THE BLOG
09/26/2012 07:35 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Fostering the 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.

The Global Philanthropy Forum recently 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 philanthropists and those they support throughout the region. They gathered there to teach, to learn, to reinforce one another so that philanthropy in the region can grow and flourish.

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. Moreover, earthquakes affecting the poorest in southwest China and the blasphemy case affecting the most vulnerable of adolescent girls in Pakistan remind us that many needs remain unmet. Indigenous philanthropists are eager to respond. But, they believe that existing NGOs lack the capacity to effectively absorb or deploy their funding. And so, rather than create grants programs, these potential donors opt instead to start their own non-profits, or "operating foundations."

Many Asian societies have a culture of giving, one 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 agree that the larger barrier is lack of faith in civic 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 have little faith that nonprofits will be able to deliver on their missions. There is a clear need for more capable partners. And so, a handful of strategic philanthropists -- many of them at the Summit -- 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 high impact is great.

To strengthen the capacity of their NGO partners, philanthropists in Asia 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, Singapore's Lien Centre for Social Innovation, and India's Center for Advancement of Philanthropy. 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 or teams assembled by banks like Credit Suisse and UBS to generate research and offer tailored support to high-net-worth clients' taking advantage of Singapore's 250% tax write off for charitable gifts.

With an 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, Dasra, and others not only connect investors to social enterprises which provide goods, services and income-producing opportunities to the poor, but also promote capacity by assisting with business plans and help shepherd micro-businesses through their proof-of-concept phase.

Others work to ensure that the capacities of large corporations are brought to bear through the concept of shared value, which FSG has documented, promoted and informed. The private sector leaders put their own companies to the service of social goals, strengthening the capacity of local communities in the process. Jollibee Corporation builds livelihoods by sourcing locally in the Philippines. The Paglas Group, which exports Chiquita Bananas, provides employment opportunities for Muslim and Christian communities that were otherwise in conflict. The Chinese internet service company Tencent works to foster an online culture of advancing the social good.

And when it comes to the capacity of local governments, 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. Not only is there immediate benefit, but over the long term, these partnerships build capacity, reduce dependency and improve lives.

It is easy for us in the United States to see ourselves as having unique purchase on philanthropic impulse and initiative given the role philanthropy has played throughout our history and the robust civil society that our democracy enjoys as a result. But charity is not new to Asia, and strategic philanthropy is on the rise.

To foster these green shoots, Asian philanthropists are working to strengthen the capacity of 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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