(Archana Sridhar is assistant dean, graduate program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and co-founder of the South Asian Philanthropy Project, a forum to inspire increased giving and volunteering among South Asians in North America. A version of this article appeared in the most recent issue of The Philanthropist, a quarterly review for practitioners, scholars, supporters, and others engaged in the nonprofit sector in Canada.)
While the category of "South Asian" comprises quite a diverse population in Canada, it has become an accepted demographic category and identity, particularly beyond first-generation South Asian immigrants. Although a small number of South Asians came to Canada in the early 1900s to work in British Columbia's lumber industry, more arrived after 1960, growing into a diverse population in various professional sectors, including finance, medicine, small business, and service. South Asians now make up about 4 percent of Canada's population, with a total population of about 1.3 million, according to the 2006 census.
About 70 percent of South Asians in Canada live in Toronto or Vancouver. In fact, South Asians make up 12 percent of Toronto's population and more than 8 percent of Vancouver's. Statistics Canada notes that South Asians embody cultural values such as strong family connections, social networks with other South Asians, and preservation of heritage languages. And while South Asians have very high voting rates -- especially when compared to other visible minorities -- and an increasing political presence, their giving practices have not yet been analyzed. The economic health of South Asians is above average as compared to other Canadian visible minorities. Indeed, several notable South Asian Canadians have built enormous wealth and business success, including Sir Christopher Ondaatje; Sabi Marwah, vice chair and COO of the Bank of Nova Scotia and a director of the Toronto Star; Calgary real estate developer Bob Singh Dhillon; and many others.
The South Asian diaspora in North America is strikingly diverse on a variety of axes, such as religion, class, caste, country of origin, language, and immigration status. This vast diversity certainly impacts philanthropy. For example, Ismaili Muslim South Asians give from their personal income as a part of their religious practice, while Hindus often participate actively in a tradition of giving (sometimes known as dakshina) that up to this point has been devoted primarily to supporting local temples in the United States and Canada. In addition, as with other ethnic groups, socioeconomic class can impact the means and manner of giving -- with a few millionaire South Asians establishing private foundations or community foundation-based donor-advised funds, while less affluent South Asians make smaller gifts through community organizations or religious institutions.
The diaspora also faces certain specific needs from the social services sector, which philanthropy could help to address through new and existing charities and other innovative approaches. These include the need for free or low-cost legal services for new immigrants; for domestic abuse shelters for women and children; for English-language instruction and interpretation; and for healthcare education and services for conditions that disproportionately affect South Asians such as heart disease and diabetes. Juxtaposing these community-specific needs against available resources highlights the need for more research and education around philanthropy.
A brief philanthropic history
A variety of philanthropic traditions exist among South Asians in North America. As noted above, religious giving is one key known form of South Asian giving. For example, Hindu communities from around the world raised approximately $40 million for the Swaminarayan Temple in the greater Toronto area. Ismaili Muslims, often originally from South Asia (via Africa and/or the UK), share a strong religious commitment to charitable giving; construction recently began on the $300 million Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre, also in Toronto. Religious centers are also a powerful venue for fundraising for non-religious causes. The Sikh Community of British Columbia raised more than $1.5 million through the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Society for Haiti relief efforts within a few weeks of the 2010 earthquake.
South Asians also give to charities in their countries of origin, establishing NGOs to provide education, health care, or other services in their hometowns or villages. In addition, South Asians give in Canada both to mainstream organizations and to those focused on their own ethnic communities. In the first category, the YWCA Vancouver benefits from fundraisers by the Indo-Canadian Business Association, and the Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Ontario have had very public fundraising campaigns with South Asians such as Arti Chandaria at the helm. One of the most high-profile examples of this trend occurred last year with the announcement that the Canada-India Foundation (CIF) had entered into a joint initiative with the University of Waterloo to establish the Chanchlani India Policy Consortium. Under the agreement, the CIF will contribute up to $2 million and will raise another $10 million from government and other private sources to fund endowed chairs, graduate students, lectures, and conferences on India-Canada relations and foreign policy.
Many other organizations are focused on the diversity of Canada's population, and all of them benefit from South Asian donors and volunteers. There are other organizations and federations focused primarily on the South Asian diaspora in Canada, such as the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA), specialized organizations like the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC), community service organizations like the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP), and organizations and shelters focused on South Asian women such as the South Asian Women's Community Centre of Montreal. While these types of small, community-based organizations receive some support from individual South Asians, much of their funding comes from government agencies.
Many South Asians, much like members of other immigrant groups, also come together to help extended family members emigrate and settle in North America, and to support their children's college and graduate education. And, similar to other ethnic groups, South Asians often send remittances to their families in India, Pakistan, and other countries. In terms of volunteering, board service is a key metric because of formal or informal requirements to give financially and because of the required commitment of time and resources to the community. In Canada, the Maytree Foundation's DiverseCity initiative found that (as of March 2009) visible minorities are underrepresented in the seniormost leadership positions in the greater Toronto area: "Just 13 percent of leaders we analyzed are visible minorities....Within the largest charities and foundation, visible minorities represented 14 percent of executives and 18 percent of board members" (Maytree Foundation, 2009). There is a great need to engage South Asians in this type of philanthropic service, both to diversify civic institutions and to bring the talents of South Asians to bear on broader societal issues.
State of the research field
No one has yet been able to describe empirically the landscape of giving among South Asians in Canada (or the United States). The state of the field in terms of understanding this community's philanthropy appears to be in complete disarray, relying heavily on assumptions and anecdotal evidence. Research does exist at the periphery, primarily related to two themes. First, several scholars have examined the impact of South Asian diaspora populations on giving overseas and the impact of giving from the West to South Asia (Hewa & Hove, 1997; Kulabkar, 2004; Niumai, 2009; Rajan, Pink, & Dow, 2009; Viswanath, 2004). Second, there is some research on diversity in philanthropy writ large. For example, Imagine Canada has collected some data on the giving and volunteering patterns of landed immigrants. When we look at the samples upon which these and other existing studies are based, we find that South Asians are either not represented to any significant degree, or their representation is unclear. The only comprehensive study of a particular South Asian community has focused on the Pakistani diaspora (Najam, 2007), and other smaller and narrower studies have focused on the Indian-American community or subsets thereof (Anand, 2004).
A few academics are beginning to go beyond these themes and examine other trends in South Asian philanthropy and civic engagement in North America (Sidel, 2003; Venkatesh, 2008). In addition, several nonprofit organizations and professional associations have engaged in some preliminary studies on South Asian giving and expressed an intention to study and promote South Asian philanthropy. For example, the South Asian Philanthropy Project is collecting existing resources and assembling a catalogue of South Asian–focused charitable organizations to aid donors in decision-making. Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) has supported or published several white papers and reports on Asian-American philanthropy, for example through giving circles (Ho, 2008). Finally, in both Canada and the United States, charities and community organizations serving South Asian constituencies have come together to found various coalitions or federations, such as CASSA -- noted above -- and the National Coalition for South Asian Organizations (NCSO), in Washington, D.C.