Asia – Relationship fundraising and political risk

To understand Asia, you need to understand the importance of relationships, and to do successful fundraising, you need to be good at relationship management. 

Relationship management is key to fundraising anywhere in the world, but in Asia it is absolutely critical. In my experience, it can be as much about you as an individual as it is about the organisation that might employ you, and the real value of the relationship is measured around trust; trust that can be hard to establish and might be earned over years.

It is, perhaps, for this reason that as a professional fundraiser I found the setting up of Global Philanthropic in Hong Kong nearly 20 years ago such a fascinating, challenging and rewarding occupation. If you grasped the importance of relationships in Asia and, even better, were good at building and nurturing them over a long period of time, money would follow. 

However, I also discovered that good relationship management is never easy in Asia; it takes time and it is fraught with complexities. Issues of culture, language, ‘face’, status, family and money dynamics all play out in a way that is so much more interwoven and nuanced than in the West.

The acceleration of globalisation over the last 20 years, the development of global media and communication, the establishment of global brands in education and charities and, in particular, the rapid wealth creation over the last decade in Asia have created huge opportunities but have also made the market even more complicated. The emergence of philanthropy across Asia is clear, yet fundraising has become even more complex and harder to navigate.

To add to this complex, heady mix of globalisation we now add another factor: political risk. Of course, this is not a new issue, but the world has become more adversarial and volatile in recent years. The difference for many organisations is that they are now dealing with political risk from a different position. If you are a large research university, you might have thousands or hundreds of thousands of Alumni in Asia; you might have employees, campuses on-site, hard-won relationships with government, and significant financial exposure. These are long-term deep and complex relationships, and it is upon these relationships that successful fundraising will depend. 

Often, we at Global Philanthropic are asked about these new political risks: should we travel? Should we undertake events? Particularly in the light of recent mass demonstrations in Hong Kong. The point that we often have to make is the value of relationships and that if you want to be good at relationship management, you take a long-term view. If you really value relationships, they are not something you run away from because they are getting ‘too difficult’ due to external political events. 

One of our first clients was the London School of Economics. What struck me about the key to the relationship between that organisation and China was the importance of the early scholars that attended the LSE from China. During the 1960s, these were a handful of individuals who had been allowed to leave China and study abroad under a scholarship programme. These scholars then went on to take key government positions. They helped to reform and then run China some 30 years later. The depth of relationship they had to the UK and LSE because of that experience was in some ways critical to UK-China relations, and certainly a matter of huge pride for the scholars.

Education has always played a significant role in opening up countries and helping with understanding across the world, enabling people for the first time to be able to ‘look over the wall’ and start appreciating and understanding what is on the other side, rather than assuming what it might be. What better way to facilitate this than through philanthropy-funded exchange scholarships, centres of research, and new Chairs and programmes?

My view is that if you work harder at relationships during these times, it will pay off; in Asia more than anywhere else in the world. It should not be a short-term approach or an only when times are good approach. 

So, should you go? Well, absolutely; as long as your government or consulate is not saying you should not. Should you stage events? Yes, of course; you should not cancel unless your hosts ask you to or it is too dangerous. 

However, you should be smart about the messaging of the events and how you conduct them. Clearly, talking money might not be appropriate but talking relationships will be. As time moves on, organisations that understand the importance of relationships (and are good at it) will be set in Asia. The ones that pull out or ‘run for the hills’ will be remembered as such and relationships will have to be started again. 

I believe thinking through the lens of relationship management and through the eyes of the people you have relationships with in Asia should always be the starting point. It takes some deep thinking and careful consideration, but if you get it right, it will pay dividends. And yes, not long after the dust has settled, you can start asking for money again. And guess what? You will get more than you ever imagined.