The Power of Collective Giving

By Giving List Women   |   May 20, 2024

Hali Lee has founded or co-founded multiple philanthropy and giving networks, all born from the idea that expanding the notion of who is a philanthropist and what counts as philanthropy democratizes how philanthropy is practiced in the United States. Collective giving – especially when women and/or people of color gather together – is an example of a more thoughtful and democratic form of philanthropy. Lee’s commitment to intersectionality goes beyond the overlapping interests of women from different backgrounds, generations, and hometowns. Her leadership also combines her love for equitable social change and culture, reflecting the idea that change happens through culture and narrative as well as through social, political, and financial commitments.

In 2005, Lee founded the Asian Women Giving Circle, which has raised $1.5 million for Asian American women using arts and culture to bring about social change in their NYC communities. The success of this collective approach prompted Lee to help design Philanthropy Together, a global initiative to diversify and democratize philanthropy. It is also the germ of the book she is writing, The Big We, about how we, together, are so much more powerful than the sum of our individual parts. The book will be published by Zando/Sweet July Books in 2025.

Lee also co-founded the Donors of Color Network, which emerged from the need to understand the philanthropic goals and interests of wealthy donors of color, and which provides a philanthropic home for them to learn and collaborate in advancing racial justice.

Lee continues to innovate, lead, and build out of her consulting practice, Radiant Strategies. A major recent project has been building a philanthropic curriculum, Freedom School for Philanthropy, which aims to move more resources to equity and justice movements at a faster pace, by leaning away from the transactive and more toward transformation.

Giving List Women: How did you choose philanthropy as the vehicle to catalyze social change?

Hali Lee: Like most, I got here by following a series of turns. My first job out of grad school was at a domestic violence services provider in the Korean American community in Queens, New York. They needed an executive director [ED], so I got thrown into the world of fundraising. The first grant [proposal] I wrote as an ED was to the New York Women’s Foundation, and they funded it. I cried because we needed that general operating support so badly. Then the New York Women’s Foundation asked me to be on their board. And I witnessed a group of women sitting around various tables in NYC raising hundreds of thousands of dollars over a meal to support projects with women and girls across amazing, badass causes. And I was like, holy cow, I want to learn
some of that. 

The New York Women’s Foundation was my philanthropy college. Around that time, I started the Asian Women Giving Circle. We turn 17 this year as an all-volunteer sisterhood of Asian American women of many ethnicities and backgrounds and generations. We have a member in her late 20s and one in her early 80s. We’ve raised and given $1.5 million in a grassroots way in support of Asian American women and gender-expansive folks who are using the tools of arts and culture to bring about progressive social change in their communities.

GLW: You’re writing a book called The Big We. What’s that about?

HL: It’s about how collectively, we’re much stronger than the sum of our parts, as seen with giving circles, collective givers, mutual aid, and book groups. Ultimately, the book is a paean for civic engagement. There’s lots of research about how giving circle members volunteer more, vote more, run for office, are happier and more engaged in their communities. I’m trying to make the case that giving circles are one important way for us to reanimate and reclaim our democracy – a way to exercise our democracy and civic engagement muscles. Especially when participation in churches, PTAs [parent–teacher associations], the Elks – all those civic associations that animated American culture two generations ago – are plummeting. People are looking for something that’s not church, where they can come together and talk about life’s important things. Collective giving and giving circles are a secular form of coming together in community to find purpose and meaning and do good together. 

GLW: The Asian Women Giving Circle applies the women and girls lens intersectionally. What does that look like?

HL: How do I separate out my Koreanness, my Americanness, my womanness? All these things make me who I am. That’s what it means to be intersectional. With the Asian Women Giving Circle, I think I was trying to create a group of Asian American sisters I’d never had. I grew up in Kansas City, and my brother and I were the only Asian kids in our schools. We grew up in a white suburb [that was] idyllic in ways but also sometimes downright racist. In hindsight, I craved a group of Asian American girlfriends. This giving circle has become that for me. I don’t know how you tease out what is the feminist lens versus what is the Asian American lens.

GLW: What is the state of philanthropy in this country?

HL: Well, we know a huge wealth transfer has begun, where trillions of [dollars in] assets will flow from the Great[est] Generation to Boomers to Gen Xers. And women and their children will benefit from most of that money. There’s research showing how moms influence their children’s giving more than dads do. If you add that to the wealth wave moving towards women and next-gen kids, it’s compelling not only that women and girls are the ones doing the work on the ground and are most affected by the harms from climate and violence – name your issue – but we’ll also be controlling a lot of the assets. 

GLW: So why is it so hard to get even women donors to apply that lens to their giving?

HL: It is often personal, one-on-one work to move dollars in that direction. It’s women influencing women – peer pressure but in a good way! We’ve been doing [the] Freedom School for Philanthropy curriculum with wealthy people, many of them women, and it’s created an “aha” moment. We literally make a table and show the intersection of women and girls and climate, women and girls and health outcomes, food, safety, peace, criminal justice – really everything – making the case for women and girls as a lens and not a lane in giving. But it requires that one-on-one time, that small cohort time with trusted peers, for people to get it in a way that starts to transform them. The [Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy] and the Ms. Foundation [for Women] reported that women and girls receive less than 2% of philanthropic dollars, and women and girls of color receive only pennies of that. There’s lots of work to be done.

GLW: What is the most important impact your work has had?

HL: I can’t pick one. But when the Asian Women Giving Circle started, I thought the money moved would be the most important impact. But I’ve since realized it’s really our sisterhood and our voice. In New York City during COVID lockdowns, when the anti-Asian hate stuff was peaking, I got shoved in a Trader Joe’s. One of my sisters got pushed to the sidewalk. Someone else got spat on. It was a traumatic time. And then the Atlanta shootings happened – of the spa workers. There’s that intersection again, that toxic brew of misogyny, violence against women, gun violence, anti-immigration sentiment, the sexification of Asian women’s bodies. All of that came together in this awful, perfect storm. Without this group of girlfriends, this time would’ve been much harder. There’s nothing like a group of women who share something in common to mourn and be in community together. And it’s been lasting not just for us, but for the people we’ve funded. The idea that narrative and cultural change are a foundational piece of social change has taken root. The artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez speaks beautifully about how culture moves faster than politics. It’s the ground upon which social change can happen. Gay marriage was planted on TV – Ellen DeGeneres, Modern Family – into living rooms across America, years before the right to marry was even considered possible in the political realm. I’m proud of having been a small part of that.