What does a philanthropist look like?
If you’re like many people, the word “philanthropist” might call up an image of businessmen in suits drinking coffee around a conference table. It probably doesn’t make you think of young children and their families slurping steaming bowls of pho in a church basement.
Yet that’s exactly what the philanthropists looked like at one recent gathering on a Saturday in St. Paul. Every year, the members of this giving circle enjoy homemade soup at Pho the Good of All, their annual celebration of the grants they make together. The group’s official name is Building More Philanthropy with Purpose (BMPP), but they call themselves the Bad Mo Pho Phamilies—a reflection of their light-hearted, multigenerational approach to giving. “We’re just a bunch of families and individuals who pool our resources, come together, share meals, and decide how we can support the community,” said group member Kathy Mouacheupao.
The face of philanthropy is changing—and embracing that change is what this giving circle is all about. BMPP formed six years ago as its founder, Bo Thao-Urabe, was looking for ways to lift up the role of Asian Americans in philanthropy. “We are contributing to this country in so many ways, but we’re often not acknowledged,” she said. Generosity is an important value in the Hmong immigrant community she grew up in, and yet that value shows up in ways that might be unfamiliar to Americans from other cultures. “We give every day in our families and extended families, but American philanthropy is a new concept to us.”
Thao-Urabe, a nonprofit leader and social entrepreneur who is also a Trustee of The Minneapolis Foundation, envisioned a group of Asian American families who would adapt the tools of philanthropy to give in ways that celebrate their cultural values and strengthen their own communities. As far as she is concerned, you don’t need to be wealthy, old, or white in order to be a philanthropist—and you certainly don’t need to be any of those things in order to give intentionally, in ways that make a real difference.
As BMPP member Jon Schill put it, “I grew up thinking philanthropists looked like the guy from the Monopoly box. Our philanthropy is done around a table, sharing food and stories.”
BMPP’s model of giving puts family at the center: Kids are important members of the giving circle, reviewing and discussing grant proposals along with their parents. The group meets five or six times a year, usually for potlucks at a member family’s home. Each family commits at least $1,000 a year and has one vote on grants awarded by the giving circle.
BMPP, which is now a fund of The Minneapolis Foundation, supports people and organizations that advance social justice and strengthen Asian American communities in the Upper Midwest. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit, though the group is particularly drawn to great ideas that need seed funding to get off the ground. Their most recent grant recipients range from a nonprofit that amplifies the voices of Muslim women to the creator of a fashion zine showcasing the style of LGBTQ Asian Americans. In the past six years, the group has granted more than $100,000 to support more than 40 projects.
For members like Mouacheupao, a big part of the giving circle’s draw is the ability it gives her to pool her charitable dollars for greater impact in the community—especially by working through the emerging leaders and start-up organizations that the group funds. “It has really emboldened and empowered our grant recipients,” she said.
Are you interested in joining Building more Philanthropy with Purpose, or in starting a giving circle like it? Bo Thao-Urabe would love to connect with you—email her at email@example.com.