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The Inclusive Economy

MASALA Giving Circle: Spicing Up Assets for Social Change

By Nisha Patel, Guest Contributor on 12/18/2013 @ 11:00 AM

Tags: Recommended Reading

Nisha Patel, Co-founder, MASALA Giving Circle

Pretty much any South Asian, or any avid cook for that matter, knows what masala is—that delicious blend of spices, the whole of which is richer and more amazing than the sum of its aromatic parts. And the same is true for the Mid-Atlantic South Asians Leveraging Assets—or MASALA—Giving Circle. We are a group of donors who pool our assets to make grants to nonprofits working to empower underserved and disadvantaged South Asian communities in the DC metro area. Each of us could certainly go it alone with our individual philanthropy, but by leveraging one another’s ideas and financial contributions, our dollars can go further and have greater impact.

Less than one percent of philanthropic resources in the United States go to Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and an even smaller percentage to South Asian communities in particular. Yet, as the Washington DeSi report identified, there are significant needs in the South Asian community in the D.C. region. And there are also potential South Asian donors with the capacity to give. MASALA Giving Circle connects donors with nonprofits and is part of a growing national movement and network of giving circles supported by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) to build democratic philanthropy and community. Thanks to the support of AAPIP, all individual contributions from our members (and those of 30 plus giving circles across the nation) are matched 50 percent, creating an even greater incentive for collective giving. To date, AAPIP’s circles have made grants totaling over $1.3 million to more than 200 nonprofit organizations.

Giving circles represent a creative way to leverage assets for social change. I have spent my career working on solutions that create economic opportunity and reduce inequity in the US. Fifteen years ago, I got my M.S.W. at Washington University in St. Louis, where Assets and the Poor is practically required reading. So, I do believe there is a case to be made for leveraging assets for goals such as home purchase, higher education and small business capitalization. However, I also believe strongly that personal assets can be applied toward democratic and innovative philanthropy. The minimum contribution for voting membership in the MASALA Giving Circle is $250. If members put aside just $25 per month for ten months, that’s $250. And this year, those combined small contributions have been leveraged to produce $15,000 in grants to three top-notch grassroots organizations for whom a little goes a long way—and who are not on the radar of big philanthropy: CHAI, DVRP and APALRC.

My last job was actually in big philanthropy, working as a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I greatly admire the way Bill and Melinda have leveraged their assets to be a force for good globally—and inspired many others in the one percent to do the same with the Giving Pledge. What if those of us in the 99 percent contributed even just one percent of our assets and pooled them to underrepresented causes locally? Together, I think we could spice up the assets movement and shake up philanthropy.

For more information about MASALA Giving Circle, visit

For more information about AAPIP’s national network for giving circles, visit


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