Inside L.A.’s Asian Pacific Community Fund

Like a mini United Way, APCF is a giving tree for Asian America.

By Michelle Woo

A teenage boy dodges a world of gangs through his involvement in the after-school programs offered by the Chinatown Service Center. A domestic violence survivor pieces together her shattered life after finding long-term transitional housing at the Asian Pacific Women’s Center. A man without health insurance learns how to control his diabetes in a free health workshop offered by the Asian Pacific Health Care Venture.

Helping make each of these victories possible is the Asian Pacific Community Fund.

Sort of like a mini-Asian United Way, the APCF is a community-based fund, the bridge between 29 AAPI-focused organizations throughout Los Angeles County, called “affiliate agencies,” and those who want to help Asian Americans in need but may not know where to start. The agencies range from the Asian American Drug Abuse Program, which provides substance abuse treatment and prevention services, to Visual Communications, an organization dedicated to promoting accurate portrayals of Asian Americans through media arts. They support people from all walks of life, including disadvantaged children, the disabled, seniors, immigrants, refugees, battered women and low-income families.

According to APCF Executive Director Debra Fong, there are lingering misconceptions about Asian Americans, namely, that they’re all educated and financially stable, which can result in a lack of funding for disadvantaged groups. “The biggest misconception is that Asian Americans don’t need help,” she says. “But there are real needs in our communities.”

The statistics are alarming. In California, about 12 percent of AAPIs are uninsured, higher than the uninsured rates for whites (7 percent) and African Americans (11 percent). In the Los Angeles area, Asians have a higher rate of senior poverty than the general population: 12 percent versus the county average of 10 percent. And approximately 40 percent of Asians in California are limited English proficient, most of whom are working-age adults.

Since its inception in 1990, APCF, based in Los Angeles, has raised and distributed more than $1.5 million in unrestricted grants to its affiliates. Much of the funding comes from its workplace giving campaigns. Staff members and volunteers visit companies across Southern California, including Kaiser Permanente, AT&T, Wells Fargo Bank and Southern California Edison, and offer employees the opportunity to make charitable contributions through one-time gifts, or, a popular option—payroll deductions.

“If I would ask you for $100, you might think that’s too much, especially in these times,” explains Bill Watanabe, founder of APCF and the executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, one of the affiliate agencies. “But maybe you could do $10 a month or an amount that doesn’t hit hard on the pocketbook all at once. For us, this little bit can grow to be quite a bit.”

Watanabe started promoting the idea of a network in 1985. The African American community had launched the Brotherhood Crusade, which was the first culturally focused alternative to United Way. “I thought, well, we really need one for the Asian American community,” Watanabe says.

At first, Watanabe had to beg organizations to get on board. He promoted the idea that there’s power in numbers. For instance, when it comes to lobbying for government action, a coalition that represents many organizations will have more clout than an individual group. In 1990, the APCF was officially formed.

Today, APCF collectively serves more than 250,000 people of all ethnicities, helping to fund health programs, after-school activities, low-income housing, career training and legal services. Funds are distributed using a formula that rewards agencies that are most active in APCF activities, while factoring in the size and staff capacity of the organization. New affiliate agencies are selected through an application and review process.

It’s all for the people, staff members say. Fong says she’ll always remember the story of one woman who came to the Little Tokyo Service Center. She was an immigrant involved in a hit-and-run accident, which prevented her from working and receiving health insurance. She ended up on the streets. The Little Tokyo Service Center set her up with a social worker, who worked with her for a year to get her the care she needed. She now lives in a low-cost housing unit and has health benefits. “I always wondered how people end up [homeless],” Fong says. “Sometimes they have addiction problems, but for this woman, it wasn’t like that. She didn’t do anything wrong.”

APCF encourages community members not only to give to others, but also to ask for help when needed.

“Sometimes Asians don’t speak up enough,” Fong says. “But the louder you are, the more you get.”

APCF is hosting its 4th annual “Giving For All Seasons” fundraising gala on July 15 at the Grammy Museum Terrace at L.A. Live. The event, hosted by ABC news anchor David Ono, recognizes those who have shown commitment in advancing the Asian Pacific Islander community through philanthropy and service. Honorees include the Honorable Gary Yamaguchi, Cathay Bank, Kaiser Permanente Asian Pacific American Network and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Los Angeles County.