Home > Magazine > Cover Story > The Charitable Indian-American: How, why, and where we like to give of our money and time


The Charitable Indian-American: How, why, and where we like to give of our money and time

By Sucheta Rawal Email By Sucheta Rawal
May 2011
The Charitable Indian-American: How, why, and where we like to give of our money and time The world’s five wealthiest people, according to Forbes magazine, include two Indians—Mukesh Ambani and Lakshmi Mittal. Bain & Company, a global management consulting firm, found that India currently has 115,000 high-net-worth individuals. This elite group is growing faster in India than anywhere else in the world, at an average of 11 percent annually. Yet individuals (and corporations) account for only 10 per cent of charitable giving in India. Nearly 65 percent is donated by India’s central and state governments, with a focus on disaster relief.

On the other hand, in the United States, individuals account for 75 percent of charitable giving. Forty of America’s wealthiest families and investors have signed up with Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and billionaire investor Warren Buffett to give at least half their wealth to charity.

Would the fast-growing masses of wealthy Indians be inclined to be as philanthropic?

Perhaps one reason Indians are not among the leaders in charitable giving is that, traditionally, organizational giving hasn’t been a big part of our culture. As a society that emphasizes the community over the individual, taking care of each other is ingrained among us—but in an innate and informal way. The close-knit extended family meant caring for and helping other family members, be it emotionally or financially. “A sense of personal care and empathy is quite strong in our culture, but the concept of institutionalizing (it) was not there before,” says Vijay Vemulapalli, board member of Vibha, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of underprivileged children in India.  

In the Indian way, charity meant giving alms to beggars on streets or donating money to temples and religious organizations. Wealthy industrialists in India such as the Birla family are known for building several temples, but not for other philanthropic activities. There is little formal infrastructure of professional charitable organizations.

Although a healthy culture of non governmental organizations (NGOs) has mushroomed in the country, driven mostly by sheer need, their functioning, up to a large extent, remains rudimentary. E. S. Ramamurthy, founder of the Sikshana Foundation, a nonprofit that has made a considerable impact on public schools in India, believes Indians are not savvy givers. “They seldom take interest and ask how the money is going to be used, or demand results.” As a result, observes Ramamurthy, who retired from a corporate career, the non-profit industry in India has very little transparency and accountability. That is why, in a counterproductive cycle, many Indians are highly skeptical that their donations will reach the right people.

Not surprisingly, when Indian immigrants first came to the U.S., they were often missing in action in the area of charitable giving. For one, the first generation was primarily focused on settling in a new country, with emphasis on education and career. They may have appeared downright uncharitable in a country where service and charity are quite visibly stressed and institutionalized. The U.S. ranked #9 in a list of Most Generous Countries in 2008. The average American sees volunteering and giving a portion of one’s wealth as good Christian traits. And even though the society is individualistic on many levels, there is also an overriding emphasis on the common good of the community. Americans see value in building shelters for the homeless, volunteering in soup kitchens, or even donating for disaster relief in far-off places.

But as the community has grown and stabilized over the decades, and its institutions matured, Indian Americans have caught on to giving and volunteering in a big way. Hardly a month passes without major fundraising events in the community. Organizations such as Vibha, Raksha, Asha for Education, Association for India’s Development (AID), Ekal Vidyalaya and many others like these are vibrant and active in serving various causes. And it’s not just Indian causes that are the beneficiaries. Annual traditions such as the Partnership Walk by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and the Walkathon by BAPS Charities (benefiting Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta) are raising thousands of dollars for both local as well as international humanitarian causes—thus making the charitable efforts of Indian-Americans felt outside their core communities.

Such outreach and engagement by Indian immigrants in giving back to the community was first seen in the aftermath of September 11. Financial aid and volunteer help from the community poured into the disaster relief efforts soon after the twin towers fell. BAPS Charities (formerly known as BAPS Care), a wing of the global Swaminarayan Sanstha, was one of the earliest organizations to register with the State Emergency Management Office (SEMO) in New York City. A BAPS team of ten physicians and 250 local volunteers was risking their lives along with other emergency workers, even as the smoke from the fallen towers was still thick over the city.

Indeed, BAPS enjoys a robust network of over 4,000 volunteers from its 46 centers all around the U.S. Inspired by their spiritual head, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, these volunteers are ready to offer disaster relief, often within hours of the disaster. Among the army of volunteers are over 250 medical professionals, some of whom are trained in emergency procedures as first-responders.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, BAPS volunteers were among the first emergency relief workers to arrive. Mike Zito, the fire chief of Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, recognized BAPS Charities for being the first to offer hot meals in the New Orleans metropolitan area in the aftermath of Katrina. About 530 volunteers from their regional centers all over the U.S. provided medical expertise, assisted local emergency agencies, and distributed food and supplies. More than 7,000 hot meals were served to survivors.

Demographically the most affluent group in the U.S., the Indian community has stepped up its charity and service with noticeable vigor. Individuals like Vemulapalli of Vibha and Aparna Bhattacharyya, director of Atlanta-based Raksha, which helps victims of domestic violence, are well known in the community for their dedication to their causes. Their untiring efforts along with the help of scores of volunteers have brought a sense of comfort and hope in the lives of women and children in both Atlanta and India.

Bhattacharya believes that in America, service is defined more broadly. “We don’t focus so much on helping each other as individuals but want to impact mankind and have a more global outlook.” It is this kind of global outlook that is the impetus behind the Aga Khan Foundation’s stellar work around the world. An organization of Ismaili Muslims who hail primarily from India and Pakistan, the AKF is a professionally conducted, well regarded international organization with humanitarian projects, often in remote and troubled areas. Nizar Gilani, AKF’s chairman for the southeast region, says that the organization takes a “larger, holistic” approach towards choosing missions, causes, and communities—based primarily on need. A mandate to serve the poorest of the poor has taken them to remote corners of the world—from Tajikistan to East Africa and from conflict-ridden northern Pakistan to Bihar and tribal regions in Gujarat, India. An executive board makes strategic, business-like decisions to ensure the highest humanitarian value. Aggrieved countries and regions often approach them with specific needs in the area of education, rehabilitation and other causes due to their high global profile. The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the organization, has forged remarkable ties with heads of states all over the world. The organization has among its brand ambassadors Hollywood star Angelina Jolie. Johnny Isakson, U.S. senator from Georgia says, “One of the greatest thing about the Aga Khan Foundation is that it invests money in people; it does not give money to people.”

This emphasis on charity where it is needed most, regardless of religious and national affiliation, is also very visible in the efforts of Robin Raina, the founder of Ebix, an insurance software development company that was recently ranked by Fortune magazine as the third best investment in the world. A highly celebrated entrepreneur, Raina is also a prolific philanthropist who runs the Robin Raina Foundation (RRF) to serve underprivileged children throughout the world. Besides several projects that provide education and housing for needy children, Raina also sponsors a cancer ward in a Pakistani hospital. “Despite being a Kashmiri Hindu—the group that doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Pakistanis—I decided to help there, to send a message that charity doesn’t know any boundaries, and that a child knows no religion,” Raina says.

Raina doesn’t know where to stop in making a difference in the lives of his chosen beneficiaries—underprivileged children, many of whom are street drifters with bleak prospects. Instilling hope in these children is one of the primary objectives of RRF. Raina decided that education would be the ticket to do that. “But it is very hard to provide education to slum dwellers because they are constantly on the move,” he says. “So we said, OK, let’s provide them housing so that they can remain stable and go to school. That’s how our project of building 6000 concrete homes came about (in the Bawana slum region near Delhi). Our goal still remains education, but we decided if we give them homes, they will stay, they will stick to the place, and if they stick to the place then we can put them in school.

Speaking proudly about the thousands of children supported by his foundation, Raina says many of “our kids” are now studying to become doctors, engineers, and lawyers. Always looking to mold his charitable work to match the needs of the community, he talks about Udaan, a project in Mumbai where RRF supports underprivileged girls by sending them to private English-medium schools, and also by providing them vocational training so that “they become self-sufficient and are not married off by their parents in desperation.”

While institutions and individuals from the first generation are spreading their wings in the area of charity, the second (and third) generation youngsters are making the most of their dual heritage buoyed by a sense of community along with the many volunteering opportunities available to them. At the Aga Khan Foundation, says Gilani, uniformed volunteers are taken as early as age 8. Their iCERV program (“Ismaili Community Engaged in Responsible Volunteering”) trains and certifies young volunteers that take up a variety of activities, from canned food drives to helping out at their signature annual event, the Partnership Walk. It also helps them better prepare for college and life ahead.

At BAPS Charities, the innumerable young volunteers are an enviable treasure trove. “Youth development is one of our prime focuses,” says Anand Mehta, vice president of the board at BAPS Charities, who also serves as senior vice president and CFO of the Boys and Girls Club of America. “Most of our youngsters are well educated and have good resources and can serve as good mentors. What excites us most is the involvement of young folks from fifth and sixth grade onwards to college students. You can see the gratification on their faces when they present a check to the beneficiaries. They feel they are making a real difference in the lives of kids that may be suffering and may not be as well-disposed as they are. So it is a real good character-building and self-esteem-building program.” Hundreds of these young volunteers have made the BAPS Walkathon to benefit Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) a successful annual tradition. At the most recent Walkathon, close to fifteen thousand dollars were raised for CHOA.

Even outside the confines of community organizations, the second and third generation has shown a remarkable initiative towards giving back individually. Dr. Shatul Parikh, a second-generation Indian, studied at Emory University and has traveled around the world giving medical help as a volunteer. On recent missions, he performed cleft palate surgeries on children and thyroid surgeries on adults in Rajasthan, India, and Cajamarca, Peru. For two to three weeks each year, he leaves his family and travels at his own expense to perform free surgeries in some of the most destitute places. “It is very difficult to work in these places where resources are limited, where there is no electricity, and the circumstances are harsh, but it is also personally rewarding and somewhat of an addiction” Parikh says. What drives him? A feeling that having enjoyed a good, decent upbringing in the U.S., it’s now his time to give back.

Giving back is a common thread that runs in the lives of the idealistic young in the Indian-American community. Indicorps, an organization comparable to the Peace Corps, offers fellowships for Indian-Americans to apply their time and skills towards grassroots projects in India. In the last nine years, Indicorps has helped hundreds of youngsters serve in some of the most challenging environments of rural India. From climate-controlled homes in suburban America, these youngsters, who have often put their education or careers on hold, have found themselves in filthy environments with spotty electricity or water supply. They are helping out in projects that are making a positive impact on entire regions—such as raising rural health awareness, building sustainable income through handicrafts, and implementing appropriate financial solutions in the area of farmers’ financing, a daunting issue that has caused the infamous suicides of hundreds of farmers.

After graduating from Georgia Tech, Prerna Soni decided to take 10 weeks off to volunteer in India through an organization called Cross Cultural Solutions. As opposed to spending time with family as she usually did on her past visits, Soni wanted to explore her Indian roots alone and find her own perspective. She worked with the children of Palampur, a small town in hilly Himachal Pradesh, teaching English and organizing a summer camp. She also taught them music, dance, arts, sports, concluding with a performance for their parents and neighbors. “I enjoy teaching, I work well with kids and it is satisfying making them smile by teaching them new and different things,” she says.

Many young Indians from the U.S. are going to India to volunteer as a rite of passage. They are looking for ways to connect with their heritage, find their identity and learn more about their culture. To meet this growing need, several organizations, besides Indicorps, are now offering Fellowships and other volunteering opportunities in India. Some of these organizations are: the American India Foundation‘s Clinton Fellowship, the Deshpande Foundation‘s Sandbox Fellowship, the Asian Foundation for Philanthropy‘s Paropkaar Volunteers program, and the Sikshana Foundation. Talking about the Indian youngsters coming from all over the world to volunteer at Sikshana, Ramamurthy, the founder, says, “They enjoy the experience of living in villages and experiencing the real India which also makes it a very successful volunteer program for us.”

Anand Shah, a board member of Indicorps, says that there has been a rise in the number of Fellows seeking to serve in India. From the number of applications they receive and from other indicators, he estimates that while five years ago about a thousand Indian-American youngsters took the opportunity, today the number is in the range of 3,000 to 5,000.

“Volunteerism is a part of American identity,” says Khurram Hassan, a nonprofit consultant based in Atlanta. A strong culture of volunteerism is well instilled in the citizens of the West, making it a viable extracurricular activity available to everyone. While nothing more than academic excellence is expected of students in India, schools and colleges here mandate participating in charitable activities for course credit. Involvement in humanitarian causes is seen as a sign of leadership and adds credit to one’s resume. Vemulapalli articulates, “The culture of giving is ingrained in the children at a young age here, be it through Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, or just through being encouraged by parents and teachers.”

Not unlike the mainstream community, we tend to focus our attention on what we can see. Dramatic events like tsunamis and earthquakes brings out the most sympathy. An informal study of our giving habits suggests that the first generation tends to support Indian or India-centric organizations such as Vibha, ASHA, A.I.D, CRY, SOS Children’s Villages International, Aga Khan Foundation, CARE, BAPS Charities, Ekal Vidyalaya, and of course our religious institutions. The giving pattern of the younger generation mirrors that of average Americans, which includes supporting global organizations Red Cross and UNICEF, special relief efforts, and community programs.

There is definitely a shift in mindset taking place in the Indian community. More people are realizing the importance of serving and giving back to their communities and recognizing the causes that demand their attention. However, much more can be done. “Our business leaders need to come forward,” Vemulapalli says. “We need to do a lot more and set the tone for our communities.”

[Sucheta Rawal is a business consultant and writer. She has been involved with nonprofit work since she moved to the U.S. in 1997 and has done volunteer work in India, Russia and Morocco. She writes about volunteering amongst other things at her blog www.goeatgive.com.]

Indian-American philanthropists

Here are some notable Indian-American philanthropists who have made a mark in American life:

[Source: Inder Singh/GOPIO, at www.empireindia.com]

Helpful pointers for charity and volunteering

  1. www.guidestar.com offers a gold mine of information on non-profit organizations: their missions, programs, leaders, goals, accomplishments, and needs. It also provides financial information such as the IRS form 990. www.justgive.org is a similar site with useful information on charities.

  2. On www.volunteermatch.org, you can enter your zip code and area of interest to identify available volunteer opportunities close to home.

  3. www.idealist.org is a relatively smaller database with limited information, but includes organizations from 150 countries, allowing you to serve in different locations around the world.

  4. If you are looking for reviews by people who have been involved with organizations, www.greatnonprofits.org is a good resource. It compiles an average rating, similar to that of other public rating website.

  5. Many corporations have foundations, forums or partnerships that employees can choose to participate in. Some companies even allow for flexible hours or days off if you want to volunteer during working hours.

Enjoyed reading Khabar magazine? Subscribe to Khabar and get a full digital copy of this Indian-American community magazine.

  • Add to Twitter
  • Add to Facebook
  • Add to Technorati
  • Add to Slashdot
  • Add to Stumbleupon
  • Add to Furl
  • Add to Blinklist
  • Add to Delicious
  • Add to Newsvine
  • Add to Reddit
  • Add to Digg
  • Add to Fark
blog comments powered by Disqus

Back to articles






Potomac_wavesmedia Banner ad.png

asian american-200.jpg




Krishnan Co WebBanner.jpg


Embassy Bank_gif.gif