FSG as Gardener: Fostering Green Shoots of Philanthropy in Asia

The Chinese will tell you that bamboo is resilient, its root systems self-propagating, and its form reflective of local conditions. Among the hardiest plants, producing the most durable woods, the strength of bamboo comes from its flexibility. Once planted it is difficult to suppress.

In 2012, The Global Philanthropy Forum partnered with the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) of Singapore, Resource Alliance and the Community Foundation Singapore to launch the first Philanthropy in Asia Summit, a gathering of Asian philanthropists and those they support throughout the region. Asian philanthropists gathered there to teach, to learn, to reinforce one another so that philanthropy in the region, like bamboo, can grow and flourish.

The Summit came on the heels of a smaller Beijing gathering of professionals in the field—the China US Strategic Philanthropy (CUSP) workshop—sponsored by the China Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University and the East West Center in Hawaii. The workshop was co-moderated by FSG partner Jeff Kutash and was designed for to share best practices on strategic philanthropy in the region.

Much of Asia has enjoyed extraordinary economic growth. Yet, for the most part, that growth has not been broad-based and development has not been inclusive. FSG, the Global Philanthropy Forum and Western grant-makers like the Rockefeller, Gates and Ford Foundations, have found that indigenous philanthropists are eager to respond. But, these local donors believe that existing NGOs lack the capacity to effectively absorb or deploy their funds. And so, rather than create grants programs, many Asian philanthropists opt instead to start their own non-profits, or “operating foundations.”

Many Asian societies have a culture of giving that dates back millennia. And there is no dearth of wealthy individuals and businesses willing to play a significant philanthropic role. While the tax laws in many countries have not kept pace with the philanthropic impulse, Asian philanthropists at the Summit agreed that the larger barrier is lack of confidence in grantee organizations, whether government-sponsored or independent. This deficit of trust remains a primary barrier to giving.

Faced with small, under-resourced grass roots organizations, local donors lack confidence that nonprofits will be able to deliver on their missions. And so, a handful of strategic philanthropists have risen to the challenge, by systematically investing in the strengthening of potential social partners. They are both importing and inventing models, and their potential for impact is great.

They have launched infrastructure organizations that generate knowledge, build skills, promote transparency, and assure accountability, to unlock philanthropic dollars that would otherwise stay on the sidelines. This includes organizations such as the China Foundation Center, modeled after its New York namesake and mentor; Singapore’s Lien Centre for Social Innovation; and India's Center for Advancement of Philanthropy and others. Beijing Normal's Philanthropy Research Institute receives both private philanthropic dollars and the government support other university programs enjoy.

Asian philanthropists built NVPC and other supporting organizations so as to transfer knowledge among centers of learning, communities of practice, and sources of giving. To build the capacity of philanthropy itself, they have joined organizations like the Global Philanthropy Forum that transfer knowledge between staffed and unstaffed foundations, upping the game of each. And they’ve engaged groups like FSG to generate research, develop local case studies, and offer models that leverage the private as well as the social sector.

With their emphasis on sustainability—and a desire to bring solutions to scale—Asian philanthropists are also leveraging the capacities of commercial actors. Asia Venture Philanthropy Network, India’s Dasra, and others not only connect investors to small and growing businesses that provide goods, services and income-producing opportunities to the poor, but also assist with business plans and help shepherd micro-businesses through their proof-of-concept phase.

At the same time, FSG is working to ensure that the capacities of large corporations are brought to bear, encouraging and documenting “shared value” strategies, in which private sector leaders put their own companies to the service of social goals, strengthening local communities in the process. Examples include Eli Lilly and Company, which has developed the Lilly NCD Partnership, to provide local healthcare clusters in India with better trained and resourced professionals. FSG has also advised India’s Godrej Group, a $3.3 billion global corporation led by successive generations of the philanthropic Godrej family. The company plans to train one million rural and urban youth for skilled jobs by 2020, helping to close the employment gap among the young.

Not only do Asian givers hope to build the capacity of both the civic and private sectors to advance social goals, but they also wish to build the capacity of local governments as service providers. Singaporean foundations like Temasek have forged effective tripartite and transnational partnerships with local ministries of health and education, as well as Singaporean universities and on the ground organizations that train future health workers and educators in their respective countries. Over the long term, these partnerships will build capacity, reduce dependency and improve lives.

It is easy for us in the United States to see ourselves as having unique purchase on the philanthropic impulse and organized giving given the role philanthropy has played throughout our history and the robust civil society that our democracy enjoys as a result. But, as we debate the tax deductions associated with charitable gifts, we are mindful that charity is not new on the other side of the globe, and strategic philanthropy is on the rise.

To foster these green shoots, Asian philanthropists are working to strengthen the fledgling non-profit sector, socially conscience businesses, accountable governments—and one another. As a result, they have every reason to believe that, like bamboo, Asian philanthropy will be flexible, strong and self-propagating.

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