Is High Profile, Big Ticket Philanthropy in Asia Finally Here to Stay?

Jack Ma recently made a large philanthropic announcement. (Image Source: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons)


Observers of philanthropy in Asia were greeted with two very positive headlines over the past few weeks. The first was that a group of Indonesian philanthropists agreed to provide multi-year funding to a $300 million sustainable health fund in Indonesia. The second is that Jack Ma, co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, will commit an estimated $3 billion to a new philanthropic trust — one of the largest philanthropic trusts in Asia to date.

Both announcements have been widely commended, and Ma’s gift in particular has been labeled “the dawn of a new era of giving among China’s freshly minted billionaires.” So could this mean that high profile, big ticket philanthropy in Asia is finally here to stay?

Philanthropy in Asia, hitherto.

Though we know that many Asian countries have very charitable cultures, philanthropy — the kind of giving that aspires to society-wide or systemic change — has not commanded the same public attention as it does in the West. There are many reasons for this. Some Asian countries have only recently begun growing economically, so the newly rich prefer to spend their resources on expanding their wealth rather than on philanthropy. Other Asian countries have a culture that values commitment to one’s immediate community before giving to society at large, so donors may give to local projects but not to broader social issues.

Mark Yu-Ting Chen, a Taiwanese philanthropist, said in an interview with McKinsey, “I’ve even had business leaders tell me privately that it’s tough to give money away outside their companies, because inside the company everyone starts to say, ‘Wait you’re this benevolent guy now, but what about us who helped you make all this money?’”

The future is now.

Chen predicted that Chinese philanthropy wouldn’t reach a new level of maturity for another 15 to 20 years, but with Ma’s gift paving the way, maybe he won’t have to wait so long after all. Asian philanthropists are beginning to embrace giving big and give widely as they become more aware of their countries’ social needs and realize the importance of putting philanthropy into the public discourse.

Anne Patricia Sutanto, one of the philanthropists funding the Indonesian health initiative, said to the Jakarta Post, “Health is one of the main issues in this country that needs to be taken care of, so I think this is a good way to start contributing more.”

In interviews with The Wall Street Journal, Ma said he was alarmed at the growing rate of lung and liver cancer among people he knows, something he suspects is related to environmental pollution. “Someone has to do something,” Ma related. “Our job is to wake people up.”

Asian philanthropists get a little help from their friends. (Namely, Bill Gates.)

Interestingly, Bill Gates was a big factor in making both of these philanthropic projects happen. Gates is co-leading the Indonesian health initiative with Dato’ Sri DR Tahir, an Indonesian businessman and Giving Pledge signatory. The two were instrumental in getting the eight other Indonesian philanthropists to commit their wealth. Ma’s announcement came shortly after Gates’s recent trip to Asia, during which he once again went on record to urge Asian philanthropists to give more publicly. The Wall Street Journal also notes that Gates was an inspiration to Ma and helped him plan his trust.

Three’s a trend.

The Indonesian health initiative and Ma’s philanthropic trust are only two instances of high-net worth Asians making public commitments to philanthropy this year. There are 444 billionaires and 3.68 millionaires in Asia, and not all of them give. So is it premature to say that high profile, strategic philanthropy in Asia is here to stay? Maybe, but Forbes is reporting that Gates has “cemented a deal” with Vietnamese businessman Van Kiem Le and his daughter Le Ny Thuy Duong to start the Vietnam Health Fund, a similar initiative to the Indonesian fund. As the saying goes, “Two is a coincidence, and three is a trend.” If we hear an official announcement about the Vietnam Health Fund, or if another big giving announcement is made elsewhere in Asia soon, then I think we have the start of something very good for Asia.

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