Johnny Silvercloud/shutterstock
Johnny Silvercloud/shutterstock

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States, and currently make up roughly 7% of the nation’s population. New results from the 2020 U.S. Census show an increase of over 5 million in the Asian American population from 2010 through 2020. By the middle of the century, the Pew Research Center projects that the Asian American population will stand at 46 million, and that Asians will become the largest immigrant group in the country.

Despite those trends, philanthropic support for AAPI communities has badly lagged. Stereotyped by some as a “model minority” in little need of assistance, and scapegoated by others as perennial outsiders somehow responsible for COVID and other societal ills, AAPI people have also received only a trickle of 501(c)(3) support for decades.

A report published earlier this year by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) found that for every $100 given out by foundations for U.S.-based work, only 20 cents were designated for AAPI communities. And in 2018, total foundation funding in the segment stood at $174 million, not significantly higher than 2008’s figure of $143.3 million.

The lackluster state of AAPI philanthropy came into full focus early this year after the murders in Atlanta of six Asian women, a tragedy that took place against a backdrop of elevated anti-Asian hate during the pandemic. As I wrote at the time, AAPI leaders in philanthropy and the nonprofit world welcomed the increased visibility, but also worried that the spike in attention would soon fade and flatline, giving way to the same old paltry funding patterns.

Just as with philanthropic support for the racial justice movement as a whole, that remains a major concern. But there’s been a significant development in the AAPI funding space since I overviewed the situation in April: the launch of the Asian American Foundation (TAAF).

By the numbers, TAAF is certainly a game changer. The $1.1 billion it has raised so far via its AAPI Giving Challenge more than doubles the annual resources on hand for AAPI nonprofit groups over the next five years. Its infrastructure-building model and the buy-in it has earned from power players across multiple sectors also gives TAAF great potential to keep the taps flowing for AAPI advocacy.

“It has really set a new bar, in terms of funding and in terms of influence that the Asian American community has not had previously,” said Patricia Eng, president and CEO of AAPIP. “[To] garner that level of attention in a short amount of time is really powerful.”

This new organization certainly does not allay every concern around AAPI funding, nor does its scope of work cover every need. But it is a potent new force in an advocacy space that institutional philanthropy has neglected for too long, an oversight that has weakened the social justice movement as a whole.

A founding board comes together

The conversations that led to the creation of TAAF began in 2020. It was, in fact, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that first got in touch with Li Lu, founder and chairman of Himalaya Capital and current TAAF board chair, to discuss what might be done to support and protect AAPI communities as hate incidents spiked. Following those initial discussions between Li and ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, Li reached out to some of his friends in the business world to further the idea.

The group that soon came together comprises prominent AAPI businesspeople who now make up TAAF’s board along with Greenblatt and the foundation’s president, Sonal Shah. And they haven’t been afraid to put their own money on the table—between them, they’ve contributed $125 million to jumpstart TAAF and support AAPI organizations over the next five years.

In addition to Li, the founding board includes Joe Tsai, co-founder of the Alibaba Group and current owner of the Brooklyn Nets and New York Liberty; Joseph Bae, co-president of KKR; Sheila Lirio Marcelo, founder of Care.com; Jerry Yang, founder of AME Cloud Ventures and co-founder of Yahoo!; and Peng Zhao, CEO of Citadel Securities.

“This was the largest philanthropic commitment in history fully focused on supporting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” Shah said. Some of Shah’s previous roles include heading the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation during the Obama administration and running Google.org’s Global Development Initiatives.

TAAF did not share the individual amounts each board member contributed to that initial war chest. But between them, they command significant resources and are mostly new to big-time philanthropy. Tsai, for instance, with a fortune topping $10 billion, has recently been ramping up his giving alongside his wife through their low-profile Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation. Last year, the Tsais debuted a $50 million Social Justice Fund focused on racial justice and economic mobility work in Brooklyn.

Anti-hate, data and education

Though it is still very much a work in progress, TAAF intends to serve as a broad-based hub for moving nonprofit resources to AAPI communities. Direct grantmaking is one part of that, but so is partnering with other AAPI nonprofits to implement new programming. “The idea of TAAF is to provide, accelerate, convene and network resources across all these great organizations and outside,” Jerry Yang said in a video featuring thoughts from the founding board.

TAAF has structured its initial efforts around three priorities: anti-hate, data and research, and education. Its website outlines projects currently underway in each category. “TAAF has many projects in the pipeline to address anti-AAPI hate in the short-term and to build infrastructure needed to root out and address hate for the long term,” Shah said. “Our goal is to build a lasting institution while ensuring that we’re nimble and can act quickly to support AAPI communities.”

Ongoing TAAF efforts to address hate include a collaboration with Asian Americans Advancing Justice to collect data, formulate policy and provide on-the-ground responses. There’s also support for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum around the intersection of race and gender, as well as the Anti-Hate Data Group, which TAAF is jumpstarting alongside Stop AAPI Hate to develop ways to report and analyze hate incidents more comprehensively.

On the education side, there’s the Asian American Education Project, which aims to promote an AAPI history curriculum for use in K-12 schools. TAAF’s partnering there with the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, a little-known giant in the world of AAPI philanthropy. There has only been one major research project so far—a landscape analysis to determine, in part, where additional support can best be directed to serve AAPI communities.

Unprecedented fundraising

An important point to remember about TAAF is that it’s not a private grantmaking foundation, like many other top funders of AAPI nonprofits. Fundraising has been a big part of the new organization’s work so far, both to support its own initiatives and to bolster allied AAPI organizations. It has some characteristics of an operating foundation in that sense.

Just look at how it entered the scene. TAAF hit the ground running at the beginning of May 2021 with a splashy launch graced by the virtual attendance of former presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama (You-Know-Who was conspicuously absent). Ford Foundation President Darren Walker was also on hand.

At that time, TAAF invited the philanthropic and business communities to participate in its AAPI Giving Challenge, which it called “a five-year commitment to bringing sorely needed resources to under-funded AAPI communities and causes.”

Only weeks later, TAAF announced the initial results of that challenge. They were quite something—nearly $1.1 billion in pledged support to AAPI communities. That’s counting TAAF’s own haul as well as independent commitments from allied funders, some of which are in-kind or pro bono pledges rather than cash. According to TAAF, a portion of that total will go toward its own programming, but “the vast majority” will benefit AAPI communities directly. The challenge also calls for TAAF to advise some of the funders involved on how to deploy resources.

The list of funders who’ve answered TAAF’s call is impressive, to say the least. Some big names from the foundation world include Ford, MacArthur, Surdna and Andrew W. Mellon. There’s also the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the James Irvine Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the California Endowment, among others.

Looking at the foundations involved, several have been significant backers of AAPI causes in the recent past, including the California Endowment, the Ford Foundation, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, the Irvine Foundation and the Henry Luce Foundation. Others are relative newcomers to AAPI funding, at least on this level.

The list of corporations backing TAAF is far longer, reflecting the business-friendly nature of this whole affair. Many of the biggest power players in the U.S. economy are represented, including Amazon, Bank of America, Citi, Coca Cola, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Google, the NBA and the NFL, Nike, Uber, United Airlines and Walmart, to name just a few.

As it rolled out the AAPI Giving Challenge, TAAF sought and continues to seek visibility in the halls of power. According to Shah, the foundation’s board “attended a meeting at the White House on May 20th, where we discussed the groundbreaking commitment to AAPI communities, briefing Biden-Harris administration officials on our plans to deploy the committed resources across the foundation’s three priority investment areas.”

A work in progress

It’s hard to underestimate the heft of these new commitments in the world of AAPI philanthropy. Recall AAPIP’s report: If total foundation funding for AAPI causes stood at just $174 million in 2018, the AAPI Giving Challenge’s total of $1.1 billion over five years more than doubles available resources. As Jerry Yang put it, “For better or for worse, the rising hate issue has galvanized our community in a very positive way.”

Still, plenty of unknowns remain as this new 800-pound gorilla enters a relatively sparse funding space.

For one thing, the exact course of TAAF’s future work is still very much up in the air. Shah stated that addressing hate would be the main focus for the remainder of 2021, as well as building out the organization’s infrastructure. AAPIP’s Eng, who serves on TAAF’s well-populated advisory council, also talked about the foundation as a work in progress. “It’s still very early, you have to give them time. They haven’t fully developed a grantmaking strategy,” she said. “How they play in the sandbox with other institutions is just something that’s new to everyone.”

In another mark of its novelty—it’s only been around for several months—TAAF is currently fiscally sponsored by the New Venture Fund, a 501(c)(3) entity that serves that function for numerous nonprofit initiatives, often liberal or progressive in nature. New Venture Fund is one of several such vehicles in the network of fiscal sponsorship organizations associated with Arabella Advisors.

As it works out its direction, one question for TAAF will be how close it wants to get to community-level organizing. For now, its strategy appears to be one of partnership with mostly national nonprofits. The challenge will be actually ensuring that these resources reach communities on the ground. Or a portion of them, anyway—policy advocacy in D.C. and elsewhere is important, too.

Some other challenges for TAAF involve optics. “The one concern that I have is that philanthropy will look at this and say, ‘they’ve raised a billion dollars,’ and that Asian American communities do not need our money,” Eng said. Unfortunately, TAAF’s impressive debut and the leading part of business leaders in its initial rollout may also inadvertently play into the pervasive “model minority” myth, including the notion that Asian Americans are all well-off.

As its fundraising success guarantees TAAF a prominent position in the AAPI funding world, “the danger is we all expect a lot from one single institution,” Eng said. “And that’s where an ecosystem comes in. As much power and influence as they may have around, for example, a federal administration, folks closer to the ground will be able to have more expertise.”

Staying power

Despite these questions, the sudden emergence of a new funding hub is certainly cause for celebration among AAPI nonprofits. And the fact that TAAF has demonstrated such powerful fundraising and partnership-building potential is a good sign in an otherwise brittle part of the philanthrosphere, where a handful of top grantmakers tend to predominate.

Even if early 2021’s surge in attention to AAPI communities wanes, as it likely will, the fact that these commitments will go out over five years gives that otherwise brief fundraising moment some staying power. And this new money is necessary for another reason: The Wallace H. Coulter Foundation is spending down, which will take one of the key philanthropic supporters of AAPI issues off the table, especially in the realm of civic engagement.

The fact is that the issues TAAF was founded to address won’t fade with the media cycle. Like other communities of color, AAPI people experience racism, hate and discrimination on an ongoing basis, and have done so both before and during the COVID crisis. In the movement for racial equity and justice, sustained funding and engagement is vital, as is cross-racial solidarity.

“This is an opportunity for the Asian American community to practice racial solidarity in new ways,” Eng said. “It’s also a moment for philanthropy to understand that without Asian Americans in the conversation around racial equity, you don’t have a full strategy.”

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