What I Learned From My Parents: An Anecdotal Insight into South Asian Giving

“I’ve always given back to the ones who aren’t as lucky as I am.

We can all give a little…you know… even if we don’t have a lot.”

That’s my mother. A South Asian first-generation immigrant woman.

This was from a conversation we had last year during the Christmas holidays at my parents’ house. I was going through the mail and found several donation cards from different charities. With a sudden yet natural curiosity, I asked my mother as to why she gave.

It was a simple question. But it opened up a conversation between us, for the first time, that unraveled some of the untapped mysteries of philanthropic giving within the South Asian community and left me with some thought-provoking questions to ask myself and others in the fundraising field.

Both my parents, like many immigrants, sacrificed to give the best possible opportunities to my brother and I. Although we grew up with very humble means, I watched my parents give generously – whether it be to our local charities, religious institution, or simply sending money abroad to family members who needed support. Growing up in such a giving environment, I thought, ‘That’s just what we do’. Giving back was so ingrained as part of our day to day lives that I never asked my parents as to why they give until around this time last year.

Two years ago, I enrolled myself in a Fundraising Management Program. I quickly noticed a lack of diversity both within the fundraising profession and the donors who were actively sought after for philanthropic giving within this field. It was also the first time I became curious about the philanthropic behaviour within our family, and why there was not much representation of South Asian donors such as my parents in the mainstream donor pool. What makes this puzzling is the potential that this community has in giving, yet the lack of information available on this community’s philanthropic patterns.

So, who makes up the South Asian population? It is understood that South Asians are originally from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, and Bhutan. Not only does this ethnic group represent some of the largest visible minorities in Canada, it is also one of the most financially stable groups (Sridhar 1). According to the 2011 census, South Asians make up about 4.8% of Canada’s population, with about 70% of South Asians living in Toronto or Vancouver. Members of this community are the largest visible minority in the Greater Toronto Area – and by 2031, one in every four people in Toronto will be of South Asian background (Statistics Canada 2011). It is important for fundraisers to note that within this diverse community we speak of, there is a wide variety of sub-groups ranging from nationalities, religious affiliations, economic status and social links that affect the way we engage with this community. With statistics such as these in our hands, we have a great opportunity to learn about the South Asian culture, the nuances and similarities in this large community, and what it takes to engage this population effectively and in a culturally sensitive manner.

Although there could be many plausible reasons as to why there are not many well-known South Asian philanthropists in the mainstream or local philanthropic causes, here are a few reasons that I have come to learn growing up in the South Asian community:

  • For many South Asians, what they do and leave behind for their children is their main and end goal. It is their legacy and that is what they are accustomed to. So most often, wealth is transferred to their children.
  • A substantial part of the South Asian population is first-generation immigrants and newcomers. For this group, due to still being in the process of integrating into the Canadian society and having strong links to their home countries, giving back to local causes may not be at the top of their priorities. Having worked closely with many immigrant and refugee groups and seeing my own parents’ plight in the early years of transitioning to a new country, I know the priorities are also to establish financial stability.
  • Religious cultural associations play a major role in the lives of many South Asians, especially if you are a first-generation immigrant. Like many newcomers, a lot of South Asian immigrants have little to no social network when they come to Canada. One of the easiest ways for them to build this network in their new-found home is by connecting with people through their religious or cultural community associations. Due to the integral role these institutions play in their lives in the early years of being in Canada, often they give back to these institutions to strengthen their community ties.
  • Poverty relativism may also play a factor. After seeing established public institutions here in Canada, in contrast to the poverty in their own countries, it gives many South Asians more push to give back home rather than locally knowing how far a dollar can go in their own countries.

Beyond what I have learned from simply growing up in the South Asian community and observing both my parents’ and their friends’ patterns of giving, there is also another key reason as to why South Asian philanthropy for local/mainstream causes is not so well-represented. This is due to the lack of leadership engagement in the non-profit world. The Maytree Foundation’s DiverseCity initiative found that, as of March 2009, visible minorities are under-represented in the senior most leadership positions in the Greater Toronto Area. Just 13% of leaders are visible minorities within the largest charities and foundations (DiverseCity Counts 6). KCI’s Philanthropic Trends Quarterly (2011) states that organizations that have been successful in raising money from ethnic communities have one thing in common – they have vital community leaders as board members, volunteers, and supporters of their organizations, and their insights and point of views are valued.

When I initially chose to write about the South Asian community, I realized the limited amount of data available. But the more I thought about it, I realized my best understanding of philanthropy – and to an extent the philanthropy that happens in the South Asian community – is by looking at my parents and the stories that they have shared with me. It is precisely through these anecdotes, at least as a starting point, we can open a much wider and deeper dialogue amongst ourselves about what philanthropy means to this community and how to engage them meaningfully.

These anecdotes can sometimes be poignant and revealing as it was for me when I first had the conversation with my mother about why is it that she gives. Last Christmas, while I was rummaging through my parents’ mail, I noticed that they give to some local causes that I would not generally think they would give to. With the very same curiosity of finding out why they give, I asked my mother as to why she gave to these particular local causes.

“Because they asked,” she replied.

Her reply was simple yet profound. It left me wondering about the many missed opportunities that charities overlook when engaging with the multicultural community.

As the South Asian population grows in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, there are more reasons than ever before to engage with this community to not only diversify our funding strategies, but also our minds.


“DiverseCity Counts: A Snapshot of Diversity in the Greater Toronto Area.” DiverseCity: The Greater Toronto Leadership Project (2009).

“The Multicultural Fundraising Issue.” Philanthropic Trends Quarterly 2 (2011). KCI Philanthropy. 16 Oct. 2015.

Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada. Statistics Canada, 2011.

Sridhar, Archana. “An Opportunity to Lead: South Asian Philanthropy in Canada.” 24.1 (2011).The Philanthropist.