Originally written by Rick Cohen for Nonprofit Quarterly

How important are charitable or philanthropic funds established by ethnic or racial groups? Has the development of middle classes in the African American, Asian American, and Latino communities reduced the pressure on groups to generate capital to fund the needs of their own communities? Have comparatively newer ethnic or racial groups in the U.S. begun to develop their own charitable grantmaking mechanisms?

These questions were prompted by a chance coincidence, a get-to-know-you conversation with Maha Freij, the founder of the Center for Arab American Philanthropy, that turned into a two-hour exploration of the importance and implications of philanthropy identified with and controlled by emerging and longstanding ethnic and racial groups.

The Seeds of Ethnic and Racial Philanthropy

For some years, ethnic and racial activists from the Latino and African American communities were strong proponents of creating their own charitable and philanthropic funds. Such funds were not simply to serve their own communities that might be underserved by mainstream philanthropy, but also to offer grants with an ethnic or racial cast to other nonprofits. This was a big, visible movement in the 1980s and 1990s and even earlier. Efforts such as the National Black United Fund and various Asian American and Latino funds were set up to capture and distribute charitable dollars originating within those communities.

The first Black United Fund was the Brotherhood Crusade in Los Angeles, created in 1968 by Walter Bremond, then a program officer at the Cummins Engine Foundation. That led to the creation of similar funds in Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, Memphis, and Portland, Ore., among others, and in 1972, the National Black United Fund (NBUF) was established. The United Latino Fund (ULF) was created in 1990, also in Los Angeles, and in 1996, the Hispanic Federation created the National Latino Funds Alliance, now with eight members, though not the ULF in Los Angeles. The foundation affinity group Asian American Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) has been promoting Asian American “giving circles” as mechanisms for “increasing philanthropic capital to our communities and…moving individuals to act on their own initiative, counting 17 giving circles in the U.S. To some, these funds were at the forefront of social justice philanthropy, supporting causes that mainstream charities such as the United Way, community foundations, and local private foundations shied away from (though foundations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation played prominent national roles in promoting ethnic philanthropy and sometimes helping capitalize the funds themselves).

At the forefront of the contemporary philanthropic movement within the Arab American community is Maha Freij’s organization, the Center for Arab American Philanthropy. The Center is actually a project of an organization called ACCESS, a 41-year-old service organization based in Dearborn, Mich. The location should be no surprise, as Dearborn is the center of the Arab American population of the U.S. Of the 1.7 million Arab Americans in the U.S., one-third live in California, New York, and Michigan. One-third of the population of Dearborn, Mich. has some Arab heritage. ACCESS developed along with the growth of the Arab American (mostly Lebanese) population of southeastern Michigan, growing from a volunteer-run storefront operation to a significant service provider with 270 staff and programs in physical and mental health, employment services, academic programs for youth, and a panoply of information, referral, immigration, and legal services.

But the story Freij describes is far from simply a growing service delivery shop. In her telling, ACCESS developed into an institution of symbolism and meaning not just for the Arab American community of southeastern Michigan, but nationwide—and that led it into an appreciation of the importance of philanthropy to ethnic communities.

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