system. For these reasons, Asian American Futures strives to do philanthropy differently. In everything we do, our guiding principles are 1) to resource the AAPI community and democratize philanthropy, 2) to change Asian American narratives, and 3) to promote AAPI civic engagement in solidarity with all marginalized communities.

Resourcing the AAPI community and democratizing philanthropy: Along with our partner Gold House, AAF is about to launch our 2nd annual Gold Futures Challenge (GFC), an innovative online grants challenge that combines grant-making with education, visibility, and grassroots empowerment. Each year, we grant $500,000 to small AAPI-serving nonprofit organizations across the country through the GFC. In a twist on traditional grantmaking, we hold a public vote to determine the prizes, which include a monetary grant and resources for organizational sustainability. In order to vote, members of the public must read about and view the work of many emerging nonprofits. In doing so, most people will learn something new about Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. This way, the GFC not only makes grants supporting the work of small AAPI nonprofits, but it also raises the visibility of AAPI communities’ needs, creates meaningful connections, and builds a bigger table at which everyone has a seat. 

AAF is also cultivating the next generation of AAPI philanthropists through a next gen peer philanthropy network that will offer meaningful connections and opportunities to learn and grow as we transform AAPI philanthropy together. We understand that to achieve true liberation for our communities, on our own terms, it is essential that we engage and educate more AAPIs on the need to fund our own communities.

Changing the Narrative: AAF is launching a national narrative lab to conduct groundbreaking narrative research, experiment with bold new ideas and disrupt traditional narratives of Asian American communities, including finally eliminating the stereotypes of “perpetual foreigner” and “model minority.” Our narrative lab will focus on researching how Millennial and Gen Z Asian Americans connect on issues such as their identity, belonging, and solidarity to other communities of color.

AAPI civic engagement: The next generation of AAPIs are ready to lead the movement to rewrite a new chapter in our community’s civil rights history. Through Activate California, we are developing a new base of engaged AAPIs who can contribute to and engage in our collective fights for social and racial justice. Activate California will create a space for youth, professionals, and other segments of the AAPI community to learn about important issues, cultivate their connection to grassroots organizations, and embark on a journey to further their civic and political understanding.

The values that drive Asian American Futures–resourcing AAPI communities and democratizing philanthropy, changing Asian American narratives, and promoting AAPI civic engagement–do not exist as separate initiatives, despite how they are presented above. Each of AAF’s initiatives are guided by all three values as we pursue our mission of a robust future for all AAPI; one in which we are seen, heard, empowered and united. We invite you to join us on our mission!

More To Explore

How do we build a compassionate and inclusive America in an age of distrust? WAJAHAT ALI knows from personal experience that when we come together to be the superheroes of our own stories, we can create honest social change. The beloved TED speaker has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic about our urgent issues—immigration, politics, parenthood—with boldness, hope, and humor. His memoir Go Back to Where You Came From, one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year, follows his life as a Muslim Pakistani-American on a surprising, emotional, and challenging quest for the good life. Iconic journalist Katie Couric says that “we are all so fortunate to be on the receiving end of his intellect, his humanity, and his heart.”

Wajahat Ali

“With wit and charm, Ali delivers a masterful meditation on growing up brown in America...he gives us a clear-eyed affirmation of the country America could be.” — Mara Gay, New York Times

Wajahat Ali uses his platform to fight tirelessly for the social change we need in our country—and he isn’t afraid to get personal while doing it. The Daily Beast columnist and former New York Times writer, TED speaker, award-winning playwright, and Peabody-nominated producer of the documentary series The Secret Life of Muslims offers us his experiences of triumph over hardship as a beacon of hope and resilience in the face of life’s impossible situations. From his experiences of Islamophobia growing up as a Muslim Pakistani-American to his two-year-old daughter’s liver cancer diagnosis, Wajahat is living proof that when we share our authentic stories, we build the America we wish to live in.”

In his memoir Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American, Wajahat teaches us how to create our own superhero origin story, invest in hope for the future of America, and enact real social change. The book was called “biting and funny and full of heart” by NPR. Representative Ilhan Omar called Wajahat’s work “hilarious” and “deeply moving”, and legendary writer Dave Eggers said it was the book he’d “been hoping Wajahat Ali would write for ten years—hilarious, stylistically fearless, deeply humane.”

Wajahat is also the author of The Domestic Crusaders—the first major play about Muslim-Americans in a post-9/11 world. He was the lead researcher and author for the Center for American Progress’s seminal report “Fear Inc., Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” and served as a national correspondent for Al Jazeera America, where he told stories about communities and individuals often marginalized or under-reported in mainstream media.

As Creative Director of Affinis Wajahat Labs, he worked to create social entrepreneurship initiatives to support and uplift marginalized communities. He also worked with the US State Department to design and implement the “Generation Change” leadership program to empower young social entrepreneurs. Wajahat initiated chapters in eight countries, including Pakistan and Singapore. For his work, he was honored as a “Generation Change Leader” by Sec. of State Clinton and recognized as an “Emerging Muslim American Artist” by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. 

He has given keynote speeches around the world such as TED, The Aspen Ideas Festival, Google, the United Nations, and The New Yorker Festival. His writing appears regularly in the New York TimesThe Atlantic, the Washington Post, and The Guardian. He’s a Senior Fellow at The Western States Center and Auburn Seminary and co-host of Al Jazeera’s The Stream.