Melissa Stevens
Executive Director, Center for Strategic Philanthropy
Health and Medical Research and Philanthropy
Melissa Stevens is the executive director of the Milken Institute's Center for Strategic Philanthropy. The Center for Strategic Philanthropy works to maximize return on philanthropic investment by ensuring that innovation used to address one social issue is translated to another, best practices and metrics guide new and existing giving programs,...
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A New Generation of Philanthropy Emerges in China

By: Melissa Stevens
March 28, 2017


Almost 2500 years ago, Confucius observed that, “Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.” Not surprisingly, education historically has been one of the most favored sectors by philanthropists, given its sustained ripple effect and measurable return on investment.

The Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy (CSP) has been expanding beyond our traditional strengths in medical philanthropy into a range of other domains, including wildlife conservation, public health and, most recently, education. As part of that process, we are getting to know some of the world’s most prominent education philanthropists through our offices in the United States, Europe, and Asia. In China, in particular, education has emerged as the primary sector of interest for philanthropists.

Late last year, at the Milken Institute’s Sixth London Summit, I sat down with Charles Chen Yidan, who arguably is one of China’s most high profile education philanthropists. He also is one of the core founders of Tencent—China's largest social media network and entertainment company.

Tencent is in fact one of the largest companies in Asia—and the world. It is recognized as one of China’s most engaged and forward-looking corporate citizens. In 2006, Tencent was one of the first companies in China to create a corporate foundation by establishing the Tencent Charity Fund, which focuses on areas such as youth education, poverty alleviation, and disaster relief.

Legislative Reform in China

In September 2016, Tencent CEO “Pony” Ma Huateng made headlines by announcing that the company would significantly upgrade its charitable giving by donating 2 percent of its annual profits to the Tencent Charity Fund. This announcement followed closely the passage of significant “legislative philanthropic reform” in China, the Charity Law, which many observers believe will open up a new era of giving in China.

Charles Chen Yidan still serves as Honorary Chairman of the Tencent Charity Fund. But, in 2013, he left his day-to-day operating role as the Chief Administrative Officer of Tencent to devote himself full time to his own philanthropic effort—the Yidan Prize Foundation—which is focused primarily on education.

Yidan Prize Foundation

According to BBC, Charles Chen’s beginnings were humble. Although his paternal grandmother was illiterate, she insisted that her son get a good education. This love of education was ultimately instilled into Charles Chen who, in turn, went on to study applied chemistry as an undergraduate and then earned a master’s degree in economic law.

One of Chen's foundation’s first philanthropic efforts was to support Wuhan College, a private university in China that focuses on "whole-person development" rather than learning by rote. Chen unabashedly admits he was flummoxed by China’s intense testing culture, and he shaped the Wuhan College offering in direct response. Executives from Tencent helped to design the college's curriculum, recruit students, and teach classes, so that its graduates are trained in the skills required by employers. Wuhan College “aspires to become the most respected private university in China by creating an internationalized university with a focus on application oriented professional education.”

The World's Largest Education Prize

Chen’s successful work with Wuhan College made him realize how hard it is to reach meaningful scale in any sector—let alone education. Never one to think small, Chen established the largest global education prize ever conceived—the Yidan Prize in 2016.  Chen considers the prize a “call to action” that rewards innovative thinking that is scalable. The Yidan Prize consists of two awards: 

Yidan Quote31) Yidan Prize for Education Research that recognizes outstanding research, which significantly advances the field of education; and,

2) Yidan Prize for Education Development that recognizes innovative ideas, which tackle pressing challenges in the field of education.

Each Yidan Prize laureate receives a gold medal and approximately $3.8 million. The monetary portion of the prize is divided into a cash prize and direct support for specific projects. Nominees can be individuals or teams of teachers, researchers, academics, policymakers, advocates, etc. The deadline for submission is Friday, March 31, 2017—winners will be announced in September 2017. Yidan Prize has assembled a world class advisory board and judging panel to vet applications.

Chen and his team have constructed the Yidan Prize as a platform to not only manage the prize, but also to encourage global engagement and constructive discussion around advancements in education. To wit, his team worked closely with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to conduct a study on future trends in education across 25 economies.

Our Future is Dependent on Education

At CSP, we are closely tracking global developments in education, the Yidan Prize, and its laureates. It is not an overstatement to assert that our future rests on the vitality and effectiveness of the education sector. Charles Chen Yidan articulated this truism well during our panel discussion at the London Summit, Philanthropy’s Role in Addressing Global Challenges: 

We look forward to working with Chen and philanthropists around the world, as we collectively rethink how best to match our education systems to the needs of the 21st century.