Indian Americans are increasingly stepping up to the plate and embracing philanthropy.
Twelve year-old Sehej Ahluwalia ran a half marathon in the Bay Area in October to raise $1,000 for Pratham. 16-year-old Sejal Dave organized a fundraiser in New Jersey in 2001 that raised $40,000 for the Sankara Eye Foundation. Dave, who went on to a master’s in public health, is now working on a documentary on Sankara. Gita Narsimhan, a New Jersey college professor who has lived in the United States for 30 years returns to India periodically to volunteer for Lend-A-Hand India and is documenting the work of Vanasthali, which has set up 3,290 nursery schools in Maharashtra helping thousands of children.
“Now Indians are catching up. We’ve seen a huge ramp-up in fund-raising activities the last one year or so,” says Leona Christy, program director for Pratham USA. Pratham tackles illiteracy in India with programs like Read India, which, it claims, reached over 34 million children in India in 2008-09.
What has prompted Indian Americans to open up their heart and purse strings? Economic security for one. Indian Americans are among the most affluent ethnic groups in the United States and are striving for an identity. “Indians in America are lost between being American and Indian. They are in a flux. This drives them to go beyond barriers and identify within themselves,” says Gomathi Swami, a volunteer at Isha Foundation, which conducts yoga sessions across the United States, the proceeds of which are donated to social programs like Isha Vidhya, Project Green Hands and Action for Rural Rejuvenation.
The more financially secure are feeling an urge to give back to their country of origin. Alok Bathija, publicity coordinator for the New York-New Jersey chapter for Asha for Education says, “Most Indians in the U.S. want to give back to the country they love.” Through its 45 U.S. chapters, Asha for Education raises funds for its programs to educate underprivileged children in India. Asha has raised $4 million since its inception in 1991 to support 385 projects in 24 Indian states.
Indians, who have the highest educational attainment among all groups in the United States, are especially partial to educational philanthropy. Aside from Asha for Education, Pratham, which provides remedial education to children in Indian villages, and Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, which focuses on educating children in the tribal areas of India, are beneficiaries of their largesse. Says Partham’s Christy: “Indians are successful as an immigrant community due to their educational background. They identify education as a ticket to a better future. Due to this they see education as the best investment in a social cause.” Pratham has 10,000 individual donors who have contributed over $10 million over the years and 300 active volunteers around the United States.
In the past, many Indian Americans were apprehensive about supporting Indian nonprofits, both because they didn’t trust their integrity and also because the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) made contributing cumbersome and costly. In recent years, the government has relaxed and streamlined rules governing contributions to Indian charities and Indian nonprofits have become more professional and transparent in their operations.
Christy says, “Indians have realized that NGOs (non government organizations) do great work. At the same time Indian NGOs have also become more professional and market savvy.”
Sankara targets repeat donors by facilitating a sense of ownership amongst its volunteers and donors. It regularly sends donors certificates for every eye surgery their contribution supports, which helps donors see their impact. Seva Foundation runs a Gifts of Service program in the U.S., which helps to introduce communities to Seva.
Nonprofits are tapping not just the money, but also the expertise of Indian professionals. Sunanda Mane, president of Lend-A-Hand India, says, “LAHI attracts volunteers from diverse backgrounds. 30% are India born, 30% are Indian Americans and about 40% are Americans, which also includes a very small percentage of other nationalities.” LAHI is a small nonprofit that collaborates with dynamic grassroot nonprofits in India to provide vocational training, career development, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities to young boys and girls in rural and urban communities.
Mane says: “The group which is involved in volunteering with LAHI consists of young professionals. Besides the desire to give back to the community, personal goals such as opportunity to network, learn new skills such as event management and leadership, act as motivating factors.”
Pratham’s Christy also sees encouraging signs of involvement among younger professionals. She says: “Indians in the U.S. have evolved more in terms of learning from American culture of giving to non-profits at a young age. NRI parents are motivated to get their children involved with Indian causes and through that they feel their children will be closer to and learn more about India.”
Most nonprofits rely on word-of-mouth and low cost campaigns, such as banner exchanges and emails to generate support. Others, such as Seva, have invested in branding their identity. Says Seva’s Aaron Simon: “Our Sanskrit name, Seva, and our logo — the eyes of the Buddha — are both familiar to Indians and catch their eye when they spot us at events and when flipping through publications. Working at Seva information booths at events we often have people come up to us, explaining that they saw our logo from far and made their way over to find out what our organization was all about. When they learn of our mission and Seva’s programs in India they often request more information.”
The volunteer base of Indian nonprofits in the United States has grown tremendously in recent years. Sankara, which started with three volunteers in 1998, now has 728. Pratham says five to six volunteers sign up online every week. Volunteers organize fundraisers, help with administrative work, run local chapters and act as ambassadors for their organizations.
Some provide highly specialized and professional expertise. Seva, for instance, relies heavily on volunteer doctors, according to Simon: “We have many Indian doctors living here in the U.S. who volunteer to go abroad and work to support our programs serving the poor. Many provide direct services such as restoring eyesight to the poorest of the poor who cannot afford cataract surgery. Other’s volunteer to do health trainings like training doctors and assistants or adapting new techniques. Those who do not have time to volunteer abroad, choose to help out at Seva’s headquarters in Berkeley, California stuffing envelopes or answering phones.”
Some volunteers work full-time, others are retirees. Sankara’s Murali Krishnamurthy quit his full-time job as a software engineer to volunteer 15 to 18 hour days for Sankara. According to Arun Bhansali, Share and Care Foundation (SCF) has “40 volunteers who gave consistently 400 hours every year for last 27 years. Their current earning power in their profession is average $75 per hour.”
Volunteers are often overwhelmed by the impact of their work. Bhansali relates how a team of NRI physicians returned to a SCF medical camp in Rajkot to see that the malnourished and unkempt children they had treated a year earlier were now thriving. The physicians got such a heart-warming reception from the children, most of who had never seen a physician before, that they signed up to return the next year at their own cost.
Indian nonprofits are also becoming increasingly savvy about tapping corporations and foundations for support. SCF secured a $500,000 grant from Lucent and nearly $500,000 in medical equipment and supplies from several hospitals and physicians, which has allowed it to invest $58 million in 850 programs with nearly 500 Indian nonprofits over the past several decades.
Nearly 200 Cisco employees donate to Sankara and their donations are matched by the company dollar for dollar. Pratham’s Seattle chapter has a deal with Microsoft under which the company makes a contribution to Pratham for every hour a Microsoft employee volunteers with the organization. Pratham has also received $9 million over three years from 2007-2009 from Hewlett Packard in partnership with the Gates Foundation as well as from the philanthropic arm of Google.
The overwhelming thrust of Indian American philanthropy has long been, and continues to be, directed at India. However as the community population grows and a new generation steps into the public sphere, Indian Americans are also turning to local causes.
Organizations such as Sakhi and Manavi serve domestic violence victims in the South Asian community; SAYA (South Asian Youth Action) promotes social change and opportunities for South Asian youth; South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) fosters civic and political participation among South Asians. This new focus in Indian American civic participation is highlighted by the 40,000 sq. ft. India Community Center (ICC) in Milpitas, Calif., which offers a wide range of social, cultural, recreational and community programs. Established only in 2003, the ICC has risen rapidly to become one of the largest Indian nonprofit organizations in the country, with assets exceeding $20 million.
Navigating and balancing the competing needs of its own community in the United States against the crucial lifeline that overseas Indian financial support provides to causes for the poor, women and children in India may well be the biggest challenge facing the Indian philanthropic community in the years ahead.