Cultures of Generosity and Philanthropy Within Communities of Color

Hali Lee | May 9, 2023
A woman smiles at camera. She wears earrings, a satin short sleeve blouse and her long hair loose.

Hali Lee. Cropped image of portrait by Taea Thale.

My family immigrated from Korea in the late 1960s. They were part of an early wave of Koreans to this country after the Immigration Act of 1965, which put an end to long-standing quotas that had favored arrivals from Western European countries. My parents and grandparents survived a hundred years of brutal colonialism and cultural erasure by Imperial Japan. They endured two horrific wars. And growing up, I heard lots of stories about scarcity, loss, and surviving with very little. But I also heard so many stories of radical abundance and generosity.

When my mother’s family were refugees in the very southernmost point of the Korean peninsula, they managed to help and be helped by those around them. One by one, my grandmother was able to send her kids to the US, often via universities and church scholarship programs. Eventually, she helped other young people who had lost their families come here, too.

When these early Korean immigrants arrived in the US, they made naengmyun with spaghetti. They fashioned cucumbers, scallions, and paprika into kimchi. They also brought with them the idea of a geh, which is a shared saving circle.

I’ve been part of a few gehs with my girlfriends. My friend Shinhee was usually the instigator. Depending on how rich we’ve felt, the “pot” might be $1,000 or $2,500. Ours was a social, rather frivolous, and always raucous geh. We would meet once a month for lunch to pool our earnings and pass them off to that month’s recipient. Min Jin often bought herself a beautiful piece of jewelry. Sang got a gorgeous bag. Shinhee bought a couch. I used mine, once, to buy a new laptop, another time, for a stupid expensive set of dishes I had been coveting, and another time, to throw my husband a birthday party. You could use the money any way you wanted, but you had to show and tell the next time.

White dinner plates stacked on table

Dishes, purchased with money from author’s geh. Photo courtesy Hali Lee

Gehs work because they’re built on trust, friendship, and shared cultural heritage. Trust is important because if someone leaves mid-cycle, that diminishes the pot for the people who come next. Sure, it’s possible to cheat the system, but for the most part, people don’t. I’ve heard of giant gehs in Queens where the pot might be a quarter million dollars.

Gehs—or something like them—exist in every culture. They’re called tandas in Mexico, sou-sous in parts of Western Africa, i-sou-sous in parts of the Caribbean, sols in Haiti, tam tams in Vietnam, mahibers in Ethiopia/ Eritrea, arisons in Indonesia. Folks of Jewish faith have tzedaka. Muslim Americans practice zakat. Christians practice tithing. All of us have inherited cultural practices around generosity, giving, and sharing, but in recent years, many of us have moved away from these community-oriented approaches to saving and sharing. From whom did we learn generosity? How might we bring our cultural heritage into our living rooms, in practice with our friends? And how might that begin to translate into something like a giving circle—something that goes beyond my friends and I pooling our money for expensive accessories, something that can thrive outside religious institutions, something that can—literally and figuratively—enrich our communities today? And if we imagine thousands of living rooms full of citizens, coming together around both differences and commonalities to do good things in their communities, I think giving circles can help us all reknit, repair, and recommit to our democracy.

Coming together to help one another is also a particularly American proposition. Back in the first half of the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the American “art of joining.” He made the case that free and active associations are a necessary part of a functioning democracy, noting that “…when necessary, [Americans] almost never fail to lend one another a helping hand.” Of course, by the time de Tocqueville was studying and writing about America, there were millennia of existing Indigenous practices of mutual aid, generosity, and community support. Add into the mix the cultural, spiritual and mutual aid practices of enslaved Africans, and their struggles for resistance, betterment, and freedom. From Hispanic colonizers to flows of immigrants, refugees, seekers of a new life—people from all over the world have added their cultural, faith, mutual support, and giving practices into what we now call American philanthropic practice.

Generosity in Cultures

The cover of the author’s report on high net-worth donors of color.

The root word of philanthropy is phila, which means love. That means the root word of philanthropy is not logic model, strategic plan, or billionaires assuaging their guilt or burnishing their reputations.

When you think of a philanthropist, what do you see?

I interviewed a Black woman who told me about her grandmother who worked as a maid at a fancy hotel. Though she had little extra cash on hand, that grandmother’s Sunday supper table was affectionately known as The Ponderosa because of the dozens of people who would regularly stop by for a delicious, home-cooked meal. A meal full of love. An Indian American man told me about his family’s journey to the US, via Uganda, and how the humble motel they were able to buy became the first stop for dozens of country kin who helped each other acclimate to a new beginning in a new country. A Vietnamese American woman shared that because her family had been helped by US churches and non-profits when they were escaping the Vietnam War via Thailand to the US, she is now translating cultural norms around reciprocity towards a generous philanthropic practice today, which includes supporting faith-based and refugee organizations.

All of us come from cultures of generosity. Think of tithing, the Native American potlatch, and of course, the cultural practices listed above – tandas, sou sous, i-sou-sous, sols, tam tams, mahibers, arisons, gehs, tsedaka, and zakat. We all have in our heritages cultural practices of mutual aid, helping our neighbors, and thinking communally.

It is by reconnecting with those cultures of generosity that we can build more meaningful, durable, relevant, and bounteous philanthropic practice. And if we practice doing so in a group or collective, we exercise our civic engagement muscles – and if ever there was a time when we needed to exercise our civic engagement muscles, it is now.

Aunties Cheering from the Sidelines

Asian Women Giving Circle garden party in 2017.

I’ve spent the better part of my twenty-year, so-called career trying to democratize and diversify the field and practice of philanthropy, which also gets us closer to that root word of love.

Part of that journey has been the Asian Women Giving Circle, which I started with a group of girlfriends, modeled on the Korean cultural concept of a geh described above. In our seventeen years of raising money and giving it away, we’ve distributed close to $1.5M to over 80 amazing projects (discover last year’s recipients here), all led by Asian American women and gender expansive folks who use the tools of arts and culture to make their communities more free, fair, and just. One of our grantee partners –, performance artist, comedian, and musician Kate Rigg (aka Slanty Eyed Mama) – described being part of the AWGC family as like having “aunties cheering on the sidelines.” For her, and for many of the culture-makers we’ve been able to support, the AWGC is the first and only funder who looks like them. We go to many of the same restaurants, shows, and parties. We’re more proximate because we’re the same.

“You cannot raise money from those you do not see.”

Three women sit side by side and hold notes on laps.

Global Business and Philanthropy Leaders’ SDG-5 Forum for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. Photo:
UN Women/Ryan Brown

Taking that idea of proximity a little further out, I had the great pleasure and good fortune to interview well over 100 wealthy folks of color in ten cities across the US. I shared a few snippets from that research in the section above (e.g. The Ponderosa). The resulting qualitative research report, “Philanthropy Always Sounds Like Someone Else: A Portrait of High Net Worth Donors of Color” became one of the foundational underpinnings of the Donors of Color Network, which I co-founded in 2018 with Urvashi Vaid, (rest in peace and power, Urv,) and Ashindi Maxton.

We knew soon after beginning the research project in 2016 that we would form a donor network. Each of us was actively speaking and participating in non-profit and philanthropic conferences and conversations, and experiencing a noticeable absence of wealthy donors of color in all those many rooms. And while there are many networks of donors in the US, none have integrated themselves to include a meaningful number of donors of color. In fact, one of the findings of our research is that while donors of color are well and widely networked, they are not well-networked philanthropically, and they are not often networked with each other, across race and ethnicity.

For this research project, we interviewed donors from communities that are African American, Caribbean American, Black, Indigenous, across many diverse groups of Asian Americans, Latino/a/x, Hispanic, Middle Eastern – people of color donors who have the capacity to give $50,000 away per year or more. If you add up the annual giving of the 113 people in the report, they donate a sum total of $56M, with the median annual giving figure being $87,500, and the range of annual giving $4,000 to $17M (the lower end of that range was a next-gen donor who doesn’t yet have full access to their family’s philanthropic capital). Because we brought our own biases, too, we were surprised to learn that 22% of our sample reported liquid net assets (which means excluding the value of their primary residence) north of $30M.

Needless to say, these folks of color are rich. Eighty-eight percent of them are wealth-earners, meaning they have leap-frogged many rungs on the socio-economic ladder. Each gave to charitable organizations. Very few thought of themselves as philanthropists (thus our title, which is a direct quote – “philanthropy always sounds like someone else”). Most gave politically, too, though few did with gusto. Nearly all supported family members in meaningful ways, like paying off mortgages or helping out with car payments. Annual support of family members ranged from a few thousand dollars to $2M annually.

Some themes to share from the 113 interviews:

  • Nearly everyone we interviewed had personally experienced racism, discrimination and bias. 
  • Many donors of color I interviewed are thinking systemically about how to tackle the social issues they care about, but are seeking help and community to figure out how to use their philanthropy to do that. Another study by the Lilly School at the University of Indiana found that Black and Asian American “everyday” donors (not wealthy) were more likely to support racial and social justice causes with their giving. 
  • The folks of color I interviewed care about leveling the playing fields that have never been level, addressing disparities, and creating opportunities. 
  • They are using multiple strategies, including advocacy and political giving, to effect change. 
  • They are highly networked in social, fraternal, faith, business, and alumni networks, but are not networked philanthropically, and are not networked with each other across race and ethnicity. 
  • To pull another direct quote from an interview, “bootstraps is bullshit.” The wealthy folks of color I interviewed thought of themselves as intertwined, a part of families and communities. They mentioned coaches, mentors, grandmothers, uncles and aunties, parents and others as people who helped them get to where they are.

In one memorable interview, a Black man in his 50s shared, “As a young child, I was living in a station wagon with my mother, father, and siblings. Doors opened for me while simultaneously shutting for everyone I was in that station wagon with – I was good at school, articulate, a man – patriarchy can be a good thing if you’re a man – I was tall, I could command a room. I was the first male in my family to graduate from high school, and the first person in my family to graduate from college… My grandmother used to say, service is the rent you pay for living – a common [saying] in the South – [and that] you cannot be rich and have a poor sister. You help family.”

He attributes part of his success to an “Auntie Mame” who taught him how to read a restaurant menu and planted the idea in his head that he might go to college. He said of her, “In every boy there is a king, and in every king there is a boy, and she saw both the king and the boy in me.” I cry every time I remember that conversation.

Strategies for Better Donor Relationships and Development

Here’s one more story that gets to the heart of “you cannot raise money from those you do not see,” plus points the way to how we can do better.

I interviewed a Mexican American lawyer in his 40s who owns a law practice in a major city in the US South. He’d supported a local non-profit for many years, and the executive director invited him to breakfast to discuss a capital campaign. He arrived thinking he could give $10K towards the effort, but expected to be asked for $25K. After nice catch-up, the executive director made her “ask”: could he give $500? He gasped. She apologized and asked if he might be able to do $250. He ended up giving $500.

This is a man who gives $200K annually in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars of pro bono work his firm donates locally. How might that conversation have gone differently if the executive director had asked instead about his values, how he’d like to move his values in the world via his philanthropy, what his big dreams for change are? She could have made the connection to her organization’s mission and vision, and together, they might have embarked on a years-long journey together. She would have left that meeting with a much larger check, but even more importantly, she might have left with a deeper relationship with a potential major, lifelong donor.

To be honest, I kind of hate picking on that executive director because running a non-profit is one of the hardest jobs on earth. I’ve been there and I know. She likely does not have a development staff with a research department or even a well-running donor database. She’s likely way underpaid and overworked, too.

But, still, as a fundraiser she could have done better in ways that don’t cost a lot: ask questions, listen more, and focus more on being in relationships rather than getting the check.

One way to build donor relationships is to use the interview protocol that is “Appendix A” in the back of the Portrait report. If you fundraise for a non-profit, consider how you could tweak that protocol for conversations with your organization’s biggest supporters, including a volunteer, yearly donor, a major donor and a board member. Think about how your giving discussions can be more expansive, empathetic, and mutually beneficial.

If your organization wants to diversify donor rolls, do some baseline thinking before embarking on any acquisition project. How diverse is your current donor pool? How about your board, staff leadership, volunteer group? Why do you want to diversify? Really articulate your why. What is it about the organization that has made it not relevant, interesting, attractive, or necessary for folks of color to support?

Donors of color have always been here, and we have always been generous. Treat us as donors, major supporters, philanthropists, and clients. I end the Portrait report with this:

Imagine a coral reef. Imagine the flora and fauna, inter-related in complex ways, each dependent on the other for their mutual thriving. Picture the vibrant colors, the mind-boggling patterns, the undulating blue water, the slightly ominous parts and the stunningly gorgeous parts, the shadows and the light, the moving elements and the mostly still ones. Let’s have that beautiful coral reef, not an endangered, bleached monoculture. Can you see it?

Donors Democratizing the Field

A group of women pose for a photo against a sign backdrop.

Asian Women Giving Circle event Celebrate Activism through the Arts in 2018.

Finally, I’d love to share a list of some people doing expansive work, lifting up communities of color, and democratizing and diversifying the field and practice of philanthropy at the same time.

Local to New York City

  • North Star Fund is New York City’s local social justice fund. 
  • The Black Arts Council at MoMA is all about the art and artists of the African diaspora. 
  • Asian Women Giving Circle has supported over 80 NYC projects led by Asian American women and gender expansive folks working to make their communities more fair, just, and free. Check out the organizations and their projects on our website.
  • The Dinner Guys is a local giving circle which supports AAPI queer causes and organizations.

Local to NYC and Working Nationally



Hali Lee is delighted to have been co-builder of a few pieces of philanthropic infrastructure.  She co-founded the Donors of Color Network, was on the co-design team for Philanthropy Together, and is the founder of the Asian Women Giving Circle. She is lead author of Philanthropy Always Sounds Like Something Else: A Portrait of High Net-Worth Donors of Color. Hali was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in Kansas City. She graduated from Princeton University, studied Buddhism at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, and received a master’s in social work from New York University. Currently, Hali builds out of Radiant Strategies and was recently profiled in Forbes 50 Over 50: Impact. Hali is writing a book on the power of collective giving titled The Big We, and for fun, keeps honeybees on her rooftop in Brooklyn.

Community Connections examines issues and ideas of meaning to diverse communities throughout New York City and across the United States. Presented by The WNET Group, home to Thirteen, America’s flagship PBS station.

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