Asia Summit—Giving Back: How Asia's Philanthropists Are Making an Impact
The Business of Benevolence
As wealth grows in Asia, so do the ambitions of the philanthropic community. But with more than 1.7 million NGOs in the world and the concept of impact investing still nascent, where should these philanthropists begin?
Five prominent changemakers came together to share their philosophies and experiences at the Asia Summit session titled “Giving Back: How Asia’s Philanthropists Are Making an Impact,” moderated by Andrew Cohen, CEO of J.P. Morgan Private Bank Asia. Having mobilized capital for causes ranging from literacy to earthquake relief, the panelists highlighted four important elements of effective philanthropy: data-driven accountability, collaboration, community empowerment, and sustainability.
Andrew L. Cohen, CEO of J.P. Morgan Private Bank, Asia
John Wood, founder of Room to Read, began the session with a call for a more data-driven approach to running and investing in NGOs. His organization, now 15 years old, is focused on improving literacy in South and Southeast Asia as well as sub-Saharan Africa. The operation has scaled tremendously, building, to date, 2,500 schools and 18,000 libraries serving 11 million children in 10 countries, and providing scholarships to 37,000 young women.
For Wood, who comes from a business background at Microsoft, Room to Read’s numbers are worth a thousand words. By measuring reading scores and graduation rates, Wood can show investors their social returns. Wood stressed that the “market mechanism” for incentivizing measurement is missing when philanthropy is viewed as passive charity instead of an investment.
“What gets measured gets done,” he said, reflecting on how NGOs often overlook the importance of data. “The world has too few NGOs that have scaled to significant proportions. In order to do that, you need to be data-driven.”
In the medical research arena, collaboration is key, according to Debra Black, co-founder and chair of the Melanoma Research Alliance. MRA has pushed the research agenda on immune-based drugs by funding researchers in 12 countries and providing opportunities for scientists and other stakeholders to share knowledge—no need to reinvent the wheel. Black, who started MRA after being diagnosed with stage 2 melanoma in 2007, called on philanthropists to “let go of ego” and the desire to take credit and focus instead on accelerating medical discovery.
Debra Black, co-founder and chair of Melanoma Research Alliance; Broadway producer
For Kris Wiluan, chairman of Citramas Group, philanthropy developed alongside business on the Indonesian island of Batam, where he built oil and gas facilities in the 1970s. Wiluan saw a glaring need for improving the health and education of Batam’s children, and over the past decades, he has built hospitals, provided scholarships, and opened doors for children in sports and the arts. By responding to local needs, Wiluan has developed a rapport with the community. “I have the satisfaction [of knowing] that I can make a difference in the community in a small way,” he said.
Like Wiluan, P.N.C. Menon, chairman and founder of Sobha Group, has made an impact in the countries he knows best, India and Oman. Menon’s philanthropic purpose is simple: to empower individuals. “Dignity comes when humans have clean water, clean clothes, clean food, and a clean place to sleep,” he said. To this end, Menon is committed to donating half of his wealth to build schools that offer not only education, but transportation, clothing, and food free of charge.
After the devastating Nepal earthquake of April 2015, Binod Chaudhary, chairman of CG Corp. Global, saw firsthand how achieving social impact “required more managerial focus than running a business.” Like Black, Chaudhary says no individual or organization needs to “reinvent” how to achieve progress. By mobilizing his company’s regional distribution network, Chaudhary used existing physical infrastructure to deliver food to those in need. Chaudhary also has focused on sustainability in his efforts. Within nine months, his foundation helped rebuild 3,000 homes and 40 schools while teaching building skills to the community in case of future earthquakes.
Binod Chaudhary, chairman of CG Corp. Global
These executives, philanthropists, and NGO founders repeatedly highlighted the importance of bringing business acumen to the philanthropic world. “Philanthropy can’t be a hobby, and it can’t be sloppily run,” Wood declared with passion. “If it is, our children will inherit the same problems we’re spending our lifetime talking about.”