Some six years ago over Labor Day weekend, a few Iranian American philanthropists met in Napa, California and set out to move the needle on Iranian giving in America. They wanted to get the thirty-year old community in the U.S. to give more, to give more strategically and to become more active American citizens. In early 2006, this group donated money and time to jump-start PARSA Community Foundation and soon began to award general and donor advised grants. PARSA Community Foundation conducted semi-annual, competitive and merit-based grant cycles during which detailed applications were evaluated by an independent, rotating grant advisory board made up of subject experts and community activists. Grant applications, blind competition and democratic grant selection were firsts for a community that has had limited experience with civil society in its 2500 year history.
In the ensuing five years, the Foundation went on to award nearly 250 grants and $7.75 million to social entrepreneurs and enterprising nonprofits. Just over $4 million went to support Persian arts and culture initiatives while civic engagement and leadership development causes received over $1.2 million and $800k, respectively. Humanitarian causes, not initially part of the foundation’s mission but favored later, took almost a million dollars and another $500k went to a multitude of other causes. We are proud of these grants because, with the help of the community, we examined them thoroughly for leverage and impact, and monitored their progress. Often, experience with the application process, vetting by the community, and a PARSA grant boosted a nonprofit’s appeal to the broader community and emboldened its ambitions. PARSA was determined to end up with a handful of strong and enduring nonprofits and broke new ground when it began making capacity building grants – instead of the more traditional project-based ones. With a national platform, donors gained visibility to the best grantees, even if they were 3,000 miles away, and nonprofits found a way of reaching hundreds of donors with a single application.
Along the way, we watched Iranians become more systematic about their giving, write bigger checks, and raise more funds for their favorite causes. PARSA’s outreach through galas, newsletters, sector digests, philanthropy forums and workshops, an NGO directory, and an NGO summit ignited a flurry of activities, most of all energizing the youth. For the first time, members of a group of 8 to 22 year olds were publicly recognized for exemplary community service and PARSA’s Philanthropist of the Year and Volunteerism and Action awards celebrated community leaders for their service to others. These recognitions were important for our community because previously high praise had been reserved for math prodigies and business leaders. The community was hooked.
Growth requires change and our road was not without bumps. Organizations with ethnic contexts can have special challenges and PARSA was no exception. Differences over whether we should grow the endowment to become sustainable as originally planned or spend the endowment in the hopes of getting more donors, for example, preoccupied discussions. Finding Iranian-American professional fundraisers and nonprofit managers proved difficult. In spite of all the generous volunteers and donors, some Foundation leaders did not feel that there was enough broad community appetite to scale a national institution as rapidly or as easily as they had hoped. Hence it was decided to invest PARSA’s assets into the organizations with the best chances of preserving and advancing Persian arts and culture, developing community leaders, and promoting civic engagement and integration. This could be done over a ten year period or through one “big give” and, for the sake of minimizing costs and maximizing grant dollars, we opted for the latter. We broadcast a request for proposals in April 2010 and the spend-down process kicked off with 227 letters of inquiry, requesting over $50 million to address real needs and aspirations of the global Iranian community. Next came the formidable task of choosing grantees. Aristotle was not kidding when he said: “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”
We had to come up with a whole new set of guidelines for this last grant cycle. Priority was given to initiatives with the potential for enduring impact as opposed to one-off projects with limited influence. We wanted to secure all leverage we could in the way of matching funds. It was important to inject capacity building funds into nonprofits that had a record of engaging grassroots constituencies and springboard them to the next level, and to launch programs that would not find funding otherwise. After an initial review, 152 projects were selected to submit full applications. Over several months, PARSA’s Board of Directors and its independent Grant Advisory Committee read through the applications, submitted rankings, and recommended grant amounts. Given the high stakes, additional steps were added to the approval process to ensure utmost transparency, democracy, and most importantly, impact. We are proud of the end results.
Dedicating $250,000 to the Iranian Genome Project at Stanford University was forward thinking. It enables scientist to get a first look at the genetics of the Iranian people with their diverse ethnicities, as a starting point for potential health interventions that can use genetics for assessing the risk of various diseases and for predicting likely drug responses. Almost $2.4 million was invested in 12 Iranian Studies programs across the United States and in Canada to fund lectureships in Persian language and culture, graduate scholarships, textbook and curriculum development for modern Persian language studies, film and lecture series to engage the broader public, educating international leaders and promoting public dialog. Iran Heritage Foundation was funded to establish institutional partnerships in the U.S., much as it has done in the U.K., as well as provide ongoing oversight for PARSA’s university and museum grants. Iranian Alliances Across Borders now has a full-time professional staff and is reaching hundreds of youth through camps, conferences and college campus outreach. The list goes on. To gain a deeper appreciation for the range of PARSA grants and accomplishments over that last six years, we invite you to review the PARSA CF in Numbers presentation as well as the videos at the bottom of this letter.
With the assets distributed to the community, and the nonprofit corporation dissolved on September 6, PARSA closes its doors. Our community faces many threats and we have to work hard – not only as business professionals but also as activists and public servants, as cultural explorers and emissaries, and as community volunteers and philanthropists – to make Iranians a recognized force for good in America and around the world. I hope that fellow travelers on this philanthropic journey will continue to fund promising social entrepreneurs, find a place in their giving budgets for worthy causes outside of their local realm, and support the youth around them to pursue a life of service. I am encouraged by the first and second generations of Iranians abroad who transcend traditional divisions and stumbling blocks to embrace their Persian identity to its fullest and, at the same time, blossom into engaged and active American citizens. We hope reason prevails and Iran-U.S. relations improve allowing future generations to not only give to Iran but also to take their American friends and family to visit one of the most ancient and hospitable civilizations on earth.
Finally, we give our heartfelt thanks to all of our supporters, donors, staff, volunteers, advisors, and grantees. Your impact was real and permanent.
Founder and Chairman
PARSA Community Foundation