I just returned to the U.S. after five years of living in Singapore and working with philanthropists and NGOs across Asia. As I resettle and reconnect, friends ask how I’ve changed since I left. While there are many things I learned in Asia, I am overwhelmed by how much I missed the “nonprofit-ness” of the U.S. I missed the way the third sector in the U.S. is understood to be a vibrant part of society. I missed the way nonprofits create public spaces for caring, inclusion, and recovery.
Nonprofits raise unpopular issues and express opinions that often lead to policy changes. From Black Lives Matter to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, World Wildlife Fund, Special Olympics, or Freedom to Marry, nonprofits create a collective space for conversations that need to happen. These nonprofits spark dialogue and build momentum for shifting public opinion and policy action.
Nonprofits open a window into beauty and poetry. Public art, theatre, and dance (to name just a few artistic forms) are critical expressions of our individual and collective identities. Diversity is increasing in every country and the process of how “they” become “us” is often described and facilitated through the arts. Small and large nonprofits alike give us a taste of the uniqueness of other cultures, even while we identify universal themes. Nonprofits hold space for new, outside, or “other” artists that might not get distribution in market-mediated venues.
Nonprofits can also establish ideals for leadership. The magnitude of public anger when nonprofit scandals break is in direct proportion to the public’s expectation that nonprofit leaders should hold themselves to even higher ethical standards than their counterparts in business or in government. While the sector may not always live up to those standards, it is an important role we in the third sector should embrace. This is not about taking vows of poverty or perfection, but is rather about maintaining critical inquiry of institutions on issues of governance, hierarchy, fairness, and equity.
Meanwhile, across Asia the role of nonprofits is being curtailed like never before. NGO voices are being silenced and regulated. And yet in my five years abroad, I regularly met people in China, India, and Southeast Asia who are dedicating themselves to starting and working in nonprofits. And not just to provide services, but to build community. These people — many of them newly-degreed young people — want to build meaning in their lives beyond wealth accumulation. Bucking roles assigned by family or society, they exhibit tremendous strength of spirit in their efforts to build robust nonprofit ecosystems.
My time abroad brought into stark relief the critical role our nonprofits play in weaving together the threads of our communities. Sure, we can get a lot better. But absence from this nonprofit community did indeed make my heart grow fonder.
Crystal Hayling is former CEO of the Blue Shield California Foundation and a member of the CEP Board of Directors. Follow her on Twitter at @CHayling.
Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, recently visited Singapore and hosted a series of talks and meetings to stimulate and support impact investing in Asia.
Dr Rodin joined a heavy-hitting panel that included Asian Development Bank, International Finance Corporation, Rangsutra (a social enterprise), Credit Asia Capital, and Impact Investment Exchange Asia (IIX). They addressed a filled-to-capacity crowd at INSEAD business school where 100+ students, investors, philanthropists, bankers and academics listened to their call to action.
The speakers outlined what they perceive to be the many benefits of impact investing: social as well as financial returns, side-stepping inefficient or corrupt governments, unleashing entrepreneurism, and building enterprises that can be sustained without philanthropic support.
The idea that markets can be harnessed to solve social problems is not a new one, but I have observed that the concept holds particular resonance among the socially-minded wealthy here in Singapore and some parts of South & South East Asia. My conversations with current and interested impact investors and fund managers suggest some potential reasons why this might be so:
1) The power of the market is indisputable and omnipresent. Year over year double-digit growth throughout Asia has decreased the percentage of the population living in poverty (though absolute numbers remain frighteningly high) and the creation of a middle class has been achieved and appears sustainable in some countries.
2) Fewer wealthy individuals have ‘cashed out’ of the enterprises that made their money. Wealth is more likely to come from family businesses and ideally successive generations continue to run those businesses. The money feels more like ‘working capital’ than an endowment.
3) Family offices are built to manage investments. Impact investing fits better within that organizational ethos. Language matters in establishing comfort and familiarity. ‘Structuring deals’ is more compatible with those in the family office than ‘making grants.’
4) Many third generation, high net worth individuals in their 30s and 40s have a finance or investing background. The generation of ‘new philanthropists’ here in Asia are ex-bankers, MBAs, Ivy/Oxford-educated and they feel called to use that unique skill-set to make their social impact.
Of course, among the converted sat plenty of skeptics. Many traditional investors questioned the entire category of impact investing—asserting that ‘social’ is another term describing higher risk and that true investors would never pay a higher price than necessary for an investment: everything else is philanthropy.
Indeed, the feeling of philanthropy was very much in the air, despite the finance lingo. While some people pitch impact investing with assurances that investors can put money here even if they don’t care about social returns, that proposition rings hollow. The people I’ve met who are intrigued by impact investing care a lot. They are bringing their hearts and their minds to the proposition. And that impulse is very much grounded in philanthropy—from the Greek origin philanthropos: love of mankind. So while some impact investors dismiss the term philanthropy, still others believe they are redefining or adding new dimensions to it.
Impact investing—here or anywhere—is not for the faint of heart. Impact investing that achieves broad scale, is a theory that has yet to be fully proved. But it posits an exciting possibility. As such, it requires risk-taking, strategy, patience, determination, humility, and passion. Passion to make a difference and chart new territory. This is not the settled homelands of philanthropy, this may be its new frontier.
In the coming months I’ll be interviewing key philanthropists and impact investors in the region to hear, in their own words, some of their successes, challenges, and motivations. I hope you’ll join the conversation.
This piece is cross-posted on the @Alliance Magazine website which can be found here.
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…
Shanghainese are like New Yorkers–almost anything super-popular is too uncool to be considered. So it wasn’t surprising that our first few days in Shanghai we didn’t meet a single Shanghainese who had attended World Expo 2010. They all but sneered at the idea, but gave a smug”you go ahead” nod when we told them we were planning to attend. The travel sites I rely upon for planning tips were also full of people shrieking about 5 hour long lines, dropping-like-flies heat, and the sheer massiveness of the Expo site. So it was with a huge amount of trepidation that we drove across the rainbow bridge to the edge of nowhere, plunked down 480 RMB (about $70US) and were immediately abandoned by our English-speaking guide who would rather sit in the car and wait for 7 hours rather than brave the crowds with us. Who’s with me?Ten minutes into it, despite the heat, the crowds and the strong sense of being overwhelmed, we were all giggling with delight and knew we’d hit the jackpot of fun and interesting stuff. I mean think about it–giant pavilions built by people and countries from all over the world to tell what’s special and cool about their particular piece of the planet. Walk along and “ooh, look there’s Germany, there’s Nigeria, ooh check out Brazil.” The architectural representation of each country was fantastical. Like walking across the continents in a giant kids’ 3-D map of the world. An estimated 70 million people will visit the Expo by the time it ends its six month run. Of those, less than 3 million are expected to be foreigners. So here is the exciting thing about the Expo: tens of millions of Chinese are getting introduced to the world they have so quickly become a major part of. And the world they see at Expo, however sanitized and best-foot-forward, is mostly in the words of the other countries themselves. This is a big deal in China where media is so carefully groomed.We got lots of stares. My last trip to mainland China was in 1987, where I was a true rarity since most Chinese had never seen foreigners, much less an African-American woman. While not that much of it goes on in Shanghai, it was fairly common at the Expo because people there were from all over China. And many of them probably don’t see all that many foreigners regularly. My kids, normally shy, were great sports about having their pictures taken with people who spoke no English but were quickly able to demonstrate their desire to have a picture taken with (cute) foreigners. My kids quickly embraced their embassador roles.
The theme of the Expo is Better City, Better Life. While some were opposed to Shanghai hosting the 2010 Expo, it would be hard to find a more appropriate setting for this theme. There are 20 million people living in Shanghai and while beautiful, vibrant and exciting, it is hard not catch constant whiffs of the grey/dark futuristic crowded gloom that Blade Runner predicted.
As Professor Joel E. Cohen of the Rockefeller Center on Populations puts it in his work projecting populations trends, “From here on out it is an urban world.” For the first time in history, more of us will live in cities than in rural areas. So building better cities really matters.
Having worked in public health for a considerable portion of my career, I am both inspired and a little terrified by what Shanghai and the Expo 2010 showed me about what can happen in a few decades. This go round, there were precious few bikes in Shanghai, a shocking change from 20 years ago. A huge loss that impacts not only air and noise pollution, but also speaks to a wholesale adoption of a very narrow definition of success and affluence. At Expo, clean fuel vehicles were very much in evidence but I still would have liked to have seen more bikes.
Sanitation, which 20 years ago consisted primarily of stinky pits in the ground, was MUCH improved. Let me assure you, this type of progress is not a given of economic development. With 300-400,000 people visiting Expo daily, (Disney World is estimated to have about 40,000 visitors a day) I gotta tell you the bathrooms at Expo were clean, plentiful and urged water and paper conservation. I don’t pretend to know the reality behind the slogans, but I do know that health education matters and requires memorable messages and messengers, even if provided by kitschy characters. Before you join those making fun of the big blue mascot Haibao, perhaps remember Smokey Bear. My guess is that this Haibao character has a public education career far beyond the life of the Expo.
Overall, I’d give the Expo a big thumbs up. It opened my mind. It gave me hope. It made my kids excited to be part of a larger world. It raised the important point that yes, we will need Better Cities in order to have Better Life. But where it came up short is that in the end, only a few of the pavilions (and the US pavilion did an admirable job on this front) captured the necessity of building a collective vision of BETTER which means equitable, just, sustainable and desireable.
After all, we can’t get there alone, but we’ve got to want to get there together.
P.S. If you decide to go, one tip that saved our bacon: go around 3pm and stay till 10pm (closing). Not sure if crowds were smaller, but not as hot and the pavilions look amazing when lit up at night. I could have skipped the “It’s a small world” rip-off parade, but my 6 and 7 year old kids were enthralled.