CALIFORNIA

'Giving circles' plant seeds of philanthropy in Asian American communities

Three platters of juicy dumplings landed on the table as the donors, who gather once a year, sprinkled their strategizing with talk of dipping sauces.

For members of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Islander Giving Circle, the meeting is a chance to mingle and celebrate their efforts to fund causes like the Chinese Parents Assn. for the Disabled and Tafesilafa'i — a cultural festival in Long Beach. The event, which in 17 years never earned a profit, received a $3,000 grant from the giving circle to use for publicity.

"What happens if some of us don't get involved and these groups are even more marginalized? How will people understand the heart of Asian Americans unless we highlight their work?" said Leslie Ito, the circle's founder.

"You don't need to be Bill Gates to donate to your community, especially when that community has huge needs — unmet by traditional philanthropy," Ito said. "In our group, you can offer any amount. Then we find others."

According to Noelle Ito of the national organization, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy the stereotype that Asians excel in business and academics often can hurt those communities when it comes to securing charitable support.

"People naturally give to the homeless or the elderly. Yet when it comes to Asians, they're led to believe we're all successful, that we rarely experience illness or setbacks. But that's so far from true," she said.

As senior director of community philanthropy, Ito said she is focused on recruiting the next generation of donors and encouraging Asian Americans who have experienced some success to help out fellow immigrants.

Imagine starting a giving circle just for grandmothers. Or tech enthusiasts. Or the Queer Justice Fund, dedicated to boosting visibility of LGBT groups.

By Ito's accounting, more than four dozen giving circles in California and across the U.S. have distributed $2.2 million to more than 400 groups in the last six years.

The circles typically partner with a registered charitable foundation, whose staff handles the grant distribution process. Citing a 2007 study released by her organization, Ito said that less than 1% of all mainstream foundation funding in the U.S. goes to Asian American groups.

And that makes private donors critical.

"If we don't help ourselves, we never advance," Leslie Ito said.

As head of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles, she said she has seen how charities regularly depend on one source. For example, the late George Aratani, who started the Mikasa china company, gave millions of dollars to restore historical buildings in Little Tokyo and help finance the Japanese American National Museum.

But in today's competitive business environment, that won't work.

"There's not enough of these major figures," Leslie Ito said. "Still, every single one of us can be our own philanthropist. And when you combine your money in a giving circle, the dynamics are in place to do so much good."

So she recruited her friends, who recruited their friends. In seven years, members of her circle have donated more than $72,000 to 22 Asian American Pacific Islander organizations around Los Angeles, according to group President Geneva Tien.

Those who give at least $250 per year have a say in selecting the grantees, Tien said. "Really, it's low commitment. There's no contract or quota — it's just a way for us to maximize our power, raising money for causes in the vast Asian community that are overlooked by mainstream sources."

The Khmer Parents Assn. in Long Beach is one group that has benefited from the L.A. Asian Pacific Islander Giving Circle's generosity.

Chan Hopson, who co-founded the organization with her husband, said a $3,000 gift went toward educating women from Cambodia about how to balance life in America with maintaining a native culture rich in history and tradition.

Some small groups "survive only by this type of donation," Hopson said. "I really admire these people for launching the circle idea."

Noelle Ito and Tracey Doi, Toyota group vice president and chief financial officer, introduced the giving circle concept to company employees. But rather than one circle, the workers formed 10. Toyota and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy match the donations raised.

"Just think, this wouldn't even exist if we didn't have energy, inspiration and a belief that Asian Americans can unite to bring more attention to needs within our cultures," Doi said.

Two $5,000 scholarships for the study of science, technology, engineering or math in college, funded by Toyota's giving circles, recently went to high school seniors. "This is how we celebrate community achievement," Doi said. "The circle is expanding."

anh.do@latimes.com

Twitter: @newsterrier

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