Get engaged in Charitable giving

I wrote an article recently on how Indian Americans can take a step towards increasing charitable giving. Equally applicable even if you are not an Indian American 🙂
I have reproduced the entire article below. Can be found on line at India New England News.

How Indian Americans can get engaged in charitable giving

India has a rich tradition of supporting public works, arts and architecture throughout its history and culture. From time immemorial the Rishis of the Upanishads have exhorted their disciples to engage in charity, to give according to their wealth with faith and humility. Over two thousand years ago the Emperor Ashoka undertook immense public works projects ranging from rest houses for pilgrims to hospitals and universities. In later times rulers like Emperor Akbar patronized the arts and architecture and were instrumental in building striking monuments that still stand as testimony to their largesse. In the South, the Vijaynagar Empire helped lift Kannada and Telugu literature to new heights and encouraged Carnatic music.

While these examples of generous giving have inspired many Indians, it has also served to reinforce a notion that only the rich could afford to be generous with their wealth. The state controlled economy in post-independent India conditioned the populace to expect the government to deliver social service programs. With the average middle class family striving to make ends meet, any additional discretionary giving generally went to their favorite religious cause or to their family members.

However, the past couple of decades have brought about a significant change in Indian society. By some estimates, the Indian middle class has now grown to around 325 million people. In the United States, it is estimated that there are over two million Indian Americans with an average family income of $64,000, more than twice the national average. Despite these dramatic changes, a large proportion of the Indian population still lives in poverty. According to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS) there are 236 million people in India living on less than Rs. 20 per day.  Attendant issues of illiteracy, lack of sanitation, improper hygiene, inadequate healthcare and malnutrition are still largely unaddressed. Here, in the United States, there is a large Indo-American community needing assistance in issues related to health, immigration and jobs. We also have an added responsibility in the United States to create opportunities to educate and enhance the knowledge and experiences of non-Indians and the younger generations of Indians about the rich heritage that India possesses in art, culture and literature.

Indian Americans have an opportunity to come together as a community to address these major challenges here in the United States and in India. Some of this is evident with the new generation of philanthropies, such as the Deshpande Foundation in the United States and the Byrajju Foundation and the Infosys Foundation in India, that have stepped up to address several of the pressing social issues in India. Numerous other organizations in the United States and in India are working to meet these social needs.

However, the average Indian American community member is not engaged with the social sector in general and charitable giving in particular. There are several stereotypical reasons and responses that people come up with to justify their disengagement, some of which are:

  • People don’t feel that they can afford to donate. Explanations include “I don’t have enough money to give”.
  • People feel that their contribution will not have any impact on the problem. Typical responses include “What can a few dollars do to solve that problem” or “Look at how little impact all that aid has on conditions in Africa/India/etc.”
  • People wind up blaming the intended recipient of the charity. “Why don’t the homeless do something and get a job?” or “I don’t want to support that bad habit?” might be typical responses.
  • People look to others who they feel can better afford to support charities. They might question the commitment of the high profile donors with questions like “Look at how much that rock star is making? He can afford to give more, I don’t make as much”
  • People try to rationalize their priorities with observations like “I can’t afford to give at this point in my career?” or “I have to save for my child’s education”.
  • People are suspicious of being solicited by charities and feel they don’t know how to determine the legitimate ones. The negative publicity about wasteful overhead expenses and fly-by-night organizations help heighten this concern.

Some of these misperceptions are based on an unclear understanding of the social sector or are from preconceived notions of the non-profit world. With advances in technology and better governance, there is more transparency and accessibility to charitable data than ever before. In addition, there are a few steps that charities can also take to facilitate this exchange. By addressing some of the donor’s concerns, they will increase the likelihood that a person will support their cause. A few straightforward steps that can be taken include:

  • Increasing transparency in their operations. Donors are concerned about how their contribution will be used particularly when giving to a charity that is some distance away or if it will have a long term impact. By providing regular and transparent reporting about their operations, charities can foster trust and lay such concerns to rest.
  • Maintaining low overheads. Indian American donations can have a huge impact as a dollar goes a long way to address issues in India. However, donors want charities to assure them that their money is going towards programs that provide real impact and that administrative and fundraising costs are not taking too big a bite.
  • Highlighting visible impact and deliverables. Supporting an organization and issues creates challenges to monitor the end impact of ones donation. Charities can help address this problem by providing regular online progress reports, pictures and updates on social impact and deliverables.
  • Reducing use of high pressure fundraising tactics. Most donors are turned off by high pressure tactics for fundraising. Constant phone solicitations and endless charity galas lead to donor fatigue.
  • Clear enunciation of community need and social impact. The most effective fundraising campaigns are those that can clearly describe the community needs in terms that a donor can relate to. By appealing to the donor’s emotional or cultural feelings, the charity is ensured of a longer term commitment.

Americans are the most generous country when it comes to charitable giving. According to the Giving USA Foundation, individual donations rose by 4.4% to an estimated $222 billion in 2006. Americans are quick to respond to social needs and disasters from around the world, raising nearly $7.4 Billion in disaster relief in 2005. Examples abound such as the elderly lady who accosted an Indian in her town library after the Gujarat earthquake and offered an unsolicited $500 check to help with the victims of the terrible disaster. How many Indian Americans have been moved by a distant tragedy 10,000 miles away in China or Cambodia and stepped up and done something about it like that elderly good Samaritan?

As Indian Americans, we have a tremendous opportunity to make a significant impact in our community, both here in our adopted homeland as well as in India. The collective impact of over two million Indians can be channeled to address the intractable problems that face the world. Consider what this could mean if every Indian American:

  • Set aside just $10 per month for their favorite charity, it would generate 240 million dollars in contributions.
  • Volunteered a day a month to help an organization, it would provide over 96,000 man-years of effort that could be channeled for constructive purposes.
  • Donated the cost of just one McDonalds Value meal a year to support hunger, we could provide 80 million meals to hungry people.
  • Supported Indo-Centric programs that could educate and expose many Indians and non-Indians to our cultural heritage and history.

The time has come for the current generation of Indian Americans to move beyond a narrow personal and regional focus and to get engaged with the larger Indian community. We need to come together as a community to help support those organizations that are doing great work in addressing the numerous social issues both in the United States as well as in India. It is time we all stepped up to this challenge. Here are a few simple steps that you can take to do your bit and to get started down this path.

  • Get educated about the space. If you are uncertain about the opportunities take a first step by going to seminar or a discussion. There are several local organizations that can help expose you to innovative social entrepreneurs. TiE Boston has an active Social Entrepreneurs group that holds regular discussion sessions on a wide variety of topics and invites leading social entrepreneurs to present. NETSAP lets you learn about volunteer opportunities and get your hands dirty by working on projects at non-profits.
  • Research your choices. Look up your alternatives before you donate. Find out where your dollar will deliver the maximum impact. There are several sites that can help you with this assessment. Some include:

For Indian Americans, www.Ashoka.org is a key resource of well qualified, world class social entrepreneurs and NGOs that can use your help. Ashoka is a non-profit that has identified and supported over 2000 social entrepreneurs in 60 plus countries including several hundred in India. Ashoka looks for social entrepreneurs with innovative new ideas, reviews their professional and ethical backgrounds, conducts in-depth interviews and determines the potential country impact of the innovator’s ideas. Once selected, an Ashoka Fellow is provided a living stipend for two to four years, thereby allowing them the flexibility to focus their energies on growing and managing their organization.

  • Start small but make it a habit. Every little bit helps. Pick a charity that is close to your heart and give what you can. Set aside an annual charity budget. Determine what you can afford and spread it out over monthly payments if you need to. Most charities will help setup regular recurring donations.
  • Use your talents and your time. Money isn’t the only way to help an organization. Take an inventory of your professional skills and hobbies. What are the things you really enjoy doing. Maybe you are handy around the house or you are the local database guru. There are organizations that would value those talents. If you don’t know of one, there are sites and organizations that will match your interests with available opportunities. Some are
  • Leverage your donation. Small amounts can have even more impact when combined with others. Work with your friends to aggregate your total donations and multiply the results. Virtual communities like Kiva.org allow you to combine your support with others to create significant social impact around the world.
  • Start building your legacy. It is never too early to start thinking about your impact on society. Think about what you can do to improve or change a critical social issue. Then start taking small steps towards that goal. If you start early and keep at it, you are going to make change happen over the long run.

We hope this will begin a commitment to charity that will help enable Indian Americans to become a significant philanthropic force in America and around the world.

By       Raj Melville (raj@AmbientEngines.com)

and Samir Desai (info@desaifamilyfoundation.org)

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