In this Season 2 webinar of the Equity and Justice in Collective Giving Series, Asian Women Giving Circle (AWGC) Founder Hali Lee joins Chitra Aiyar, a past grantee and longtime collaborative partner with Hali and AWGC, to discuss the ways collective giving allows us to reimagine power in philanthropy.
Over the past sixteen years, AWGC has provided transformative grants to artists and changemakers. What makes their approach unique, however, are the close relationships AWGC has created with their grantees, as well as the open lines of communication between AWGC members and the communities they serve.
In this webinar, Hali and Chitra discuss the ways those power dynamics – between funder and fundee – have changed over 16 years of transformative giving.
- As giving circle and philanthropic organization leadership shifts away from high-net-worth (HNW) individuals (a nonprofit’s wealthy founder, for example) to more diverse leadership (a diverse board of leaders who come from varied socioeconomic backgrounds), those organizations’ fundraising strategies also go through periods of change. To that end, it is important for giving circles to think about both fundraising and funding in nontraditional ways, rather than relying solely on HNW individual donations or finding traditional “boxes” that potential grantees can fit into.
- The power dynamics between a giving circle and their grantees are very different compared to the power dynamics between a “traditional funder” or HNW individual donor and the person or groups they fund. Giving circles offer more democratized methods of giving, where diverse voices contribute their opinions and lived experiences, allowing the group to make more informed grantmaking decisions together.
- In Hali and Chitra’s personal experiences, giving circles position members more as “aunties cheering from the sidelines” than as strict funders with strict instructions for their grantees. The collaborative nature of giving circles, along with the close ties many giving circle members form with their funded communities, allows for a much more impactful experience for grantees and grantmakers alike.
- Another way giving circles can offer more support to potential applicants than leaders from more traditional methods of philanthropy is by providing feedback on the grant application process. Providing context about the number and type of grant applications a giving circle received for a particular grant cycle, for example, helps rejected applicants better prepare for future applications. At the same time, collecting feedback from all applicants, regardless of whether or not they received funding, can make future grantmaking processes more equitable and collaborative for giving circles and their communities.
Kelsey Barowich [Starting at 01:40]: I’d like to give a very brief introduction to our two speakers for today. I’m so excited to introduce Hali Lee: she is the co-founder of the Donors of Color Network. This is the first-ever national project that is researching, engaging, and networking with high-net-worth individual donors of color across race, ethnicity, and life experience. She is a co-designer of [Philanthropy Together], so I am really excited to have her in the space today. She’s also a founder of the Asian Women Giving Circle.
With her is also Chitra, a member of the steering committee for the Asian Women Giving Circle, and a former grantee. Chitra has 25 years of experience working as a legal services attorney and executive director of a feminist youth nonprofit, and as an adjunct professor. Currently, Chitra is completing an LLM in taxation at NYU Law and is very enthusiastic about the overlap between tax and giving circles. So that is a very unique niche that I’m curious to see if it comes up today!
And with that, I’m going to pass it off to the two of them to have a great conversation. I’ll be spotlighting them, so you all can see them a bit better. With that, take it away, y’all!
Hali Lee: Thank you, Kelsey! It’s really nice to be on this call with my buddy Chitra, and I think it’s our first time being on a Zoom stage together.
Chitra Aiyar: Yes, I think it is!
Hali Lee: That’s kind of fun! We’re going to talk about power today. Chitra will be a really wonderful conversational partner because we first met when she was a volunteer and board member of Andolan, which was a group that was formed in 1998 by low-wage South Asian people in New York City. This group organizes and advocates on behalf of South Asian immigrant workers, with particular focus on Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian, Nepalese, and Sri Lankan workers in retail, food, and domestic work industries.
We also furthered our acquaintance with each other when she was the Executive Director of the Sadie Nash Project, an empowerment organization for young girls acting “as agents for changing their lives and in the world operating at the intersection of love and rigor,” which I think is a beautiful statement. I happen to know the woman who founded Sadie Nash – she’s my neighbor. And that’s one of the juicy things we’re going to get into as we talk about power in this weird sector called philanthropy.
For myself, I started the Asian Women Giving Circle 16 years ago, I think – oh my goodness! Unbelievable! We can’t be that old, but we are. So we can dive into what that’s been like over the tenure of our time together.
We started the giving circle in 2005-2006. We’ve moved $1.5 million to Asian American women and gender-expansive folks in New York City who use the tools of arts and culture to bring about equitable social change in their neighborhoods as they define it. We’re all volunteers, and we’re fiscally sponsored at the Ms. Foundation. It’s kind of cool to have a fiscal host who is values-aligned and mission-aligned with the work that we’re trying to build in the world.
So, Chitra – hi, my friend! Good to see you! We’re also neighbors. I would like you to riff on this idea about power in our sector, the power dynamics inherent in a funder-fundee relationship and in philanthropy. Also, for you particularly – and I’ve been there, too – the power dynamics inherent in being an executive director of color and fundraising often from white folks.
Chitra Aiyar: I like that we’re starting juicy! We’re not going slow. I want to talk about both things. I was a volunteer with this group called Andalan, which was started and run by domestic workers. I was a volunteer and then a board member. We were funded by the Asian Women’s Giving Circles. Actually, we were rejected once, maybe twice, but funded twice also – I think that’s important to say. In general, the organization was an organizing group, so we were organizing for wages, for a standard contract for domestic workers, better immigration status, and we did some services – some help with ESL and other things.
I think the type of funding we were able to get was these two groups: what dramatic structural change will you do? In this case, you’re often trying to say that you’re going to accomplish more than what is often realistic, or you’re doing traditional charity – we’re helping poor immigrant women. We had this idea to do a theater project that was written by domestic workers about domestic workers. When I shopped it around, [the reaction was], “What will this lead to? What is the change that will happen? What is their empowerment?” And it wasn’t clear – it was just something they wanted to do, right? It was to their agency.
I think that’s an important thing – I think a lot about the ways in which programs and activities become constrained based on what type of funding is available and what box you can easily slot yourself into. One is that we were funded to do this theater project where they wrote their own stories and then performed [them]. I had originally thought it was going to be about domestic work and about how challenging it was, and contribute to the broader campaign for domestic worker rights. In fact, when this amazing theater artist (inaudible) worked with them, many people wanted to tell stories about the war in Bangladesh, [or] their child.
I have this critique of funders, like, “You want us to fit into boxes! How dare you!” And yet, I also thought the tragedy or the big narrative of their lives was domestic work, when in fact – for some people, yes, but for some people it wasn’t their primary identity. They were acting, and they were saying what their main story was, and they’re obviously three-dimensional folks. That was a useful learning process for me because I think there are power dynamics and all of us, regardless of the amount of power we have, have the same types of blind spots. For example, wanting things to fit.
In terms of fundraising in general, I think many people find fundraising really challenging. I think there are those few people who are like, “I love the joy of connecting and giving people the opportunity to connect!” I’ve had moments like that, but often it feels exhausting, particularly when you’re fundraising for your own salary.
When you inherit an organization – I’ve heard this story many times – there are lots of stories about the challenge of succeeding a founder of an organization. There is increasingly attention paid to what it means to succeed a white founder. There are lots of challenges; there are fundraising challenges if you don’t come in with the same network of people.
I think a lot about who contributes: if there are some people who dropped off because they were related to [the founder], for example. Someone encouraged me, the development director, to have my parents donate, which was like $250. It doesn’t make up necessarily for a check from somebody’s mother that was $25,000, you know? I think a lot about how there’s a big push toward community fundraising, grassroots fundraising. I feel like I was really successful in dramatically increasing the number of donors, but it was often small-dollar donors, and that often requires a ton of work to manage. Yes, events are more diverse – there are positives, but the sheer volume of having to steward lots and lots of small things versus a few people who give a lot is a challenge that we don’t talk about enough.
One of the reasons we don’t talk about it is, for people who have wealth within their networks, it’s still challenging to make an ask around fundraising. It’s very hard for people to say, “Oh, I’m super privileged. I come from wealth. I have this great network that gives my organization a ton of money.” I don’t think anyone actually feels that way because they have the discomfort of fundraising. But there is a reality of having a network that is accustomed to making donations and can make donations of huge amounts. So I think that it is something that is challenging to talk about.
Even if one has that network, it doesn’t necessarily feel like they’re so well off, because they have to still make the ask, and that’s hard. It’s hard for all of us – we can all fundraise. There are lots of skills to improve fundraising, but there is a reality of having more money. I mean, entrepreneurs, right? There’s some statistic, which is like, the thing that most entrepreneurs have in common is that they come from money, which means they have a safety net. You can have your skills, and there are all these things that you can do, but at the end of the day what really helps is coming from money because you have that safety net.
For fundraising, you can work on your pitch and make your lists and get better at lots of things, but it’s really helpful to come from a network with money. I don’t think we talk about that. Maybe because we’re trying to empower people, we focus on the skills we’re trying to develop, but I think it does a disservice. People think there’s something wrong with them if they’re not able to fundraise, versus recognizing that a lot of it is coming from networks with money, and that’s a hard thing to build. That’s not necessarily a skill.
Hali Lee: That’s just a reality of our America right now, with the wealth gap the way it is. A tiny percentage, the top one percent, hold something like forty percent of the nation’s wealth. The reality is that it’s a racialized wealth gap, as well. Chitra, I’ve been there too as an ED and also as a person of color. You kind of have to do both, right? The demands of that job, it’s the hardest job in the whole world, first of all. I never, ever want to do that job again – I don’t know how you feel about it.
Chitra Aiyar: Hard agree, yeah.
Hali Lee: You work for an explicitly feminist organization, and the first-wave feminists funded a lot of really cool stuff. They laid the groundwork for a lot of women’s funds and women’s organizations who are doing good work to this day, but first-wave feminists in this country were very, very white, right? So as an ED and as a woman of color, of a feminist organization, you’re supposed to kind of nurture and grow that community of funders and donors, at the same time that you’re being tasked with growing a community of, for lack of a better word, “everyday donors” who might be more diverse. It’s just one of the almost impossible demands made on executive directors who are women of color.
Chitra Aiyar: One of the things that was interesting was that I did some asking around to other youth organizations, like, “What’s your gift get?” $5,000 or $10,000 is pretty standard in New York. Yet, when I looked at what people were getting from their broker, it’d be like $400,000, but it was hidden because it was in the gala because there’s somebody who buys a big table, or does this other thing. And again, I don’t think those people thought they were actually getting all this money – one of the things I realized is that when you have a board of people who might have income and are ready to give, but don’t have huge amounts, everyone is giving around the same amount. If you don’t have one super-wealthy person who’s able to subsidize the other folks, it’s a different look. There’s this big push to diversify boards, and I understand it, but I feel like it ignores a reality of how fundraising works. Again, if you look at people’s financials, often there’s the board’s direct giving, but then stuff is hidden in galas. We’re not necessarily honest about the difference in what people are able to give. I understand that it’s very important – the Donors of Color Network is amazing, you’ve done amazing work. There is money to give, but there is an actual wealth gap. The expectation that you will both raise as much money and have this diverse board doesn’t make sense, because you aren’t solving the wealth gap. It brings up lots of questions about optics versus the reality of what people are able to give.
Hali Lee: Totally, Chitra. I’ll share a couple of things from that study. I’ve interviewed more than a hundred and fifty wealthy people of color across the country at this point, and I wrote a paper that shares the stories and themes from 113 of them. Just to share a quick little snapshot of their wealth, 113 wealthy people of color in 10 cities across the US, the mean annual giving of these folks was $87,000. So, every year, the mean was $87,500. The range in annual giving was $4,000 to $17 million.
The lower end were the next generators who weren’t in full control of their families’ assets and giving power yet. 22% of the people that we interviewed reported liquid net assets north of $30 million, which puts them in an ultra-high net wealth category, according to most banking and philanthropic data. So, only a quarter of the people we interviewed self-reported liquid net assets, which means removing the value of your primary home, north of $30 million.
The researchers and I had our own biases about the wealth of the people of color that we were finding. We were surprised ourselves, because of our own biases, how wealthy the people we found were. Almost a quarter of them are “ultra-high net wealth.” So, we all have biases that we bump up against. We had to revise our fill-in-the-bubble sheet. We revised it upwards to reflect higher levels of wealth because we just didn’t anticipate we would find such wealthy folks.
For the next few minutes, Hali and Chitra took comments and questions from the audience.
Hali Lee: Let’s go to giving circles! Giving circles are not perfect by any means, but there are some ways that just intrinsically, because of the way many of us are organized, switch up the power dynamic that’s so inherent in traditional philanthropy. What are some ideas that come to you about how collective giving and giving circles can do that?
Chitra Aiyar: There are two sets of relationships here, right? There is the relationship between being in a giving circle and to a grantee, which is often much more proximate in terms of often being in the same neighborhood. Or there isn’t necessarily the same distance. It’s flexible, so there are interesting power dynamics. They’re very different power dynamics. You’re still giving out money. Not everyone is getting selected, so there’s obviously a power imbalance, but there are ways of upending that. It’s a messy learning process, but there’s a lot more room to play with things.
Then, because giving circles are not a formal institution that have all the institutional constraints of changing approaches – I think that’s bucket number one. There is also, then, the power dynamic between traditional philanthropy and giving circles, if I can say that. There is an opportunity to be like, “Oh, I kind of understand what you do, because I’m a donor also.” You have that sense – I don’t know the stats on giving circles, but I think that if you’re in a giving circle, that isn’t the same as having a family foundation or being a huge donor. There is an opportunity to upend power dynamics of who gets to be a donor and feel like you’ve contributed to these people. You can be like, “Oh, that’s me!” That upends power dynamics. When we’re talking about donors, who are we talking about?
The third bucket, which is not fully articulated because I hadn’t thought about it until this moment, is the interesting power dynamics of democracy: trying to figure out who should get the money, that voting and vetting process. It’s interesting, in the Asian Women Giving Circle that Hali started, it’s intergenerational, which is one of the most exciting reasons that I joined. There’s sort of “non-profity” people and corporate people, and people with different politics. There are some traditional hierarchies, like being deferential to elders or people who have more money, that are not at play when the voting happens around projects. That’s very interesting because it allows for people to have different relationships with one another as peers. They’re working on making decisions on who to give money to. That is messy and super exciting, in part because I think Hali has done such a good job of recruiting people who are really different, in age and wealth and careers. It’s just nice to be engaging in these questions without being deferential to, necessarily, the person who is older or who has more money.
That’s a really interesting way, because it changes the way we interact with one another.
Hali Lee: Our age range now is like young thirties to young eighties, which I think is kind of cool! We had a 20-something member, but she left – I don’t know where she went.
Chitra Aiyar: You’re a master of calling people out on this thing that’s getting recorded, but okay. [Laughs]
Hali Lee: It’s a real strength that we have different generations in our group. We range across a lot of different Asian American ethnicities and identities, in terms of countries of origin and cultures of origin and immigration status to this country.
Chitra Aiyar: Right, that’s important.
Hali Lee: Across different times, our families have found their way here, and also in terms of how our families are made up. I’m proud of that diversity across a lot of different parameters, not all, of course, but across some important ones.
One of my favorite compliments ever given to us was Kate Rigg, who is a several-time grantee partner, also known as Slanty-Eyed Mama, Juilliard-trained artist, classical musician, spoken word, dance, poetry, performance activist. She told us years ago that we were her first funder ever who looked like her. We were both crying when we had this conversation. She spoke about how meaningful it was to her personally, someone who goes after lots of different kinds of grants for her art and also for her activism, how meaningful it was to get some money from a group of Asian American women like her. She called us aunties, cheering on the sidelines. I love that description of us so much. I strive to be an auntie cheering on the sidelines in lots of the circles I’m in, including oftentimes for my sisters in the giving circle. We go to each other’s book events and each other’s comedy shows and each other’s birthday parties. If one of us is sick, we cook for each other. We do have an auntie vibe, which is really nice. Chitra, I don’t know if you know, but I’m writing a book – we need to talk about this.
Chitra Aiyar: Congratulations!
Hali Lee: Thank you! This week, my agent is hopefully selling the book. One of the chapters is loosely about leadership and the kind of role that we can choose to stand in, to lead a giving circle. In social change, I feel like there are certainly certain situations that call for a “generalissimo” kind of leadership stance, but not many. More often, a leadership position that’s more like an auntie or a coach or a guncle – a gay uncle – or something along those lines, is more fitting to the job at hand. Not always – certain political situations call for a more hierarchical “generalissimo” position. In many of our situations, it’s really not that kind of role that’s required.
This idea of aunties cheering on the sidelines – Chitra, you’re in the book proposal because you called me “Nudger in Chief.” I want to talk about what it means to be a “good nudger” versus an “annoying nudger.” Riff on that a little, leadership while being an auntie and being a nudge.
Chitra Aiyar: You’re so good at it. One of the things that I really enjoy is the fact that you’re good at encouraging different people to do different things, and getting people to step up without making them feel guilty, and without you yourself becoming a martyr. You push people, but you don’t martyr yourself. You’ve got good boundaries. You extend a ton of grace when people aren’t showing up. You recognize that life happens. For example, I have classes in the evenings which is why I have not been attending anything recently.
I don’t want to say that you are the giving circle, because obviously there are a lot of personalities, but I do think it takes somebody who is committed to the long haul. The process is important, more than “every time we’re getting exactly the right people!” That puts in a lot of stress – how are we making the selection? I have never been at one of these vetting and voting parties where everybody agrees. Everyone at the end is both happy and miserable, because somebody you’ve been excited about has gotten funding, and somebody has not.
We’ve tried out different formulas. Part of the energy of it is the idea that it’s so fun to be doing this together, and even getting the chance to just fund these people and feel invested in their success, and having these relationships with these artists, versus, “Did we get the right ones?”
One of the things I have noticed is this changing way that we are supporting organizations or projects. People have different takes on artistic excellence versus super activist versus experimental versus “they’re giving other people support so we get to jump on that” versus “they have nothing!” So I think part of what’s been interesting is the goal not necessarily being like, “Let us get this right,” but “Let’s try out different things and learn from it.”
Maybe there isn’t any “100% correct” way, right? That is another power dynamic that is inherent within philanthropy, of like, “Oh, the best organizations get funded, and if you’re not getting funded, you’re doing something wrong.” Actually being on this side, it depends on who’s at the table, it depends who’s advocating loudly. It depends on all these factors that make me realize how it’s great that we all get to engage with it AND it’s not a science. That can be frustrating, but it also helps me thinking when I’m applying for things, knowing that the people on the other end are people. They have opinions. One of the things that I pitched when I joined, having been a grantee but also a rejected applicant, was that we should give feedback to people who got rejected. Everybody wanted feedback.
It was great because for some people, they were like, “I can’t believe you’re willing to do that.” That felt important. I’m a regular person and we’re humans – we’re still excited about you. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a proposal where, like, these people are bad. But at some point, I stopped advocating for this one [group] because I was asking, “Why do I have these ideas that just keep producing so much work for myself?” At some point, I don’t know why someone didn’t get funded. Or, I don’t know how to say, “Here’s why you didn’t get funded this year. Here’s what you can do next year.”
Like, we had five projects about transnational Korean adoptees this year, so we could only pick one. I don’t know if we’ll have any next year. This year, somebody was super vocal about wanting to do something linked to the elections, because they felt really strongly about it. Will they feel this way next year? I have no idea.
So part of the challenge was wanting to give people feedback so that they can feel supportive, but then also being like, “What am I doing?” Unless there’s something objective, like something was missing or we didn’t see the application, part of what I’ve realized is how much is based on the people in the room. That might be true in general. I wish more people were honest about it, although it’s kind of devastating.
For the next few minutes, Chitra and Hali answered questions from the audience about how to make feedback more useful for rejected grantees. A few key learnings included explaining the general topics of other grantee applications – for example, telling rejected applicants that there were too many applications for similar projects, and why the giving circle chose the application they chose. Chitra suggested asking the grantees which parts of the application process were most useful to them, in order to improve the application process in the future.
Hali Lee: Chitra, make the case – how are taxes like collective philanthropy?
Chitra Aiyar: Essentially, we’re giving money to the government, and then decisions are made about where that money goes. We vote for representatives who divvy that money up, right? That’s what taxes are. A giving circle does not give to the best – it’s never, “We gave to everyone I loved!” Probably everyone in the giving circle is like, “Well, other people don’t have the right opinion on things.” It’s messy democracy. We all put money in, but that money doesn’t always get directed exactly where we want it to. We do have some input on it, and we got to engage in the process.
I love that giving circles are growing in excitement. I feel sad that people aren’t excited about paying their taxes, because that’s exactly the same thing. When people are like, “Ugh, that’s terrible – it’s the government!” No, that’s just participatory grantmaking on a larger stage. Participatory budgeting and other things that are going on in your city create this nice hybrid where you can support the city council and vote for activities, but it is really important to give where you live. It’s important to have an opportunity to be in a giving circle because it changes dynamics. There is a larger question of, “Why aren’t all these people being funded? Why isn’t there support for artists and after school programs?” I want to both encourage support and simultaneously say there should be more government support for all of this. It should not be privatized. Just because we get to feel special that we supported them, we should want more support generally for this cause. I don’t think the two things are at odds.
I do think that sometimes when people get super excited about philanthropy and nonprofits and giving circles, it’s sort of as an alternative to a structure that could provide a lot of things and also operate on the very same principles. The challenge is to hold both of these [ideas], because the more that the government does, the less pressure there is [for giving circles] to find the “best” organization, because it means that there are other things happening. We get to support things we’re excited about and contribute, but it shouldn’t feel good for the pressure to be on nonprofit and private philanthropy, whether that be foundations or giving circles, to solve all of the societal issues that often come from a lack of government funding.
It’s important to do both. People should be excited about their taxes.
Hali Lee: I love that so much. Do you know what the size of it is? Philanthropy in the US is about $450 billion. Does anyone know how big our US government is in terms of how many trillions [of dollars the government has to spend]? Kelsey, do you know?
Kelsey Barowich: You’re asking the hard questions of someone who left the public policy field, but it’s a lot, y’all!
Hali Lee: A statistic from the Freedom School of Philanthropy says that US philanthropy is about $485 billion. And the US government [budget] is $6.5 trillion. It’s so much more. Then if you look at the private sector, capital markets and US equity markets were up to about $51 trillion. Of that, $1.1 trillion was invested in impact investment – values-aligned investments. If we care about moving our values in the world, which is another way of thinking about power, philanthropy as a lever is like this big – [holding up a pinch] – as compared to US tax policy and capital markets, how we’re using our invested dollars, how our capital is working for or against the values that we express.