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LAURA LAU OF SWIRE GROUP CHARITABLE TRUST

The Swire Group Charitable Trust has been supporting good causes in Hong Kong for 31 years. Laura Lau, Head of Philanthropy, explains how the Trust has operated and evolved over the decades.

Are the Swire family still involved in this charitable trust?

The Trust was set up by Swire Pacific Limited, so we are not a private family foundation. The Swire family does not drive the Trust, but the philosophy of the Swire family motto ‘esse quam videri’ [to be rather than to seem to be] guides much of our values and approach. 

So how is the Swire Group Charitable Trust run?

The Swire Group has always given money back to the community. But 31 years ago it decided to centralise its philanthropic giving through this Trust. As a corporate trust, governance is important. The Trust is part of Swire Pacific Limited. I report to the Philanthropy Council. The nine members that sit on this Council are all business heads at Swire. The Trust has a small staff of three full-time people, all based in Hong Kong.

Do you have a set budget each year that you receive from Swire Pacific?

Our annual budget is HK$40m-$50m. We receive a fixed proportion of profits from the Swire Group companies so the actual income fluctuates, but in the past few years it’s been within this range. Typically, we donate over 95% of this money each year.

How many grants does the Trust fund?

We have about 20 major active grants at present, and we will give smaller donations to another 50 or so NGOs [not-for-profit non-governmental organisations]. 

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We want the money we donate to have more impact, and ensure we are supporting issues that are important and relevant in Hong Kong and mainland China.

How do you decide which projects to back? How does this decision-making process work with such a large foundation?

When we are presented with an idea, we call that the ‘concept’ phase. If we like the idea and if it fits within our strategy, we will ask the organisation to submit a formal proposal. I will vet the proposal and at the same time conduct due diligence on the organisation. If this all meets our requirements we will submit the condensed proposal to the Philanthropy Council. They then make the decision as to whether or not the project will be approved.

How often do you meet to make funding decisions?

The Council meets four times a year. We do not have a specific funding cycle and will consider proposals throughout the year. During the quarterly meetings we might look at allocation of funding across the different core areas.

Do you have set criteria for the types of projects you’ll support, or how much money you’ll give to each cause?

We are currently conducting a strategic review, which includes some of these issues. At present, we have a basic set of criteria.

Why are you conducting this review now?

We want the money we donate to have more impact. So far our approach has been what I call ‘good-hearted’ – we will consider any worthwhile cause. Yet every cause has its merits, so we’re contemplating a more strategic approach to focus our giving.

Additionally, our funding has increased over the years, and we have also started to donate to projects in mainland China. After this review we’ll have a clearer idea of what projects we will support there.

Can you tell us about your role?

At the moment I am focused on developing the strategy for the Trust. But normally my focus is on monitoring the grants, looking at new ideas and proposals, and ensuring the board members have all the information they need to make their decisions. I’m also involved in networking with different donor communities and governments to keep abreast of the issues and to make sure we are funding the appropriate initiatives. 

Do you collaborate with other donors?

At the moment, our collaboration with other donors is informal, though I am seeing more and more donor interest to join up efforts. This is especially so for environmental causes because the issues are so complex. The environment is a particularly important issue here in Asia – in Hong Kong and mainland China. There are a number of international donors supporting environmental projects in this part of the world, but it would be good to see greater engagement from local donors.

Can you tell us about a couple of projects that the Trust has funded?

Two initiatives come to mind. One is a recent initiative. It isn’t our largest grant, but it is unique and impactful. It is with the Asian Charity Services (ACS), an NGO based in Hong Kong. They provide a series of workshops for NGO leaders.

When you are looking at philanthropy in mainland China, there is a lot of money, but the charity sector is very new. ACS runs approximately four workshops a year on a range of issues, from fundraising and using social media to working with corporations. The subscription rate is very high. There is a long waiting list for this programme. By investing in capacity building, donors can help organisations become more effective. Unlike the corporate sector, the non-profit sector usually doesn’t have a lot of resources to invest in their own capacity and skills.

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We want to fund issues that are important today as well as in the future.

Are you the sole funder of this programme? Do you get involved in the delivery of these workshops?

We don’t get involved as it is ACS’s initiative, not Swire’s. As a donor, we’re careful not to be too closely associated with an NGO’s initiative as it may affect the organisation’s ability to attract other funding. We are the sole funder, but only for the first two years as ACS establishes a reputable programme so it can find other donors in the future.

How does this compare to other projects you fund?

At the other end of the scale, we are funding the Swire Institute of Marine Science, or SWIMS, a marine research station under the University of Hong Kong. Funding for this initially began in the early 1990s, when very few people seemed interested in marine research. But this marine station has not only elevated scientific research in Hong Kong, it has also trained marine experts who later join the government, corporate, non-profit and academic sectors.

For me, this initiative is interesting because marine research is very relevant for the future. As a donor, we want to fund issues that are important today as well as the future. By supporting marine research in 1990, when it didn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar, Swire helped establish an entity and research station which addresses key issues today in Hong Kong’s own sustainable development.

What are the challenges of being a million dollar donor?

With larger funds come greater opportunities for change. Yet every project is worthwhile, so it’s important to focus in order to achieve greater impact. However, it’s sometimes challenging for donors to narrow their focus and limit the number of issues or projects they can support.

Are there any specific challenges for philanthropists in Hong Kong?

Capacity of NGOs: giving away money is the easy part, finding the right, capable partners is more challenging, but a key component to achieve impact.