Five years ago, when APC was first established, we began with a shared aspiration – that we need change agents to address Asia’s social challenges and that strategic and engaged philanthropists can be them.
Today amidst the greatest health and humanitarian challenge of our generation, the urgency for philanthropists to step up is even more pressing.
The study of boundaries is a critical one today. Problems are deeply interrelated. For example, Covid-19, a zoonotic disease, is a virus that jumped the boundary from nonhuman to human. And the impact of the disease spread has gone well beyond what is health-related, and has exposed and amplified the social inequities in the world.
Even before the Covid crisis, we have seen breakdowns resulting from boundaries not being sufficiently protected. This ranged from the #MeToo movement, triggered by personal boundaries being violated, to the globalisation crisis which germinated from the threats to national sovereignty and self-sufficiency. The climate emergency that we face is itself a result of humans failing in this age of Anthropocene to stay within the zone of stability and sustainability.
These crises are well-known. What is less understood though is the difficult work that lays ahead to address these challenges. More specifically, what is the role of philanthropists in dealing with problems that governments and businesses, with their infinitely vaster resources, cannot solve?
The road ahead is not problem solving that is more of the same. The same is everyone working in silos, when we need a united offensive. The same is sticking to single disciplines, when we need a multi-sectoral approach. And the same would be on fixing things through the tried and tested, when we need the messiness of systems transformation and leadership.
I would posit then that the heart of driving change lies in philanthropists busting boundaries in three ways: in our heads, in our hearts and in our hands.
In our heads, we need fresh ideas and new innovations. New insights often come from wading out to the edge of the boundary, often when it intersects with another, and marrying disconnected thoughts. Novel innovations often come from experimenting with these possibilities, and taking an evidence-based approach to grasp, understand and capture what works and what does not work.
Philanthropy, through offering patient, long-term capital then supports the unproven, early- stage high-risk/high-rewards interventions and organisations that other funders, e.g. government agencies, may struggle to fund.
In our hearts, we need deep compassion and true empathy. Compassion is critical to show that there is mutual care and support and to grow social capital that bridges heterogeneous groups, cutting across social cleavages in this divided world. Empathy goes even further: it helps one transcend boundaries to truly be in someone else’s shoes. With empathy, we can not only design better interventions, but also find the right partners and beneficiaries.
Philanthropy must go beyond being instrumental and transactional. It is about demonstrating care, in a reciprocal, social relationship. When it is seen as two-way, it creates social bonds and trust that in turn result in a stronger social fabric, which is the basis for collaboration and the joint creation of economic value.
Last but not least, through our hands, we need to get involved in the untidy action of crossing and busting boundaries, in order to deliver breakthroughs and systems change. The most creative ideas with the deepest passion would get nowhere if the groups we need to work with are maladaptive and fight back when challenged.
Philanthropy can identify and nurture systems leadership and entrepreneurship, mobilising coalitions of like-minded people who can continually reach out to and convert those who are on the “other side”. Sometimes this requires provoking the status quo, and sometimes it is about evoking a compelling shared vision.
Be it working with the head, heart or hands, the labour is tough. Philanthropists and impact sector leaders need to open up our individual boundaries to cooperate with others to address these complex, interdependent challenges.
So what has APC’s experience been these five years? On the positive side, more philanthropists than I expected are strategic; by which I mean they desire social impact as a primary goal. On the more challenging side, most want to pursue this on their own. Even when they want collaboration, the execution of joint action is tricky. We often have different conceptions of the pathway to impact, and there is no google map equivalent that can help find us a way there.
Overall, I would probably give the five-year scorecard an A-. While we would have liked to have had more members, the ones we have – 46 as I write this – have the right balance of head, heart and hands. They are also highly engaged, and we are able to have excellent programming, with deep learning and conversations.
We currently have 12 collaborative projects and funds catalysed by APC. Members do not just fund these projects, but also contribute their time and expertise. Many of these are greenfield projects, as we try to generate breakthroughs. And more than the direct impact, is the indirect one of demonstrating the benefits of working together.
Moving forward, we will continue to shape the future of Asian philanthropy, making strategic giving an ingrained value and making philanthropy more suited to our unique context. In doing this, we see each member as our ambassadors in philanthropy in their respective communities. And while we are strong in Southeast Asia, in the coming years, we will be expand our boundaries to include our friends from North and South Asia.
Ultimately, our goal is for local philanthropy to create disproportionate impact in solving problems in Asia. The journey is demanding, but we are full of hope, and invite other philanthropists working in Asia to join hands with us.
This excerpt has been published with the permission of APC. Their 2019/2020 Annual Report can be accessed here.