When Millennials Take Philanthropy Glocal

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Written by Kumaran Nadesan and Anupama Ranawana, Guest Contributors

It is increasingly clear that Millennials are re-imagining the philanthropy landscape. Derrick Feldman, in his research into The Millennium Impact, found that Millennials are expanding the traditional definition of philanthropy, that of giving time, talent, and treasure, to also provide a voice and network for the causes they adopt. In the context of such holistic agency, philanthropy has become an essential part of how Millennials connect and create value for their causes.

Studies show that many adults, between the ages of 20 to 35, often seek employment opportunities at organizations with strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) mandates that support either global causes like Fair Trade or the local food bank. Teresa McGlone and Judith Spain, writing for the Journal of Education for Business, found a high correlation between willingness to work and the attraction to a company that was “CSR minded”. Noah Drezner’s research into the philanthropic attitudes and behaviors of African American alumni in higher education fundraising corroborates these findings and further found significant CSR potential amongst multiracial workforces in particular. As workforces become more diverse and inclusive to better serve customers in the globalized economy, it creates opportunities, albeit slowly, for members of marginalised communities to climb the corporate ladder. These new leaders have expanded CSR mandates to advocate for causes in their own communities that were previously not as visible in the workplace, such as issues affecting women, immigrants, persons of color, and the LGBT community, to name a few. The globalized world, made smaller by social media, has also brought home the problems of the world thereby contributing to further understanding of the impact on and inter-connectedness to local issues, and adding new dimensions to why and how Millennials engage in philanthropy.

This new glocalised reality of philanthropy is nowhere more apparent than Canada. In 2014, the Toronto-based public policy think tank, the Mowat Centre announced that “Canada is now a Diaspora nation”. Canada is home to the largest percentage of immigrants amongst the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and attracts an increasing number of immigrants from Asia and Latin America every year. In its report, the Mowat Centre highlighted the great potential of these communities to act as Diaspora networks that can be effectively mobilized to bring significant economic and social benefits to their adopted countries. This is possible because Diaspora networks have substantial linkages to economies and communities beyond the borders of their adopted countries, help not only circulate information but also make it ‘stick’, and provide cultural knowledge and insight.

In Canada, the Sri Lankan Diaspora is an interesting example of how such networks are leveraged to pursue philanthropy interests in home and adopted countries, and how Millennials are leading such efforts.

The Sri Lankan Canadian Diaspora is made up of several ethnic groups, the majority of whom are Tamils who left Sri Lanka as a result of the violent civil war between the ethnic Sinhala majority state and ethnic Tamil separatist forces. While there is a steady increase in immigration of other ethnic groups from Sri Lanka to Canada, representation and impact of the Diaspora in Canada continues to be primarily shaped by Tamils. Over the past decade, the Diaspora has become increasingly integrated with Canada’s political, economic, and social fortunes. In doing so, it has adopted mainstream philanthropy causes such as health and the environment while also addressing issues reflective of their recent immigrant experience such as racism, poverty, asylum, and other social inequities.

While the Diaspora has engaged in political activism around Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem since the late 1970s, its engagement took on a popular philanthropic bent focused on sustainable development and humanitarian aid only since 2002 and especially as a result of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Though much of the latter engagement receded to the background as the civil war escalated and political and human rights advocacy took centre stage in the Diaspora, there is now growing momentum to continue and expand the philanthropy agenda, particularly in aid of war-impacted communities who continue to face a whole host of issues since the end of the war in 2009.

There is now a number of Diaspora organisations trying to address key issues facing these war-impacted communities in Sri Lanka. These include organisations that focus on one key area, for example health in the case of the International Medical Health Organisation—Canada and the Canadian Tamil Medical Association; groups such as the Charity Ball for Hope and Kalvi Connections, whose primary purpose is to fundraise for grassroots efforts in Sri Lanka; organizations that have historical connections to the communities in their home country, including village alliances, religious groups, and alumni associations such as the SJC87 Initiative; and organizations such as Visions Global Empowerment and Educate Lanka Foundation which are based in the U.S. but often reach into Canada to tap into a larger North American pool of volunteers, funders, and supporters.

Additionally, the Toronto-based comdu.it network is a good example of how the Diaspora is also exploring other ways of engaging its various communities to support more effective involvement in philanthropy work overseas. Established in 2014, this independent network, managed by a voluntary team of facilitators from different ethnic groups in the Sri Lankan Diaspora and drawn from diverse educational and professional backgrounds, is interested in facilitating the return of subject matter experts to Sri Lanka to strengthen the capacity of grassroots organizations while also learning from them in the process.

Most of these Diaspora efforts, whether it is political advocacy, local philanthropy, or international development as described above, are primarily led by first and second-generation Millennials and Generation-Xers who are thinking and doing glocally. Such engagement in international philanthropy, though, is not without its challenges that reflect certain geopolitical realities. However, it is clear there remains a net increase in the passion and purpose especially amongst Millennials to look beyond ethnic barriers to leverage their social, educational, and professional networks to collectively give their time, talent, treasure, voice, and network to push forward their philanthropy causes at home and abroad. Indeed, in 2013, the NATO Council of Canada used the example of the Sri Lankan Diaspora to highlight the rich potential of Canadian diasporas to help facilitate post-war redevelopment and peacebuilding in other parts of the world. This holds true for millennial philanthropy in the Sri Lankan Canadian Diaspora as it does in other diasporas around the world. After all, it’s personal, not business.

Anupama Ranawana is an Editor of the Journal of Politics, Religion and Ideology. Kumaran Nadesan is a civil servant in the Government of Ontario. They are part of the core team of facilitators who manage comdu.it.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s September/October 2014 print edition.