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Giving Wisely

Philanthropy – Opinions      2013/07/05

Edwin LEE king-yan, Philanthropy Advisor, WiseGiving , The Hong Kong Council of Social ServiceJul, 2013


Edwin Lee is a Philanthropy Advisor with the WiseGiving unit of The Hong Kong Council of Social Service.


Hong Kong people are generous: they come in ninth position in the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index. Inland Revenue Department data confirm a willingness to give here, showing that charitable donations amounted to over HK$9.2 billion in 2010-11 – with about 60% of that coming from individuals. The culture of giving in Hong Kong has led to the existence of 7,194 approved charitable organizations as of March 2012.

Giving money to a charitable organization is getting more convenient and spontaneous, and fundraising methods are now more creative and diversified. You may see one charitable organization selling raffle tickets at one corner of the street and another one seeking for more sustainable monthly donation on the other.

With the number of charitable organisations mushroomed recently, it is no longer easy for the public to be able in getting hold of the detailed background information of all the charitable organisations. From previously news report uncovering fake charitable organisations fundraising on the street to the recent debate on the government making the $100m donation to the Sichuan earthquake, the public showed increasing concerns towards the accountability and the transparency of the charitable organisations and how their donations are being used.

In Hong Kong, making wise choices on donation has been heavily relying on the donors. In order to make donations that fits the donors’ expect outcome, modern philanthropy tends to be more strategic in approach.

Having defined as “private initiatives for the public good”, philanthropy is by no means under no constrains on the choices on giving and bounded by what the individuals and companies could offer. Indeed to be able to maximize the benefits that could be offered to the public sector, philanthropy could be seen as a business where donors have to be carefully and thoughtfully decide how to maximize profits with limited resources, strategic donors make informed choices about which causes should receive charitable funds; in doing so, of course, they are also declining to give to other causes.

Such combination of “heart and mind” is not easy, it requires both the philanthropists and the charitable organisations to have mutual and substantial communication and understanding. Given the multitude of deserving causes both locally and internationally, the first step to strategic philanthropy must be self-reflection. What values define the donor as a person, or what are the shared values that unite the donor family or company.  Articulating these values will help narrow down the list of causes to those that most touch the donor’s “heart”.

Next, the strategic donor educates himself about his chosen causes.  This is where the “mind” comes in: how much do we know about the social situation and the pressing needs of the society? Very often we have preconceptions towards the society or we are so used to certain pattern of giving that make us unable to realize the ever-evoking needs of the society. This could seriously restrict us from making more impactful donations. To make a better choice on donation, we need to educate ourselves through focused research and interviews with people who know – such as social workers, government officials and academics – the philanthropist strives to understand the root causes of the social issue he wishes to tackle.

Finally, the strategic donor combines the values he holds in his heart with the hard information he has acquired in his mind to come up with a personalized strategic plan on philanthropy which could achieve the outcome of the donation.  Modern philanthropy no longer denote giving money to the individuals, a vast variety of innovative ideas could apply, such as  assisting in developing organizational capacity; building relationships among stakeholders to strengthen the social sector; supporting advocacy work and advocates for social changes; and fostering innovation to create more social opportunities.  The donor lines up all his resources – and this means time, expertise and relationships as well as dollars – accordingly.

One local family has thoughtfully applied this strategic approach.  Members of the second generation of the Chen family embarked on a process of articulating their shared values and identifying areas of giving in 2002.  At first, they adopted a fairly broad mandate, covering health, education and social services in Mainland China and Hong Kong, which encompassed the areas that interested the family members at the time.  Inspired by Dr. Samuel So, Director of Asian Liver Cente rof  Stanford School of Medicine, the Chen family has prioritized hepatitis B prevention and eradication as a flagship project of its foundation. This is what ZeShan Foundation which the Chen family operated is doing now.

The benefits of such a focused approach are two-fold.  The social impact arising from the individual or family’s philanthropy is far clearer than it would be if resources were spread too thin.  Focusing allows the donor time to cultivate long-term relationships with stakeholders, and this aids understanding of the social problem. Giving effectively is by no means easy, but it is all the more crucial in today’s world.  There are limits to what governments can do, and civil society is increasingly relying on private donors to fill gaps and, perhaps more importantly, take risks and try new approaches that the public sector cannot.  With self-reflection, due diligence and careful planning, the strategic donor’s work embodies the art and science that is philanthropy.