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Why is Funding for AAPI Organizations So Low?

AAPI Data’s new report on the state of philanthropy shows that AAPI nonprofit organizations continue to remain a low priority for grantmakers. But why?

There’s a running joke that if you want to learn how to be resourceful, you get a job in the nonprofit sector.

In the years I spent working at a Japanese American nonprofit in Little Tokyo, I learned how to wear different hats, repurpose the materials we already had, and most importantly “get creative,” which is a vague term that basically translates to “we have no money – figure it out.”

Nonprofit organizations are notorious for being underfunded and understaffed, and it was something I knew going into my job. But it wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized just how underfunded Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) nonprofit organizations are, specifically. According to AAPI Data’s “State of Philanthropy among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders” report released in September, AAPI communities continue to rank low in priority among grantmaking foundations, despite the fact that they’re the fastest-growing racial groups in the United States.

There are more than 23 million AAPIs living in the U.S. today, but AAPI Data’s report shows that the amount of funding that has been given to AAPI organizations has barely increased with the population over the years. Back in 1992, a report by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) found that of the $19 billion awarded by foundations from 1983 to 1990, just $35 million (.18 percent!) was given to AAPI organizations. In a more recent analysis, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE) found that in 2014, only .26 percent of all foundation dollars were awarded to AAPIs.

While I wasn’t shocked to see that foundation support for communities of color is low in general, I was curious as to why giving to AAPIs ranks near the bottom of community priorities along with Middle Eastern/North African and Native American communities, according to AAPI Data’s survey of foundation board members, staff members, and leaders.

Yes, it’s true that AAPIs comprise less of the population than other communities like Black and Latinx populations, which could be a possible explanation for why funding is lower. I also considered the model minority myth. Do foundations and grantmakers view AAPI groups as less in need of financial support because they perceive us all to be “successful”?

The report seems to think so.

“AAPIs are often the overlooked and almost invisible population, and model minority myth is still strong and pervasive, both within and outside of philanthropy,” a local foundation senior program officer wrote in their survey.

There are more than 23 million AAPIs living in the U.S. today, but AAPI Data’s report shows that the amount of funding that has been given to AAPI organizations has barely increased with the population over the years.

This model minority way of thinking also tends to group all AAPIs together and ignores the fact that our communities are not a monolith. Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, for example, have high levels of poverty and low levels of household income. But without this knowledge, foundation leadership will continue viewing AAPIs as one homogenous group with the same needs. Possible solutions include educating foundation leadership on AAPI communities or advocating for more AAPIs in leadership roles so they can have opportunities to make decisions.

“The only thing that will move us to action (rather than just talking about it) is if there’s turnover of senior white staff,” wrote a multi-state foundation staff member.

But what about COVID-19?

Due to the increase in anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes as a result of the pandemic and its ties to China, I wondered if our community’s visibility would have an impact on the way that local and national foundations viewed us. My research found that there were foundations that launched response funds – the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF), for example, started a “Racism is a Virus, Too” fund to support organizations that provide services for AAPI communities.

I’m interested, however, in seeing whether these foundations keep their commitments to AAPI communities long after COVID-related racism has died down. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities are currently seeing COVID infection rates that are up to five times that of white people in LA County, and these numbers are similar elsewhere in the United States. This data alone highlights the health care disparities that NHPIs face and is a stark example of why AAPI organizations should not be discounted by foundations.

“The only thing that will move us to action (rather than just talking about it) is if there’s turnover of senior white staff,” wrote a multi-state foundation staff member.

For the activists and nonprofit leaders who have been struggling to get grant support for AAPI organizations, none of this is new information. Organizations have worked to support themselves for years in the absence of foundation grants through giving circles and other forms of community philanthropy. There have been a few notable investments from foundations in the last few years, such as AAPI outreach for the Affordable Care Act enrollment from major funders like The California Endowment.

Within my own bubble, I recently learned that the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo was awarded a $5.5 million grant from the Ford Foundation as one of 20 Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous arts and cultural organizations designated as “America’s Cultural Treasures.” The initiative was created as a direct response to COVID’s economic impact on arts and cultural institutions, with the Museum of Chinese in America being another recipient.

I'm not a longtime activist nor am I a nonprofit executive, so I can't predict the state of philanthropy in the next five years or even the next five months. There’s no denying, though, that there needs to be a major increase in awareness of the organizations serving AAPI communities and the unique issues our communities face, and an increase in funding to match.

Some questions I would ask grantmakers today:

  • What systems do you have in place to educate you about the needs of the various communities applying for your grants?
  • What have you done to diversify your leadership? What opportunities do you have for employees of color to advance?
  • Are you making an effort to look at disaggregated data when assessing AAPI community needs?

You can view AAPI Data's State of Philanthropy report in full here.

Download it!
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