More and more philanthropists from Hong Kong and Singapore are considering starting new charity projects or expanding existing programs in China after the country passed its first charity law in March.
“Given the launch of the China Charity Law, I am planning to go to China and see whether I can assist Chinese rich people to help the poor,” said Robert Kee, founder and chairman of Operation Hope Foundation, a Singapore-based charity group targeting the underprivileged mainly in Cambodia and Thailand.
“Never do anything without checking first,” Kee told EJ Insight in an interview in Singapore. “I won’t go there with a fixed idea. Iwill remain very open and talk to local officials and village people to understand their needs.”
Kee, 68, said it might be easier to launch charity projects in China, which has a substantial middle class, than in a developing country in Southeast Asia.
“Our partners in China should follow my methodology. My role is to share my experience to them but not to control them,” said Kee, who devotes 90 percent of his time to charity work and has left his children to run his company, Applied Digital System Pte Ltd., an electronic equipment supplier.
In 2001, Kee launched Operation Hope Foundation and its first project, Hope Village Prey Veng, to care for orphans in Cambodia. He also built a children’s home in Thailand and Nepal.
He said philanthropists should keep a close eye on the money and materials they donate to avoid corruption and inefficiency.
He said he is testing an aquaponic system which can create annual income of US$500 for people who live in slums.
Hardware vs software
“In Hefei in Anhui province, we launched the Stone Soup Happy Reading School Alliance 10 years ago,” said James Chen, founder of “Bring Me a Book” campaign and co-chairman of Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation.
The project started in one school and has spread to 24, he said.
In November 2015, Chen gave a speech at a China Foundation Rankings event in Beijing.
He said he was waiting for the launch of a charity law in China which would help foreign charity groups operate their projects in the country with better governance and lower compliance costs.
He said his foundation had no choice but to suspend sponsorship projects in China until the law was passed.
In March this year, the National People’s Congress passed the first China Charity Law, which had been in the works for more than a decade, to regulate the country’s charity activities, increase transparency, forbid illegal collection of donations and waive tax for donors.
The law took effect on Sept. 1.
Chen said foreign charity groups can help their Chinese counterparts and local governments improve the “software” of their charity work under a new charity law.
Citing his experience in promoting a reading culture to children in Hong Kong, Chen said charity groups can do the jobs that the government cannot.
“Government is much more comfortable in dealing with hardware issues than software ones. It is good at scaling things up but not creating change,” he said.
“It’s important for us to address quality issues and create a model that parents and teachers will be able to adapt and scale up.”
In 2008, Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation launched the Feng Zikai Chinese Children’s Picture Book Award which aims to encourage Chinese publishers to publish local picture books instead of translating foreign award-winning titles.
Chen is also the founder of Vision for a Nation which provides low-cost vision screening and glasses in Rwanda in East Africa. He said he hopes to extend the project to other countries if more corporates will participate.
While many foreign philanthropists are seeking to enter China, some Chinese philanthropists are going out and trying to do their charity work globally.
In May, Charles Chen Yidan, a philanthropist and one of the five co-founders of internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. (00700.HK), launched The Yidan Prize which was funded by an independent trust for HK$2.5 billion (US$320 million).
The award recognizes and supports innovators in the education system.
Chen met Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation co-founder Bill Gates and Bloomberg Philanthropies founder Michael Bloomberg in the Unites States in September to discuss potential collaboration in some charitable activities.
Clive Lee, chief executive of Yidan Prize Foundation, said there is a lot of room for more collaboration among philanthropists from China and the US as both sides emphasize value education and motivation.
“Gates agreed with our concept about encouraging communication among people with research and practical experience in the education sector to influence government’s education policies,” Lee said.
Lee said Chen and Gates will continue to discuss how Chinese and US philanthropists can jointly promote regional cooperation among educators.
“Traditional education focuses heavily on skill sets and knowledge but tends to ignore other important abilities such as creativity and leadership,” Lee said.
“Can we change the means of assessment so that educators can focus more on value education?”
New education mindset
Some philanthropists have kickstarted their own education campaigns and hope to provide showcases for further discussions.
“We offer some incentives to underprivileged families in Hong Kong while parents are required to allow their children to learn some skills that they are passionate about and from which they can make a living,” said Edward Man, founder of Chicken-Soup Foundation and the Associates, a Hong Kong-based private equity firm.
The incentives may include some raw resources, scholarships or free English classes sponsored by donors in the private sector, Man said.
Nowadays, parents have no choice but to push their children to work hard for high academic results but many of these students eventually fail to get admission to college and end up doing low-skill jobs, he said.
If these students can adopt a job skill such as teaching piano or cutting hair earlier, they would have a happier life, he said.
Chicken-Soup Foundation, launched in 2013, has gotten in touch with 1,300 underprivileged students, 300 of whom have started adopting job skills they like.
Robert Kee, James Chen, Clive Lee and Edward Man were among the speakers at the Credit Suisse Philanthropists Forum held in Singapore on Nov. 17.
“We want to make our forum very tangible and practical for participants, instead of just bringing in some high-caliber speakers,” Benjamin Cavalli, head of Private Banking Southeast Asia, Credit Suisse AG, said in an interview after the forum.
“We want our clients to walk away with something they can really benefit from ultimately.”
In 2011, Credit Suisse launched SymAsia Foundation Ltd., a non-profit philanthropic umbrella foundation, to serve clients who want to donate to approved Institutions of a Public Character or set up their own charity foundations with a proper governance structure.
“Large families can set up their foundations by themselves. We have a lot of clients who have either a smaller need in this regard or they are at the starting stage of setting up their foundations,” Cavalli said.
“We held a gathering in Hong Kong last year to help our clients with philanthropy although we did not advertise widely,” said Bernard Fung, head of Family Office Services and Philanthropy Advisory Asia Pacific, Credit Suisse AG.
Fung said most private banking clients prefer to stay low profile in these gatherings, which are restricted to givers instead of fund-seekers.
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