It’s Not (Just) About the Money

Elegant and well-heeled would be the best way to describe them. I smiled at these two women of indeterminate age who I had just met at the launch of the UBS-INSEAD Study on Family Philanthropy in Asia. As I moved to introduce them to one another, they both laughed and said, “We’ve known each other since…” putting the flat of their hands forward at small-child-height.

“ We were neighbors,” the petite Chinese woman said.

“Our apartment was here, and their apartment was there,” said the smiling Indian woman, pointing her finger in the upward diagonal.

“Didn’t you play marbles?” One asked the other with a mischievous grin.

“Oh yes, all the time. And with the boys!”

“And every day your mom—rest her soul.  She was a real force of nature. She would go to the market over there on…”

“And my father, he’s not well now, but we take care of him at home…”

“Yes, we knew each other.”

“ But it’s not like that anymore.”

“ No nothing is like that anymore.”

There was silence as I imagined them thinking about all the changes—education, jobs, marriage, kids, and clearly wealth—that had happened since those long-ago days. For a brief moment I could almost see the bustling apartments these women described, in the brand-new nation Singapore was 30 or so years ago. Where families knew one another, children played in empty lots, and what bound everyone together was that they were all strivers.

We drifted apart as the 150+ person crowd wandered into the auditorium to hear the current state of family philanthropy as described by the recently completed study. Despite the fact that we are all living in the midst of Asia’s economic engine, the stats were still mind-boggling.

  •  China now has over 1 million US dollar millionaires.
  •  In recent years, Indian households have witnessed the highest absolute gains in wealth in the world.
  • By the end of 2009 there were some 3 million Asian Pacific high net worth individuals, equaling the number in Europe for the first time, and their wealth totaled US $9.7 trillion.

But the rising tide has not raised all boats.

  • In sheer numbers the region is still the largest locus of poverty and deprivation in the world. In 2005 there were over 660 million people in India and China alone who lived on less than US $1.25 per day.
  •  In India, the wealthiest 5% of the population control 40% of the country’s wealth.

All of these statistics from the report were only the prelude to the substance of the discussion.  Through 200 quantitative surveys and over 100 in-depth interviews, the report’s author Mahboob Mahmood, Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise captured themes on motivations for giving, priorities, and philanthropic approaches.

The image that emerges is a charitable sector led by closely held family businesses with a strong entrepreneurial ethos, complex intergenerational relationships, delicate succession and legacy challenges, and a deep awareness (particularly on the part of the patriarchs and older generations) of the power of education to change the course of lives in a single generation. Philanthropy is a useful mechanism for reinforcing shared values with the goal of supporting family cohesion and harmony.

Education is by far the largest area of investment, with poverty alleviation and health distant seconds and thirds. Arts/culture (4%), the environment (4%) and civil rights (1%) were small also-rans.

Among the challenges cited was lack of experienced staff, the perception (and sometimes reality) of a limited number of high-impact NGO partners, and difficulty in finding philanthropic co-investors who are aligned in mission.

The incredibly generous families who participated in the study are to be lauded for their leadership. They are impressive fonts of giving but as yet there exist few networks of strategic philanthropy that can achieve what the authors called, “sustained transformational impact in Asia.”

I was struck by the words of panelist Laurence Lien, CEO of Singapore’s National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and a member of one of Singapore’s most philanthropic families when he said, “The most important use of philanthropy is social innovation and social change. Charity is important, but there is much more to do.”

His comments took me back to the conversation I’d had earlier with those two elegant, well-heeled ladies. Money provides privilege to those who possess it but it also changes everything. It can create fractures in families, as well as in societies. It can disconnect people from their broader community. And the relentless drive for economic growth can take a deep toll on cultural traditions as well as our physical environment.

The challenge ahead for philanthropists in Asia, indeed philanthropists everywhere, is to engage with communities in developing solutions.  Charity is usually top-down, highly transactional and rarely transformative. It is important, but not enough. Transformational impact can be achieved by moving beyond charity with strategic analysis, community engagement, and emphasis on our shared vision and common destiny. Networks and collaboration are required. Civil society can play an essential role in reweaving the fabric of society. But it requires more than charity. It requires vision more than just money.

The title of this post was at least partially inspired by the Jesse J. song my kids adore which is on a regular loop in our house…


  1. alexa cortes culwell

    It is great to understand how wealth and philanthropy are playing out in your current part of the world, Crystal. The end of your post reminds me of a study out of Boston profiled by the Atlantic this past year called Secret Fears of the Super Rich:

    This deeply resonated with me in my work with high net worth, multi-generational families.

    Your post made me think how the largest commonality may be the anxiety/insecurity that wealth brings, a topic this research takes on with some promise. Creating early networks of these folks is exciting and I would love to learn more about how people reacted to the data presented and what people are actually starting to do philanthropically, if that was shared.

    • crystalhayling

      Great comments, Alexa.

      I am by no means an expert on philanthropy in Asia. Myself and many others here will continue to mine his report because it adds so much richness to all of our understanding of the burgeoning field.

      Particular thanks for the link to The Atlantic article.

      What a provocative discussion on the wealthy in the US. It heralds some similar themes as the UBS-INSEAD Asia study I reference. The Asian wealth study also points out the strong philanthropic impulse among the wealthy in this region and explores some of the challenges.

      One reason this regional study is so important is it breaks through reticence to discuss wealth and philanthropy. I am particularly hopeful watching the younger generations find their voice and become even more engaged in philanthropic endeavors. The Asian family philanthropy study points out aspirational future directions with 36% expressing openness to funding social entrepreneurship and 17% to funding values-based investing. Likewise, the strong connection of family philanthropy to the family business may suggest openness to doing social good regardless of nonprofit or for-profit status–concepts that are taking root in the US as well.

      Overall, I am learning and I hope a dialog will continue to grow.

  2. Renetia Martin

    fabulous blog!! i am so happy to be reading your writing again…there is a great need — well written thoughtful information–thank you…hope all is well.

  3. Trung tâm Hỗ trợ Phát triển Cộng đồng LIN

    Thank you for your blog post! The LIN Center for Community Development (, studied “leaders” in corporate philanthropy in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, back in 2009. Among the Vietnamese companies in our research, we found that most of the philanthropic decisions were made by the Chairman and were based more on personal preferences (donations were more like a family grant as opposed to a corporate grant).

    Our organization’s mission is to support individuals and institutions that want their giving to be more strategic while simultaneously building the capacity of local nonprofits so they can make the best use of those funds. We hear donors say that the local nonprofits are not operating effectively, but they need support to improve their work. I like that you challange people to join networks with others that share the same vision. Networks and collaboration are required to build (and maintain) strong communities – yes, indeed!

    Are you involved in the launch of the AVPN in Singapore?

    • crystalhayling

      Thanks for reading and for introducing me to the LIN Center for Community Development. Looks like you all are doing great work.

      Interesting, and not surprising, that you found similar findings regarding charity vs. strategic philanthropy or investment. I noted from your website that you all held a donors’ forum last year which is a terrific way to get donors connected and learning from one another. I look forward to checking back in with your site and continuing to learn from what you are doing.

      Yes, I have met regularly with Doug Miller and am involved with the AVPN launch here in Singapore. I’m looking forward to learning a great deal from them.

      Let’s keep in touch, and thanks again for sharing her thoughts.

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