Laurence Lien

LAURENCE LIEN, ASIA PHILANTHROPY CIRCLE

The Asia Philanthropy Circle (APC) is a private membership platform fostering the exchange and coordination of knowledge and ideas among Asian philanthropists and, particularly, their collaboration. It aims to “advance a distinct Asian brand of philanthropy to accelerate the public good in Asia, by promoting and supporting leadership and collaboration for joint action”.

Laurence Lien, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, explains how it works. 

How did APC come about?

The idea to form APC developed because several philanthropists including Stanley Tan, Cherie Nursalim and myself thought it was time to have something Asia-centered. A great deal of thought leadership in philanthropy has come from the West, and we wanted Asia to develop its own brand and style of philanthropy. 

As our ideas evolved, quite quickly we decided to focus on philanthropists themselves as the principals and key decision takers – there aren’t many organising events that serve philanthropists only.

We are different because we are membership-based and our members are truly all peers, and APC is very Asian in its focus.

There is an intentional focus on collaboration, which is significant, since philanthropists often work in isolation. We wanted to show them a proof of concept – not just that this can work, but it can also produce superior results. And it’s much more fun collaborating than doing it alone.

We start with the exchange, which allows the sharing of inspiration and knowledge; this is a benefit of its own. From the exchange, we move on to coordination, where we aim to have everybody contribute to a bigger whole. And from coordination, we move to collaboration. 

How does APC facilitate the collaboration process?

We bring individuals together, and we organise this at different levels. First, we bring them together at the country level. Wherever we have critical mass, we convene.  We’re not talking about very big numbers. Right now, there are enough members in Indonesia and Singapore, and soon there will be enough in China, the Philippines, and Malaysia. We get them together for a conversation, sometimes based on shared interests that we have identified through various individual conversations. From the shared interests, we then try to move deeper to concentrate on one or two themes.  Then members decide to pilot one of the ideas. 

All of this is driven by individual interviews in which we learn about people’s passions and experience. Where there isn’t a shared interest, people will not work together. Our role is primarily one of facilitation. We are not implementers; for example, if our members identify entrepreneurship as a shared theme, we will start to look for partners who can help them create action. Or sometimes capacity can come from the members themselves; for example, if we can leverage on their foundation.

We are active catalysts. The members need to take ownership, but the secretariat does not just sit back and wait for that to happen. Our role is also context-specific; in some cases where we have the expertise, we may feel more comfortable to make specific recommendations, in others we may have to find the right partners to help. And in all cases the group will be part of making these recommendations. It’s iterative: we narrow down the possibilities and come back to them with some ideas.  

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There is an intentional focus on collaboration, which is significant, since philanthropists often work in isolation. 

What were your main motivations for starting a philanthropy circle?

If you look at the philanthropy landscape, certainly there is the intent to grow giving. But many philanthropists in Asia have a difficult time achieving impact. It can be difficult to do things in a meaningful and strategic way, so the result has been a highly fragmented ecosystem where everybody does their own thing and makes the same mistakes that others have made, and which few have learnt from. So there are inefficiencies and a lack of scale.

Also, there are certain things that are of systemic value, but they don’t get done because they might be too large an investment for an individual, and often might be outside the core focus of activities. A group can achieve something that an individual might be hard-pressed to accomplish alone. Examples are research, or establishing shared standards, or shared infrastructure.

We can always learn from other people’s perspectives and experiences, even if they’re in another country. We strongly believe this. People have a tendency to believe that interventions are very country- and context-specific. But what we have found is that there are many more similarities than differences. People don’t always realise that they’re making the same mistakes others have made. For example, in trying to provide access to education in rural areas, starting from scratch and developing the infrastructure, different groups continue to make the same type of mistakes.

What members of the APC have in common is that they have all progressed to the point of the learning curve where they’ve realised that ‘it is difficult to make a real difference’ and ‘I definitely do not know everything’. And part of our job is to pick people who have come to that point, because that’s what makes you open up and listen. Because you realise that you need others to get answers, you won’t get them all by yourself. 

What is the focus of the circle’s philanthropy and how did you identify it?

We have a particular framework of looking at issues that are very transferable – some topics lend themselves to cross-border learning. When we get to specific recommendations though, it will obviously be tailored to each country. In general, our members decide where they would like to focus as a group.

What do you look for in members?

We don’t have hard criteria, but what we look for generally is that they must have knowledge they are willing and able to share. They must also have enough experience to know what they are looking for themselves. For that they must be very committed to philanthropy and personally involved. They need to want to be engaged. And they must believe in the value of collaboration already.

How do you engage the next generation in philanthropy?

The people I know who have a long succession of family philanthropy, when you ask them why they are so engaged, they’ll say it’s “because that’s how we did it at home. That’s what my parents did, and that’s what I saw as a child.”

It always starts early. Don’t wait until they’re 18 and hope that they become philanthropically engaged. Many major donors will tell stories about their parents or relatives taking them to soup kitchens, fund-raisers and so on when they were young.  It didn’t appear to be some kind of educational effort, it just seemed natural.

It’s also part of a larger effort. Philanthropy is not the whole solution. Don’t expect philanthropy to substitute good parenting and ‘to fix things’. If you want the next generation to have philanthropic values, it must be part of a larger set of values. It’s the way you look at life at large, and the way you interact with people in general. 

How do you feel that donors benefit from participating in philanthropy?

To start with, giving – helping people – is a rewarding exercise in itself. 

As far as setting up a long-term philanthropic project, the rewards are quite individual. Motives and expectations can vary significantly from person to person. It’s important that you’re clear about them from the start, so that you can achieve the objectives that you’re aiming for. This is important, so you can put in motion the cycle of giving, being rewarded and then going back to give more. For example, if public recognition is a part of it, then be honest about that. It’s not necessarily something in every culture that one says out loud, but at least be honest with yourself so that you give in a way that’s rewarding for you. Otherwise, you will stop giving. 

Or if you will feel the greatest reward knowing that you have personally made a difference – if your expertise, networks etc have made an impact – then develop your philanthropic efforts in a way that allows this. 

What are your experiences and expectations of working with organisations that you support?

The only thing that’s important is that there’s transparency about the expectations of both sides. That’s the only time I’ve seen things go wrong. For example, if there’s a donor who has the expectation of being very personally involved, but the charity organisation is unable or unwilling to have that level of involvement, things will go wrong.

That said, it’s probably a good idea to maintain a certain distance. You should not be in a position where you might decide to continue funding against your better judgement. Sometimes, the more personal the relationship, the more difficult these decisions may be. Ultimately, every donor’s goal should be to exit at some point.  From the start, you should have the goal that the end of your funding will not mean the end of the position that you’re supporting. This is all much easier if you do not develop too personal a relationship.  

 

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Take your time. It should start with a vision, not with a foundation. 

What have been the biggest lessons learnt in developing the APC?

At the point where we are now, I think we’ve learnt to dare to be a bit more optimistic. We had a lot of doubt at the beginning as to whether this could actually work at all. There were some moments where we thought that maybe we should have picked fewer countries, developed a solid presence there and then focused on growing. We thought that maybe we should have started only in Southeast Asia, and questioned if it was a bit too ambitious to take on China and India from the start.

What advice would you give to other people who have the capacity to give at this level and are at the beginning of their philanthropy journey?

Take your time. It should start with a vision, not with a foundation. To find out what your vision is takes time, and it’s time well invested because this will be the basis for all future action. 

Give yourself an opportunity to learn. Start small, not with a multi-million publicly announced commitment. Spend maybe $20,000 here, a $100,000 there – and learn. Learn what works and what doesn’t. And then if you want to, at some point go big. 

Finally, get advice. Not that it’s easy to find good advice, but try to find professional advice, and be willing to pay for it as well. Be willing to invest. If you’re ultimately planning to spend large sums, then a couple of thousand dollars to get good advice is probably a pretty good investment. 

Are there any other thoughts on being a major donor that you would like to share?

Once someone has been a donor for a long time, they strive to find the ‘sweet spot’ where their desires, expectations, skills and capabilities overlap with society’s needs. Not everyone has found it yet, but one reason that people join a circle like the APC is to get help in finding it. One of the challenges of philanthropy is that you always know you could do more and be more. You always have the certainty that it could be better. 

What do you think are some of the key challenges and opportunities for philanthropy in Singapore?

There still isn’t an appreciation of the strategic role that philanthropists and philanthropy can play. By and large we don’t see philanthropists thinking that it’s within their capability to tackle social issues and solve them. They’re not trying to put intellectual and human capital into solving social problems. They just give financial resources – they’re complementary to the system instead of disruptive. 

In certain areas Singapore suffers because there’s too much funding, whereas in other areas there’s too little. So there’s a huge imbalance in funding. Part of the problem is there’s very little advocacy and discussion of the real issues on the ground. Non-governmental organisations here don’t do advocacy, by and large. People think that “there aren’t many serious problems, so I might as well give outside of Singapore, or not give at all”.

There’s also a human capital issue, which is shared with almost every country that we’ve been to. Here, you at least have a lot of potentially qualified human capital, but it’s not going in that direction. 

As for opportunities, there is money in Singapore. So it isn’t a lack of money, it’s a lack of application of that money. There’s an opportunity for philanthropists to work together and jointly develop the ecosystem, which is in line with what the APC is doing. There’s the opportunity for philanthropists not just to do things together, but to spur each on other to do things differently. 

There’s a lot of talk about social innovation, social entrepreneurship and all those things. Singapore is not the best example of where such things are possible. We lack talented social entrepreneurs who can successfully grow new innovations. There are also regulatory and structural challenges; it’s not easy to have a foundation here that actually does impact investments. Hopefully, philanthropists can come together to improve the social innovation ecosystem. For example, there is not much chance of changing the regulatory environment as an individual, but as a group you might be able to do that. As a group you can ask to have some red tape removed. 

Also, there’s the opportunity to give overseas. Given the prosperity of Singapore and the challenges that surround it, there’s always the possibility that the challenges will move from the doorstep and right into the house. There’s value in making it easy for people to address those problems from here while the problems are still far away. It’s in Singapore’s best interests. And that kind of giving could become an example for the whole region.