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Frustrations with the status quo are motivating philanthropists to find systemic solutions with tangible outcomes
You may have come across Anand Giridharadas’s razor-sharp critique in ‘Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World’’. In his deeply reflective book, Giridharadas undercuts the ‘do-good’ narratives that the wealthy and privileged – himself included – have been perpetuating. He argues that the exclusive ‘winners of our capitalist system’ are doing more harm through their solutions to address social issues since their beneficiaries are ‘victims’ of the same economic system they are benefiting from.
We must appreciate criticisms of philanthropy when they come our way. But, not all philanthropists are ignoring these inequalities. In leading a network of ‘winners’ in Asia – from philanthropists to corporates to venture capitalists and more – I have witnessed philanthropists expressing the same frustrations with the status quo. They are determined to engage and repair the very mechanisms that preserve and elevate their privilege.
Indeed, incredibly good work has been done. In Asia, philanthropists have achieved milestones across a wide range of impact areas – from greater access to tertiary education, to increased affordability for medical research and hospital resources, to easing the burden of elderly care, to improving disaster relief systems in vulnerable regions.
I am extremely motivated by their growing commitment to not only be stewards of their wealth, but also – in Ford Foundation President, Darren Walker’s words – ‘a movement from generosity to justice’. While these systemic challenges cannot be repaired overnight, I see three ways that you may find useful in holding yourself accountable to serve the public good.
Be a positive deviant
Oftentimes, it is easy to allow limitations and past failures to stop us from achieving our ideals. James Chen, a Hong Kong-based philanthropist, understood some of these limitations acutely when his company Adlens, failed to secure support despite its admirable objectives. Although it offered technology capable of improving the sight of 90% of people with bad vision, it did not supplement this with research-based evidence of the impact of clear vision and a viable business model for eye care in low-resource environments.
Nonetheless, James was undeterred. With renewed vigour, he invested in the first-ever randomised control trial to explore the links between good sight and work performance. The PROSPER [PROductivity Study of Presbyopia Elimination in Rural-dwellers] trial in India demonstrated a 22% productivity improvement amongst tea pickers with clearer sight; he started a nonprofit, Vision for a Nation, in Rwanda to provide vision screenings to 2.5 million Rwandans, demonstrating that with the right resources, this solution could be brought to nationwide scale. He also founded Clearly, a global campaign to enable everyone access to glasses.
‘Privatise failures; socialize success’ was the personal mantra he shared at the AVPN Conference 2019. In its brevity, his words sparked a huge momentum across the room. He had clearly struck a chord.
Take holistic engagements seriously
I often hear the term ‘inclusion’ being bandied about across the impact sector. Yet, everyone uses it with a different intent. Being an advocate of “inclusivity” must be premised on not only engaging stakeholders holistically but also ensuring your organization’s mission and your impact strategies are fully aligned. Lead by example.
Annie Chen is someone I deeply respect and admire for this reason. By ensuring that her family office RS Group’s strategy and activities are always in alignment with its mission, Annie has been able to achieve a 100% sustainable mission-aligned portfolio that generates both financial and impact returns. Her vision for Total Portfolio Management was triggered by critical reflections she had on the purpose of wealth. It motivated her to venture into impact investing to explore ways in which her family wealth can contribute to society. Rather than being trapped within the “impact first” vs. “finance first” dichotomy, the Group adopts the concept of “Blended Value” — the idea that positive outcomes can be optimized when the value created is being viewed through a holistic, integrated lens. It takes into consideration the blended environmental, social, and financial value components generated by any capital allocation, whether through the deployment of market-rate, concessionary or philanthropic capital. I see RS Group’s investment approach as an exemplary model of how a strong and curious philanthropist may manage her assets while generating greater societal good.
Listening to the voice of your beneficiaries is also another catchphrase and pitfall. While philanthropic foundations are in a consensus that feedback is important, they are often not able to translate its theoretical value to tangible value that shapes their decision-making strategies. This, therefore, materialises in an unwillingness to question traditional power relations and allow end-beneficiaries to not only have a seat at the table but also shape decisions that affect philanthropic delivery services.
That’s why I was very excited to partner with Melinda Tuan, Executive Director of the Fund for Shared Insight to bring the Listen4Good (L4G) initiative – a model for client-focused feedback loops – to Asia. Within a month, we had managed to secure two AVPN members who were willing to pilot this initiative and adopt the L4G with their nonprofits. As we continually test these tools across the market and the continuum of capital, I look forward to seeing how feedback loops can be more than just another accountability tool, but a system that is integrated into philanthropy.
Meaningful community empowerment can also take action in a range of ways. Philanthropists can amplify under-supported and marginalized voices, place critical resources in the hands of those closest to the issue, and learn from past mistakes. Colabs is an inspiring example close to home. It is a philanthropic platform that brings together philanthropists, businesses, nonprofits and sector experts to co-create solutions. In 2018, its Singapore Youth Impact Collective initiative launched two youth empowerment programmes. Including AVPN philanthropic member Octava Foundation, the funders have pledged close to SGD 1 million towards the programmes to help nonprofits improve work-readiness services for disadvantaged youths.
Break boundaries with governments
Rigid bureaucratic structures, siloed streams of competing priorities, lack of transparent data, and more, have been touted as critical challenges in working with governments to advance proven solutions. The silver lining is that policymakers are keen to engage more deeply with philanthropists and social investors.
However, even the most sophisticated governments should not bear the sole burden of tackling complex social challenges. When scaling effective solutions, a cross-sector approach holds the most value. This is where opportunities around blended finance come in useful.
While there are no one-size-fits-all formula for working with the government, the world has seen huge success in its first development impact bond (DIB) in India. The performance-based financing model reflects a mindset shift in the development sector by focusing on results instead of a predetermined set of inputs and activities. With a goal of improving education outcomes from primary school students in rural Rajasthan, the three-year Educate Girls DIB achieved 116% of the enrolment target and 160% of the learning target. A pioneer in the DIB space, investor UBS Optimus Foundation recouped its initial funding of USD 270,000 with a 15% internal rate through government pay-for-success donor Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. Building on this success, UBS Optimus Foundation is already supporting the next Quality Education India DIB, which has attained an outcome fund of USD 11 million.
The success from the Educate Girls DIB sparked incredible momentum across the sector, and one of my greatest takeaway is a realisation of how important it is to find the right private philanthropic funder. Given the complexities in working as a collective, philanthropic involvement is not simply about filling gaps in the government. The funder profile has to be someone who is willing to challenge traditional power dynamics by encouraging those closest to the ground to lead and identify the most effective solution.
Anand Giridharadas’s book took the world by storm because he has articulated an underlying uneasiness we sometimes feel at conferences, launches and press releases. He forces us to question our celebrations. Does giving back means we may have first taken something away? Who are we giving back for? After all these years, have we truly done good in society? He doesn’t give answers, but offers us a framework to be critical about the work that we do. In this light, I hope my contribution can help you find your answers to these questions.