There’s more to philanthropy than financial literacy

Literacy has always played an integral role in philanthropy. In America alone major philanthropists such as Bill Gates, the Walton Family and Broad Foundations spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on improving the education system. Gates reportedly spent nearly $390 million in 2017 alone on education – and there is a clear reason why.


Whilst, there have been significant leaps in ensuring everyone has access to education globally (over the last 65 years global literacy has increased 4% every 5 years – from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015), we are still not there yet. 


This week has been a reminder that literacy is still front and centre for many. On Monday it was International Literacy Day – a day which provided the opportunity for governments, civil society and stakeholders to celebrate improvements in world literacy rates and reflect on challenges that still exist. Globally, the aim of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to tackle this through ensuring all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, are literate by 2030. 


Whilst there has been good progress, educational inequality continues to be a global crisis. But as it pertains to philanthropists, this has to be more than putting their names above the door – but using their access to a combination of their capital, their network and their corporate knowledge to help identify programmes and initiatives that can deliver far reaching impact.  


This is an approach we adopted at the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation over the last 20 years, in our dedication to building domain expertise in early childhood literacy.  We hope that with this accumulated knowledge over the decades it has enabled us to deliver greater impact to the learning and personal development of the next generation. We work with local champions, support them and drive sustainability for innovative programmes by not only providing them with funding but also offering relevant expertise, providing support on project planning, tracking and evaluation to ensure high impact services are delivered to beneficiaries.


On occasion, where a literacy gap emerges, we have also developed our own programmes. The Feng Zikai Chinese Children’s Picture Book Award was created to address the major shortfall in original Chinese language picture books.  We seek the most creative entries, to encourage a new generation of authors, illustrators editors and publishers in The Chinese language world, but also to celebrate the power of picture books in nurturing a love of reading at an early age.  And encouraging culturally recognisable stories will play a major part in stimulating a new readership.


But where so much emphasis is placed on literacy globally, closer to home in Hong Kong, we have much to celebrate in our achievements in this arena.  Hong Kong’s challenge is to encourage children to actually enjoy reading which PIRLS data in 2016  brought into sharp focus, stating that Hong Kong students ranked 50th (out of 50 countries) in their “engagement in reading lessons”.  Again, we introduced a new programme, based on a successful venture in California, called Bring Me a Book Hong Kong. The organisation has gone on to achieve great success independently and continues to champion the encouragement of an early love of reading. They provide transformational training for parents and educators, libraries of Chinese and English books in underserved communities, and finally, ensure Hong Kong hosts some of the world’s finest children’s authors and literacy experts for the benefit of the city’s youngsters.   


Philanthropy is a powerful way to ensure that we are continuing to invest in the next generation. But the problems won’t be addressed by simply giving money away, but for philanthropists to think innovatively about problems and solutions.  They need to seek the strongest partnerships to scale these brilliant ideas and maximise its impact –and nurturing the next generation is a great place to start.   

18. 09. 19

James Chen founder of VFAN and Clearly visits Rwanda to celebrate 2 millionth eye screening.jpg

Philanthropy ventures where Charity cannot

Philanthropy and charity are often viewed as interchangeable terms. While both are firmly associated with the act of giving wealth in order to achieve a positive impact, the conflation between the two overlooks a key difference. It is vital to demarcate this difference clearly, in order to understand how, in many cases, philanthropy is capable of achieving more tangible and sustainable change and on a far greater scale, than charity can.


The analogy commonly employed in differentiating the two is that charity is donating money which will provide bottles of clean drinking water to a remote village in need. Philanthropy would be the process of engaging with the expertise and strategy needed to implement a permanent, sustainable water supply, and investing in an informed manner to enable progress towards this solution.


When it comes to charitable organisations, unfortunately they are beholden to legal regulations, red-tape and bureaucracy which works to constrain a lot of their well-intentioned actions. Private philanthropy doesn’t face this problem – quite the opposite in fact. Due to the amount of capital philanthropists have access to, they can often take risks with their investments, giving them a larger amount of freedom to experiment.


Philanthropists are also in a unique position where they are able to both privatise failure and socialise success. They are able to use their unique ability to absorb losses and the consequences of failure to invest in a way that de-risks speculative and disruptive concepts and give them an opportunity which could lead to the genuine breakthroughs in tackling global issues from poor vision to equal access to education. Another term for this is catalytic philanthropy.


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is undoubtedly one of the most famous examples of a successful philanthropic foundation. In 2018, their foundation partnered with mosquito engineering company Oxitec, to enable them to develop a male mosquito that would kill off future generations of specimens carrying malaria – demonstrating the cutting-edge ideas private philanthropy can take a gamble on, and the long-term perspective these solutions often require.


Significant steps in development, from the creation of new technology to developments in healthcare, have relied on private philanthropists. Research carried out by Bridgespan (the non-profit affiliate of Bain Consulting) found that 15 of the most successful, world-changing social impact initiatives in the past century, including 911 emergency services, tobacco control, and polio eradication, were enabled by philanthropists.


As a keen proponent of catalytic philanthropy, I have dedicated the past twenty years to tackling the world’s largest unmet disability: poor vision. Where a charity would have been unable, I could take risks on new ventures in this area. This has ranged from co-founding an adjustable power lens technology company in Adlens to founding the charity Vision for a Nation, which partnered with the Rwandan Ministry of Health, resulting in over 2.5 million Rwandans receiving a vision screening and establishing its primary eye care system along with seeding promising initiatives in research, advocacy along with products and services towards solving the problem.


I do not intend to dismiss and rebuke charity in favour of philanthropy. With their concepts clearly defined, it is possible to see how a mutually beneficial relationship between the two processes to support government and civil society can emerge. Charitable donations can be used to provide the immediate relief often needed within communities while philanthropic capital seeds the solutions to societal and global challenges through loss-absorbing capital with a long-term perspective.


We must ensure that these two concepts and their implications to society and social development are clearly debated and understood. The proper role of regulatory oversight, tax relief and accountability are all legitimate, and overdue, public policy concerns. But the dynamic progress enabled by the risk taking capital of catalytic philanthropy, offered uniquely by the ultra high net worth community needs to be nurtured and encouraged within the current public policy debate lest the “baby gets thrown out with the bathwater”.

19 . 08 . 19