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Asian Women Giving Circle: Sisterhood, Service, and the Game-Changing ‘Geh’

The Asian Women Giving Circle marched with Q-Wave, an Asian-American LGBT group, in Manhattan Chinatown's 2010 Lunar New Year Parade. This was the first year an LGBT group marched in the parade. Courtesy of the Asian Women Giving Circle

Twenty years ago, when Hali Lee was the executive director for a Korean-American non-profit serving victims of domestic violence, she discovered how hard it was to raise money for her cause. Korean-American immigrants, Lee found, were new to the idea of American-style philanthropy, and domestic violence was not a topic the community seemed to want to publicly discuss.

“We’ve learned that we are more generous, more strategic and have greater impact when we do this work together."

Lee also found that the majority of money being distributed to non-profit organizations came primarily from wealthy white individuals and foundations who, while extremely generous, did not necessarily recognize or understand the various struggles of the Asian-American community.

While working through her fundraising challenges, Lee remembered the Korean community tradition of the geh. A geh is a shared saving circle in which community members would contribute money into a pool, and people would take turns taking home the money to support entire their families or to start small businesses.

Lee, who shared a geh circle with her close friends, decided to take the concept and use it for philanthropic initiatives. In 2005, Lee invited 10 friends together to raise money for what she hoped would be a game-changing geh, and the Asian Women Giving Circle (AWGC) was officially born.

The Asian Women Giving Circle was founded in 2005 and aims to raise funds for Asian-American, women-led projects. Gil Seo Photography / Courtesy of the Asian Women Giving Circle

Giving Back, Paying It Forward

While Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, according to Census Bureau data, a 2007 report by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) shows that Asian-American and Pacific Islander groups receive less than 1% of all philanthropic dollars.

To counteract that disparity, the AWGC has raised more than $700,000 over the last decade to fund Asian-American, women-led projects that otherwise might not have been seen or selected by larger foundations.

“One of the most rewarding things about our work is that projects often get funded by bigger organizations and foundations after being funded by AWGC,” Lee told NBC News.

AWGC functions as a donor-advised fund at the Ms. Foundation for Women, and is also a member of the AAPIP National Donor Circle Network. Since it began raising funds, AWGC has supported dozens of initiatives and projects, including "The Muslims Are Coming,” a documentary about Muslim-American comedians using comedy to counteract Islamophobia, and Q Wave, the first Asian-American LGBT group to march in the Lunar New Year parade in Manhattan's Chinatown.

The Spirit of Sisterhood

AWGC prides itself on representing diverse backgrounds, and its steering committee is made up of individuals who've come from both non-profits and corporations. “What really makes a difference is that we are really good friends," Lee said. "We’ve been together for 10 years. We celebrate birthdays together and we take trips together. It’s a real sisterhood. Our relationship with each other is the real value of the AWGC."

Following its 10 year anniversary, AWGC plans to embark on new philanthropic endeavors in 2016, including the launch of a new initiative called FACES of Giving, which will provide philanthropic advising and coaching to high net worth individuals and to groups in diverse communities who are interested in doing philanthropy together.

“We’ve learned that we are more generous, more strategic and have greater impact when we do this work together," Lee said. “America is going to be a country without a racial majority in a generation. We are so excited to harness this growing diversity and energy to help our communities thrive.”

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