Ellen Remmer, founder of The Philanthropic Initiative (a firm that advises donors, families and foundations on strategic giving), posted an recent article in Alliance magazine discussing concerns that might impede donors from practicing philanthropy. While Remmer makes many solid points, and mentions family politics, privacy concerns and the lack of donor education on the philanthropic process, she neglects to consider culturally-specific barriers that would discourage strategic giving.

During a recent event hosted by the Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP) and the Council of Michigan Foundations, Arab American philanthropists were asked the question, “What is the biggest obstacle to your participation in philanthropy?” While the answers varied, several themes emerged from the discussion.

9/11 and strategic giving

Largely due to the backlash that Arab and Muslim Americans have experienced since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, many potential donors are afraid to identify as Arab Americans, associate with Arab American organizations or celebrate their Arab American identity. There is a worry that if they donate to a certain organization (especially overseas), that organization may acquire undesired affiliates and thus, all donors to that organization will suffer negative consequences. In addition, some Arab Americans are reluctant to adopt new giving technology (such as text messaging donations), in fear that if their information is available online it will be used for harmful purposes. Due to these concerns and general distrust, many Arab Americans stopped giving outright after 9/11 – a trend that is slowly being reversed.

Cultural identification

There is great power in participating in philanthropy as part of a cultural group. However, hailing from 22 states that share as many cultural, linguistic, political, and religious commonalities as differences, it can be difficult for first generation immigrants from the Arab World to adopt an Arab American identity. Even after a generation or two has passed, a tribal mentality persists as people identify themselves as Syrian American or Egyptian American, and groups are sometimes divided through events that happen in their home countries. These divisions constitute significant obstacles to a broad vision for Arab American philanthropy.

Adopting a new philanthropic mentality

For some respondents at our event, ignorance about strategic giving was the biggest obstacle. Philanthropy is a hard sell for many Arab Americans, based solely on the newness of the concept. In the Arab World, people are familiar with religious institutions and government entities, but not philanthropic institutions; foundations are a fairly new development in the Middle East. Additionally, there is a general conception that philanthropy is only practiced by the very wealthy, and less wealthy people often feel isolated from strategic giving.

Developing solutions

CAAP helps break down barriers that prevent people from participating in philanthropy by promoting education about the power of giving among Arab American donors and leveraging individual philanthropy to create a more positive image of Arab American civic engagement in the United States. Further, philanthropy is for everyone, not only for the very wealthy, and CAAP is helping to change this misconception by engaging donors through mechanisms like giving circles and field-of-interest funds. Lastly, while many Arab Americans laid low following 9/11, for others it was an opportunity to embrace their background and promote their generous characters through charitable giving – a story that we continue to promote at CAAP.

CAAP provides a safe and culturally sensitive venue for charitable giving tailored to Arab Americans. Please contact us to let us know how we can help you meet your strategic giving goals.

Photo courtesy Valentina_A

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