Rapid Blog: Luis Avila explores Hispanic philanthropy in West Michigan

This Rapid Blog comes to us from Luis Avila, partner and labor and employment attorney at Varnum LLP. Highly invested in his community, Avila is also a board member of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Grand Rapids Symphony, and the Grand Rapids Art Museum, among others. This essay is his own and does not necessarily reflect the views of Rapid Growth or its parent company, Issue Media Group.
In this Rapid Blog, Attorney Luis Avila explores the Hispanic community's vital and diverse approach to philanthropic giving.
I am regularly asked for my opinion on what it will take to engage the West Michigan Hispanic community in local philanthropy. While I firmly believe no one person or group has the answer to this question, I'd like to offer my voice, based on my personal experiences, and encourage others to offer their voice and insights to this important conversation.

By way of background, I am an immigrant that was born in Mexico City and lived there approximately 14 years of my life. Coincidentally, that is about the same amount of time I've lived in West Michigan (with other countries and cities rounding out my 36 years of age). My extended family all lives in Mexico City, while my immediate family all lives in West Michigan. My wife is from West Michigan and is not Hispanic. My two sons were both born in Michigan. We speak both English and Spanish at home, though Spanglish is strongly discouraged. My nine year-old son identifies more with his Mexican heritage, while the five year-old believes Mexico and Michigan are one and the same. "I am an attorney in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but have studied and worked in Mexico, the US and Europe.

Throughout my legal career, both as a law student and as an attorney, I have helped hundreds of immigrants navigate the complicated immigration process—either at detention centers and immigration court or through the cumbersome visa, residency, and citizenship process. I have met their families and heard their stories. I also have a strong desire to do my part to improve my community and am therefore involved in various non-profit organizations throughout West Michigan.

It is no secret that philanthropy across the United States is changing. Donors with large estates, foundations, and sizeable multi-year charitable gifts are getting harder to find. Baby boomers, a generation known for its philanthropic giving, are exiting the workforce and therefore making smaller contributions to their non-profits of choice. Thus, organizations that have relied heavily on this donor base are now being forced to appeal to a much larger and diverse group.

According the United States Census Bureau, the non-Hispanic White population will comprise less than 50 percent of the nation's total population by the year 2044. By the year 2060, approximately 29 percent of the United States population is projected to be Hispanic, which will be more than one-quarter of the total population. Local estimates of the Hispanic community's growth are similarly optimistic. While I could spend an entire piece citing statistics of the growth and purchasing power of the Hispanic community in West Michigan, suffice it to say that non-profit organizations across our region have taken notice of these trends and recognize the need to develop a donor base that is representative of the demographics in West Michigan and therefore include the Hispanic population.

In terms of engaging the Hispanic community's philanthropy, I believe there are several challenges facing the non-profit community in West Michigan. Some of those challenges have nothing to do with the organizations themselves, but instead with the nature of the community they seek to engage.

First, it is difficult for anyone to invest in a community they do not consider their own. There are many Hispanics in our community that are first or second generation immigrants. Many of those immigrants have temporary visas, or no visas at all, and are therefore anywhere from a few years to a few hours away from returning to their country of origin (regardless of their choice). It is very difficult for those Hispanic immigrants to think about philanthropic giving to non-profit organizations in West Michigan when they simply do not know whether or not this will be their permanent community. Moreover, the current national narrative surrounding immigration does not provide a welcoming environment for Hispanic immigrants seeking to make this country, and our region, their home.

Second, Hispanic immigrants have a strong sense of loyalty to their families in their country of origin and therefore send much of their discretionary income home. In 2016, immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean sent $69 billion dollars to their families in their home country (known as "remittances"). 40 percent of those remittances went to Mexico. This statistic reinforces the notion that Latin American immigrants come to the United States seeking a better life for their family, who often still resides in their country of origin.

Thus, Hispanics will often send most of their discretionary income to their families in their home countries and will unlikely have much interest in giving some of that money to a local non-profit organization. This, however, is more of an issue for first and second generation Hispanic immigrant families. Hispanic children that were born in the United States, who have grown up and gone to school here, and have likely never met their family "back home," do not have the same sense of loyalty to their family in their parents' home country and will therefore rarely send as much money, or as regularly, as the first generations. Thus, the generational shift this country is experiencing (where the average age is expected to continue dropping) will likely help in terms of increasing the number of Hispanic philanthropists.

Third, philanthropy is cultural and each Latin American country treats philanthropy differently. To better understand this, the West Michigan community must recognize that Hispanics do not consider themselves "Hispanics," but instead natives of their country of origin (as a side note, many Hispanics prefer to be called Latino(a), or the plural Latinx, when being referred to in a generic fashion). The term Hispanic, while making it easier to aggregate a group of similar people for statistical or discussion purposes, entirely ignores a large and critical part of each individual's identity.

For example, Mexico has a strong philanthropic culture, but it is largely peer-to-peer or religious in nature. In other words, Mexican individuals regularly give money directly to the church or to those in need, be it their neighbor, friend or family member, but rarely through a non-profit organization. In addition, Mexico has historically not had a strong non-profit sector since most social services, and most forms of entertainment and education, are government run. For example, health care, education (preschool to higher education), crisis relief, children's food baskets, etc. are typically funded by the government. Similarly, almost all art forms—performing arts, museums, etc.—are funded at a national or local government level. Thus, the notion of donating time or other resources to non-profit organizations in West Michigan offering these services is likely a foreign concept with which most Mexican immigrants will be unfamiliar.

However, as with remittances, second and third generation Hispanics will have grown up with a different philanthropic culture and will likely be much more inclined to engage in local giving than their parents or grandparents. Thus, organizations must make an effort to engage younger Hispanic generations to ensure they are familiar with the many essential organizations in our community.

In short, we cannot approach Hispanic philanthropy with the same development model West Michigan organizations have used for decades. Organizations committed to developing a Hispanic philanthropic community must accept that they are playing the long game and place less of an emphasis on immediate results. Therefore, if we seek to truly develop and engage tomorrow's Hispanic philanthropists, we must invest in Hispanic youth today. Anything else would simply ignore the unique nature of this important community.
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