What is Philanthropy in Asia? – An observer’s point of view

What is Philanthropy in Asia? – An observer’s point of view

“Give. Give with faith. Give with sensitivity. Give with a feeling of abundance. Give with a right understanding.” ~Taittiriya Upanisad (circa 5 BCE).

To me, this ancient affirm from the Sanskrit scriptures sums-up the definition of Philanthropy. This belief was further strengthened at the inaugural Philanthropy in Asia [1] summit, which saw the coming together of 190 delegates from 17 countries, made of philanthropists, grant makers, sector enablers and causes they support throughout Asia. Here are my observations from the summit:


This was the most often heard word at the summit. The level and celebration of altruism was indeed high.  While we discussed and debated concepts of strategic philanthropy and impact measurements, there is no denying that many of the philanthropists in Asia had and would continue to give, just because it’s the right thing to do.

Despite the policy environment in many Asian countries not being very encouraging of philanthropy, the levels and amounts of philanthropic contributions have risen over the years.  Examples of these obstacles includes, the 12.36% service tax that NGOs in India are required to pay the exchequer for displaying the logo of the funder or the fact that while donors to approved Singapore charities receive 250% tax-exemption for their gifts, there are restrictions placed on fundraising for foreign causes and no tax incentives for the donor.  Despite these policy environments, India has seen their CAF World Giving Index 2011 score increase by double digit. Philanthropic contributions to foreign causes jumped in Singapore by 86% in 2011 compared to the previous year.

Hence the love in action is inspiring and encouraging to see and it is gaining further momentum and wider response.

Laurence Lien, CEO of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Center and Chairman of Lien Foundation said in his closing remarks , “We need to make Philanthropy as a demonstration of ‘love for humanity’ more broad-based and not just focused on high-net worth individuals.”

Co-creation :  

Most countries in Asia have been recipients of ‘aid’ funding, where the giver comes up with the strategy  and funding,  the non-profit entity is a mere implementer and the impacted communities  are just passive beneficiaries. Many have all along known that this model of aid is deeply flawed.  At the same time, there is the need to build the faith and trust that the nonprofit sector can deliver its mission. With the economic resurgence of Asia, a growing number of Asian philanthropists and foundations are working to strengthen the capacity of the non-profit sector, social enterprises, the governments as well as the philanthropic community itself. Some examples include Lien Center for Social Innovation, National Volunteer and Philanthropy Center and Temasek Foundation in Singapore, China Foundation Center and Philanthropy Research Institute in Beijing, Center for Advancement of Philanthropy and Dasra in India, Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, all of whom are funded through philanthropic contributions and/ or their governments.

Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in his opening address at the summit talked about philanthropic giving being a function of the relationship between the Government and the civil society, both being co-creators in shaping the future of societies.

Empowerment :

While funding is important, the needs and gaps in the community are not addressed from just funding.  Transformation also needs the vision, passion and the entrepreneurial talent of the non-profit sector.  But unless the community participates in the process pro-actively, neither can make any difference. Hence the sensitivity by all who are part of the process is imperative.  There were many reminders of this at the summit by experienced philanthropists as well as development practitioners.

Many also talked about the need to be bold and take risks if we need to address the needs in Asia. While philanthropists may follow the traditional forms of altruistic giving, there also is a growing number who are ambitious and taking on non-traditional social causes with passion and creativity.  There was a need for empowerment of the philanthropists and managers of philanthropic institutions through establishment of networks that allow peer sharing of experiences. While there is a growing group of professional advisors assisting Asian philanthropists with their giving decisions, most of them share a background in finance and business rather than in development or philanthropy and hence the need to re-educate the advisors in many instances, so that their advice can be more meaningful as a consequence.

Youth :

Bain India Philanthropy Report 2012, found that young Indian philanthropists are playing a key role in their family’s charitable activities. Among families who participate in philanthropy, 76% have younger relatives who have assumed an active role in choosing charities, while 69% say young members shape or spearhead the family’s charitable mission. This is true with many high-net worth families across Asia.

Hence the need to engage the youth and the next generation of givers was well discussed at the summit.  Many highlighted the trends where the youth are moving away from traditional philanthropy and becoming change makers who are not just giving but are engaged in finding solutions for the needs in their communities.  These youth operates from a mind-set of abundance, than from the deficit mentality of the previous generations.


With the desire to find sustainable social solutions and bring these to scale, many Asians are leveraging on the capabilities that helped them create their wealth. Rather than philanthropic donations, these impact investors are looking to collaborate with social enterprises and micro-businesses to generate measurable social, environmental and financial return. They are looking for social solutions that are market oriented, financially sustainable and moving away from donor dependency to financial independence. As with their own investment portfolio, the impact investors are taking time and effort to understand the social enterprise environment. They are taking an active role in mentoring or leading the growth of the social enterprises. This has helped the recent trend, especially in South Asia, where a number of financially successful NGOs are changing their legal status to become Social Enterprises.

Hope these observations provide you with insights on some of the trends in philanthropy in Asia. What has your observations and experiences been?

This article was written for and first appeared in the December 2012 edition of Fundraising & Philanthropy Australasia.( http://www.fpmagazine.com.au/5-themes-of-philanthropy-in-asia-316137/)

[1] Philanthropy in Asia 2012 summit was held in Singapore on 10 & 11 September, organised by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre of Singapore in partnership with the Global Philanthropy Forum, Resource Alliance and the Community Foundation of Singapore.

Subscribe to our Insights

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.