VietLead, a local social justice nonprofit, was one of the recipients of the Asian Mosaic Fund's crowdsourced grants

When Philadelphia released its list of city-sponsored COVID-19 relief grant recipients, the breakdown laid bare what a lot of organizers in the Asian American/Pacific Islander community already knew:

Traditional funders often fail to support nonprofits that serve Asian ethnic groups.

“These are lived experiences,” said Jingyao Yu, a board member at local aid nonprofit Asian Mosaic Fund, about the disparity. Seeing it in print from an official source was validating, she said. “It’s great, but it’s kind of demoralizing that our lived experiences aren’t valued.”

According to the city’s report — or $405k out of $17 million in grants were awarded to organizations that are led by or serve the local AAPI community. That’s about 2.3%, for a population that makes up about 8% of the city’s residents. The money came via donations to the PHL COVID-19 Fund, set up in mid-March by the Kenney administration and administered by the Philadelphia Foundation and United Way.

To fill the funding gap, the Asian Mosaic Fund (AMF) joined forces with the Philly chapter of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, or AAPIP, and raised their own money.

In recent years, AMF has raised about $15k annually to distribute as three microgrants, Yu said. In the months following the pandemic, the group more than doubled its fundraising and tripled its grant giving, using crowdsourcing to pull in more than $40k, that went out as nine different awards.

The COVID-19 crisis exposed many existing deficiencies, including healthcare disparities, government resource inadequacy and the unequal distribution of wealth. Its disparate effects on Black Americans, and that group’s inability to secure traditional resources, has been well documented. Less explored has been the pandemic’s impact on other groups of color, including the AAPI community.

Yu said she’s familiar with how “philanthropy and funding pits community nonprofits against each other, particularly communities of color. Funders identify their one token Asian org they’ll fund,” she said.

A Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity report managing philanthropic giving between 2005 and 2014 found organizations of color vying for no more than 8.5% of American foundation dollars. AAPI groups specifically receive less than 1% of all giving dollars, despite comprising 6% of the U.S. population.

Crowdsourced philanthropy, with funding distributed by peers

Through AMF’s COVID-19 fund, which they call a giving circle, AAPI organizers are taking back their power.

AMF organized an ad hoc committee of volunteer organizers made up of AAPI nonprofits and community members to help decide which organizations receive what amount of the $40k raised.

James Liou of AAPIP was on the committee, and said the democratization of the distribution process separates the giving circle fund from traditional funding sources. Usually, foundations divvy up funds based on suggestions made by their boards, and “AAPI are many times not present, literally, in the data.”

Yu became emotional talking about one exchange where a member of the committee was also a staffer at a grant recipient organization. After hearing how other local nonprofits were suffering, the committee member asked to decrease the amount of his own grant.

The nontraditional distribution process also let AMF dedicate 25% of their funds to the Philadelphia Black Giving Circle.

“When the murder of George Floyd happened, we came together… recognizing that Black justice means more than just Black justice,” Yu said, “and the impact that it has on immigrant communities on the AAPI communities, and other BIPOC communities.”

The giving circle committee has awarded grants up to $5k to groups including Cambodian American Girls Empowering (Cage), VietLead and the Woori Center, a Korean American civic engagement-focused initiative that launched in 2018, and others.

The Woori Center was awarded a $3k grant, which will be used to further the organization’s GOTV efforts catered to Korean Americans. Mel Lee heads the Woori Center and said this year they’ve been able to raise more money than they did in 2019.

Still, it’s been her experience that the organization lacks access to traditional funding.

“We are a new organization, so that’s one area where the difficulties come from,” Lee said, adding that it’s hard to get support for the work they do outside of Philadelphia, in nearby Montgomery County.

Dong Yoon Kim also of the Woori Center echoed sentiments from Yu and Liou.

“The resources that are available are being spread out too thin,” Kim said. “And I think that’s why the efforts of the Asian Mosaic Fund is really critical to meet that demand.”

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Layla A. Jones

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...