Grapevine Q&A: Ashton Kao

Sep 8, 2022
Founding members in 2014

My mother suggested we start a youth giving circle: an Asian fund supporting Asian youth. According to research from, funding designated for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities only accounts for 0.20 percent of all U.S. grantmaking. So, we thought there was something we could do to help our community.

Why did you decide to start your group?
When I was seven, my brothers and I started flipping homes under my father’s guidance. We used 50% of the profits to start a charity called The Awesome Fund to support awesome projects and issues that my brothers and I were passionate about— such as helping out stray animals. The root of this compassion came from a monumental childhood movie of mine. The legendary Dolphin Tale sparked my first interest in helping out those in need. Seeing a dolphin without a tail really pulled on my six-year-old heartstrings and when the movie was over a donation link for the dolphins was flashed on the screen. I immediately told my mom to whip out her wallet and donate as much as she could, so that in return I could know in my heart that a special dolphin somewhere in Florida was living a happier life.

As I grew older, so did my compassion for others. I wanted to expand further than helping dolphins and animals, as I recognized the issues we faced as a society. My brothers and I expanded the outreach of the Awesome Fund over the years as other families began to hear about the idea, they loved it so much that they asked us how they could join the Awesome Fund. But since it was self-funded, my mother suggested we start a youth giving circle: an Asian fund supporting Asian youth. According to research from, funding designated for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities only accounts for 0.20 percent of all U.S. grantmaking. So, we thought there was something we could do to help our community. And in 2014, we started the Asian American Youth Giving Circle with my two brothers and seven of our friends from school.

What draws members to your group?
The people in our group are drawn to us because we do meaningful projects that matter the most to us with our friends and family. An example would be for the past four to five years, we have supported an organization called H4OPE, It is run by one single lady who tutors and mentors refugee children in an apartment complex in southwest Houston. Every year, we visit the students, throw them a party, bring pizzas, snacks, and apples, and donate funds to help each student buy new clothes and a new pair of shoes.  We fit every student to ensure their clothes fit.

The best part is being able to interact with the students and community and being able to come back to them every summer.  It brings us so much joy to see the impact we bring to this community right in front of our faces. Seeing their faces light up with a bright smiles and cheery eyes when they receive their new clothes and shoes is something priceless to us.

Volunteering isn't just about fun; it's also about doing something good for others. We've seen people looking for volunteer opportunities who don't know where to turn. So when we post on Facebook about interesting projects we're doing, people are drawn to it because they want to help others as well. We also have various projects—we don't just focus on one organization—and people are drawn to us because they know that through our group, they can learn about what other organizations are doing in their community and how they can support them.

Current members in 2022
Current members in 2022

How has your group evolved over time?
My mom helped me, my brothers, and seven of our friends set up the Asian American Youth Giving Circle (AAYGC) in 2014. But over time, my brothers and I took over the leadership roles. During the beginning stages of this project, my mother managed the circle because she has experience in grant writing from being a co-founder of a similar organization called the Asian American Giving Circle (AAGC) and is also a board member at Greater Houston Community Foundation.

At first, my mom helped us find the agencies for our cause. She organized the site visits and helped us decide how much to give to the organizations. Over time, as we got older and learned how the grant cycle worked, we were able to run everything by ourselves, from fundraising with a membership model to deciding the area of focus for our nonprofit organization and approving nonprofits who were eligible for grants. This is how much we have evolved over the years. Everybody who left for college had a very good knowledge of how to set up a giving circle and write grants and make a difference in their community. Many of them continue to do amazing philanthropic passion projects.

How can you see the impact that you’ve made with your collective donations?

I'm proud to say since our inception in 2014, we have given over $95,000 in grants to organizations that serve Asian youth or youth in general. The impact on our communities has been life-changing. In addition to grants, every member volunteers over 100 hours serving the community. We each have our own different organizations we love, but we all give back. So, over the years, AAYGC members have volunteered thousands of hours for various organizations, programs, and events that help benefit the youth community and beyond. For example, I remember visiting an after-school program at Las Americas Middle School when I was young. This after-school program was primarily for newly arrived refugees, and they spoke very little English. My brothers and I brought them Christmas gifts, and almost all of them asked for soccer balls. We thought it would be fun to play soccer with them. We were so shocked at how good they were! In fact, they had demolished my brothers and I later that year, even though we were around three years older than them. The following year, we received a grant proposal to help the group start a soccer club. They already had volunteer coaches; all they needed was money for uniforms, snacks, and transportation. We were able to help them do this through Amaanah Refugee Services. It was so heartwarming to hear that some of the boys playing soccer were able to receive college scholarships because of this grant. Eventually, we also started a Soccer Club for Girls; I knew the impact would be significant because the school district (HSID) eventually loved the idea that we no longer needed to provide a grant for funds because the school district started paying for it themselves and continues to do so.

Some of our projects are multi-year. We've been working together for a long time and know each other well. We hug each other, and we're like family. These are lasting memories that we'll never forget and friendships that will last forever. And as we grow, it continues to ripple like a wave of positive energy into the community. Our giving circle started small but has grown rapidly over time. Through our collective effort and positive intentions, I can see that we're creating a massive wave of positivity that will be injected back into the community.

What is your group focused on right now?
Each year, before the annual meeting, we discuss a few ideas for our areas of focus. At our annual meeting, we usually decide on one primary focus and maybe one or two that we often like. For example, one of our constants is education. We have supported after-school programs and summer camps yearly in addition to our primary focus. But each year, we also have something new to bring attention to, and because of the pandemic, we wanted to bring attention to issues with mental health for youth. We've read that there's more suicide amongst adolescents during the pandemic. And as a group, we also know ourselves or have friends who have suffered from mental health issues, unable to do anything due to the limitations of the pandemic. It's already not easy being a teen—we have the pressure of going to school, then worrying about getting into college. Now things are virtual, we no longer have the social support we usually do, and our parents might be more stressed. So, our focus for this year is to support Asian youth in their efforts to better deal with mental health challenges. We have recently donated $5,000 to the Chinese Community Center to support this cause.

How can people get involved?
If people would like to join our group, they can check out our website and follow us on Facebook. We have annual events where it's public, and everyone is welcome.