This thought-provoking Global 20 interview with Dr Ruth A Shapiro provides a comprehensive overview of Asian philanthropy, its unique characteristics, challenges, and the potential it holds for shaping a sustainable future.

The conversation delves into the unique aspects of Asian philanthropy, including the strong influence of government and the significant role of family businesses. The community-centric approach of Asian philanthropists, focusing on relationships and addressing specific community needs, is discussed in fascinating detail.

Shifting to Hong Kong’s philanthropic ecosystem, hear Dr Shapiro talk about its rich history of private philanthropy, acknowledging the government-led efforts in philanthropy and the increasing interest from Chinese families seeking guidance on effective giving. And with optimism around the innovation and new models that emerging markets like India and Indonesia can bring to address global challenges, it is clear there is a need for immediate action.

Ben Morton-Wright 0:00
For this Global 20, I’m absolutely thrilled that Ruth Shapiro has joined us to talk about Asia and Asian philanthropy. And Ruth, welcome. It was only a few weeks ago, I was in your office, and we were chewing the fat about what’s going on in Hong Kong and across Asia. And you are probably if you don’t mind me, spare the blushes, but the most important person as far as research, and the intellectual drive around what’s happening in Asia. So I’m very pleased you’ve joined us today. And thank you for joining us in this Global 20.

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 0:34
Thank you, Ben. It’s an honour and a privilege to be in conversation with you.

Ben Morton-Wright 0:39
Now, let’s start with CAPS because this has been really your work of 10 years, and congratulations, because I know your 10th anniversary has just been celebrated. Tell us a bit more about CAPS and what it’s about and what you’ve been doing the last 10 years.

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 0:54
So with the increase of wealth in Asia, there was a sense that we need to really understand how to maximise this wealth in order to help our communities ,our community at large. So the mission of CAPS is to increase both the quality and the quantity of all types of Private Social Investment in Asia. And that means philanthropy, corporate social responsibility, impact investing, blended finance, in fact, all the ways in which private resources are brought to bear on doing good. We work across the region. So in 18 economies, meaning 16 countries plus Hong Kong and Taiwan. And I think it’s really important to point out that one of the key premises of our work is that we don’t have an agenda in terms of certain models or strategies that we are suggesting. We want to understand what works in the ground in Asia. So that may be a model or a strategy that is used elsewhere in the world. But oftentimes, it’s not. But we certainly don’t assume that best practice emanates because it’s emanating from Europe or the United States, it is best practice within the Asian context. Because things are a little bit different out here. And we need to understand what works. So CAPS does research, three kinds, Policy Research, Applied and Commissioned. We do convening of philanthropists. And we do advisory when certain corporate foundations or family foundations ask us to help them.

Ben Morton-Wright 2:38
So Ruth, I remember vividly when I read your book, which is kind of the kickoff for all of this, and the whole story of philanthropy in Asia and how long it’s been going. And we need to understand that, country by country, and how we can’t just parachute a Western solution or mindset right into the middle of Asia. You’ve got to start from an Asian mindset. And I’ve always been very impressed and I think it’s a profound point here, as you said, about how CAPS works. Talk us through some of the research because, you know, from my perspective, if we didn’t have CAPS, we wouldn’t know what the hell was going on in Asia, right? We’d be, right on day one, like what’s going on?

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 3:15
Well, thank you, Ben. I think some other people might differ on that. But I’ll take the compliment where I can!

Ben Morton-Wright 3:23
Take it! So talk us through some of the key reports.

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 3:27
So on the policy side we have been doing something called The Doing Good Index. And it really was originally started as kind of a riff on the World Bank’s ease of doing business report, this is the ease of doing good. What are the factors that enable or impede the flow of philanthropic capital from the, in effect, the suppliers to the demand side? How easy is it? What what are the problems? What are the challenges? And we did this partially because we realised that we have in Asia a pretty significant trust deficit. So people say we would give more if we trusted the local organisations to receive the money, but we don’t trust them. So how do you build trust? You build it through accountability, transparency, understanding what the rules and regulations and norms are. So we do this study, Spring of 2024, we will release the fourth iteration of the doing good index. And now we have also started to do work that looks deeper. So for example, we’re about to come out with a study, I hope by the end of the year, on when a government procure services from the social sector, from nonprofits or social enterprise, what are best practices help doing that well, why are they doing that? How are they doing?

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 4:58
The second area in which we do research is the applied work and we do two types of applied work. One is very specific, what’s happening in a particular field? Like scholarships, who gives scholarships? What do we know about scholarships? Which ones are impactful? What can we learn? We are just launching on December 5th, a new study called Building Back Greener, which is really about how the private sector is responding to climate change. And here, I want to just lay out something that’s pretty fundamental. There’s a big foundation in the United States that does a study every year looking at global philanthropy toward environment and climate change. And in this study, it says, Asian philanthropy is not going toward environment and climate change. But the lens in which they look at that is through foundations’. So it is an accurate statement to say foundations in Asia are not spending on philanthropy. That’s true. But what that doesn’t say is there are very few big, private foundations in Asia. So there are not the big foundations that exist in Europe, in the United States, like Ford and Gates and Children’s Investment Fund. They don’t exist. So while it is a true statement that foundation support is not going to environment, it’s really not the right question. The question is, how are people with money addressing climate change? And so our study is answering that question.

So we talk about one aspect of our applied work is looking at subject matter. The other aspect of applied work is looking at processes. So what are public private partnerships for social good look like? What do social enterprise ecosystems look like? We just came out with two studies, just recently, in the past couple weeks. One on DAFs, donor advised funds, and how they’re proliferating in Asia. And the second on, we polled 135 individuals that we know definitely have at least 30 million US dollars, to ask them what they care about, who they’re going to for advice, what kind of issues would they like to learn more about, that’s called the Tao of giving. And all of this is on our website. And then the third kind of research is commissioned, when a particular organisation wants us to do a study on a particular subject.

Ben Morton-Wright 7:45
Ruth, you kindly share with us on Talking Philanthropy, the last Talking Philanthropy, the doing good work. And I always say, and it’s so impressive, and I always say, if you really want to begin to understand Asia, or if you’re not familiar with it, the first thing you got to do is read your book, of course. But the second thing you got to do is read the Doing Good Index, because that is just such a fantastic guide to really absorb what all the different dynamics are in the countries across Asia. So I think it’s for those that are new, or even those that are old hands at Asia, they need to really look at that study, because every year it’s updated and modified, and you have new outcomes. I think it’s a phenomenal piece of work that you’ve done there.

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 8:23
Thank you Ben. And let me just point out, because most people don’t know, we have a really, really cool website attached to it, where it allows the user to play with the data themselves. So you could actually compare Hong Kong 2022 to Hong Kong 2020, and what’s changed. Or you can compare Hong Kong and Singapore, or China and India. So you can play with the data yourself by looking at different issues through our microsite, which can be accessed through our website.

Ben Morton-Wright 9:00
And the other reports that I’m always really blown away with is the ones on China, because again, so much is discussed with China but we rarely knew what was actually going on before your, I think it’s environmental education analysis and reports on actually philanthropy within China. And again, I do point people to go and have a look at those because it’s very complex, what’s happening in China. And yet, really, when you unpack it with those reports, you begin to see some really amazing patterns emerging. So I think they’re very, very important. So anyway, I think the listeners could spend hours watching and looking at your incredible reports. So we do direct you to the websites and they’re coming thick and fast with these new ones around environment, which I think is fantastic.

Ruth, when we spoke and met last we talked a little bit about the kind of fundamental differences in Asia. And I think the two that we really talked about the main one we talked about was government and the other one we talked about was understanding the role of family and family businesses. But could we just share some thoughts around why the role of government is so different in Asia, and particularly from the West, because it has a different play. And obviously, our last theme for Talking Philanthropy was around the philanthropic ecosystem and the role of government. So it’s something as a firm, we’ve been very keen to highlight and put a spotlight on because it’s very important in the development of the philanthropic ecosystem of Asia. But share with the listeners some of your thoughts around why government is different in Asia and why it’s important to understand this fundamental point.

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 10:39
Well, I think anybody who’s hearing me and looking at me would know that I’m not from Asia. And I definitely am from New York. And you can hear the accent. So I am more familiar with the American model then many of the models in Europe. But in the United States, Ronald Reagan used to say, the worst thing you can hear is, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”. Now, I don’t agree with Ronald Reagan and you know, he’s taken on some fairly big status in recent years. But there is a sense, whether you’re a democrat or republican, government is not necessarily your go to. If you have a problem, you solve it. You create a nonprofit, you give money philanthropically, you get engaged.

In Asia, it’s not like that. Government is your go to. That is the solution provider. And so the role of the philanthropist is not to replace government. No, no, no. The role of philanthropy is to supplement, to complement, to be guided by government, certainly, in the case of China, but not only. And so philanthropy plays a very different roll out here. And one aspect of that, that swing to your second question is, it’s important to bear in mind that 85% of all companies in Asia, small, medium, and large, are family dominated still. And that’s likely not changing particularly fast. So if they’re family dominated, what motivates the family? Well, first of all, a lot of philanthropy comes through, or is channelled through, the corporation. So the difference between personal philanthropy and corporate philanthropy is essentially nil in most cases. But the second thing is these families, they’re in business first, and they want to stay in business. So that means staying on the right side of government. And so they don’t see themselves in a position of critiquing government at all. They want to curry favour with government. So that means that they essentially say to government, how can we help you succeed in addressing, you know, environmental, or health or education, or certainly disaster relief. Asia’s on the absolute frontlines when it comes to climate change. There’s so many natural disasters here happening all the time. So the people with resources who run companies are also the philanthropist. And they are also seeking to stay in business and help government address community problems.

Ben Morton-Wright 13:44
And that’s so profound for me Ruth. Obviously, as you know, we established Global in Asia 21 years ago. So we’ve been knocking around Asia for a long time. And this is like a bit of an elephant in the room, right? It’s, if you don’t get this, you can’t really operate effectively with those families and with those philanthropic organisations, because it is so different. Rather like the way the wealth is kept within the family and the family discusses how their philanthropy works. You know, these companies aren’t necessarily listed, they’re not subject to shareholder scrutiny there. This is a family discussion, and it might manifest itself in all sorts of different ways that isn’t what we regard in the West, traditional philanthropy, but actually is very philanthropic. So these are kind of fundamental things right. There are fundamental paradigm shifts of thinking that you need to understand when you’re operating in Asia. Is it that significant?

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 14:38
Yeah, I think so. And let me mention one more. I think that it’s in the West you hear foundations say, we are here to solve the world’s biggest problems. And in this part of the world it comes across as bold to be kind, arrogant, if you’re being a little bit less kind. Like, that is not the way that people think out here. Who am I to solve the world’s biggest problems? And is that really my job to do that, you know? So rather than focusing on the problem, many Asian philanthropists focus on the community. So they say, this is the community I want to help. And I’m somewhat agnostic about the type of help they need, you know, whatever they need, I want to help them with this, because I am connected to this community. And in some ways, I think it’s quite powerful. If you put the people and the community in the middle of what you’re trying to do, rather than the problem, the solution set may look quite a bit different. And, you know, this is now in the West, design thinking. To put the people in the middle of of what you’re trying to do. But it’s very natural here, because this is a place where people care about the relationships they have. The relationships with their family, with their community, with their stakeholders, and which includes government, and that is very place driven. And so focusing on that first is really the initial step for a lot of people.

Ben Morton-Wright 16:31
That’s so interesting, because you know, the big thing is decolonisation, particularly for Western foundations where their source of wealth has historically been slightly problematic, to put it mildly. And also about how you operate now across the world. And a lot of work we’ve done around Africa at the moment is, this is a central theme about not starting from we need to solve your problem, but actually starting from, can we allow the communities to gather and tell us what the issues are. And how we can work with you as a community to actually work together in partnership to solve the problems that you define, and you define how to solve them. And so in Asia, that clearly has been the case, you know, for a long, long, long time. So we’re learning stuff as usual from Asia, which is always good to see.

Moving on, in terms of this idea of the role of government now we’ve had blimey, so many new organisations, I think we’ve lost count now, Ruth. Probably 20 years ago, it was quite easy. We could probably name about one or two. And now we’ve got so many different organisations in Asia, promoting philanthropy. Singapore has obviously done a fantastic job in terms of highlighting this as an agenda item and resourcing it. And now we’re seeing, with the recent policy statement, and the doing good forum, and wealth for good forum and conference last year, which I think is being repeated in Hong Kong, and a number of initiatives that are every week, that seems to be another one, which is fantastic. That is emanating from Hong Kong. And this seems a bit of a race to become the hub for Asia. So we seem to have a bit of an interesting dynamic going on in Asia where this subject, everyone’s woken up to this subject. But what’s your thoughts? So I know you’ve worked and actually undertaken a paper on the philanthropic ecosystem of Hong Kong and what the role of government and what needs to come together. And Hong Kong is certainly a very exciting place to watch over the next year or two. But what’s your sense of from that paper and your analysis of what philanthropic ecosystem of what’s happening and what needs to be done? And what can we do more in terms of creating a really effective ecosystem?

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 18:43
Oh, thank you for asking. And we did do a study on this, which is on our website, as well. So Hong Kong has a number of factors that speak to its ability to think about and execute on philanthropy, and be, frankly, philanthropic thought leaders. And one has a long history. Now, thanks to your government, which was pretty hands off when it came to addressing social challenges at the time, in fact, the British government had a policy called Positive Non-interventionism, which essentially meant we’ll worry about trade and economics, you the local people kind of focus on education and health care and elderly services. And we’ll help you a little bit but you guys are kind of on your own to a certain extent. And what that meant is that for, you know, a couple of 100 years, it was the Chinese families, the Chinese clans and Chinese Christian organisations that set up the great majority of hospitals, of clinics, of education institutions, of elderly services and homes, a whole range of social service delivery mechanisms and organisations. And so for Hong Kong, private philanthropy has been embedded in how problems are addressed, really from the get go. And that’s a really important tradition and understanding that lends some credibility to our ability to understand and kind of lead on philanthropy.

The second, of course, is that we are the leading financial centre. Here, we have the fourth largest stock exchange, so every bank in the world is in Hong Kong, many of the private wealth, almost all the private wealth entities have offices in Hong Kong, have staff in Hong Kong, so that the bench strength of people who understand these issues is deep.

Ben Morton-Wright 21:01
And it’s pretty exciting what’s happening in terms I think, The Jockey Club, as well has launched another Institute for Philanthropy. I think it’s called that. And we’ve got these two other initiatives last week. I mean, every week, that’s something that’s been announced. And this is a pretty exciting moment for Hong Kong in terms of trying to make sure that it perhaps is the other hub, or the hub, in relation to Singapore. And what else does need to happen in terms of really triggering?

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 21:32
The thing also, is that, frankly, this is the government kind of leading on philanthropy. Which, when you think about it, from a Western perspective, like, no, philanthropy is by definition, the private sector. You can’t have government management of philanthropy that theoretically would just be another tax. But in Asia, where government is so important, and at the centre of all these discussions, it seems very normal. So the Philanthropy Asia Alliance and the work that Temasek Trust is doing in Hong Kong, well, Temasek Trust, is affiliated with the government, of course. They don’t like to be called a sovereign wealth fund, but I don’t know what the right term would be for them other than that. In Hong Kong, it’s the Hong Kong government and the Jockey Club, but the Jockey Club operates with a government mandated and ordained monopoly on gambling, and that’s where the money comes from. So these efforts are government driven efforts. How that’s going to play out I think, I think more philanthropy can only accrue to the world’s benefit. So whoever, however, it comes about, who’s driving it, what the trade offs are, essentially, there’s more money going to or doing good. Some of it will hit the target, some of it will miss the target. But experimentation and innovation around these things can only be good.

Ben Morton-Wright 23:19
I mean certainly from my perspective, Ruth, I think the story of the philanthropy and the long history of philanthropy that’s happened in Hong Kong is rarely understood outside Hong Kong. And it’s a good omen for the rest of Asia and actually China as well. So I think what I find fascinating now is the way that this plays now into China. So for philanthropists in China, they’re looking to Hong Kong to learn how this is done. Because in Hong Kong, it’s been done for a long time. Right? So I think my last count was there’s what, something like 5000 ultra high net worths in China last time I looked. It was probably increased to 10,000, since last week, but anyway, it goes up and up. But anyway, there’s a lot of very rich people that are looking, and we know this from our own work in China over the years, that are looking to do this really well and effectively and do philanthropy at the standards that are world class, and are very Asian and pioneering in terms of how you do it in China. So I think there’s this cross fertilisation of expertise within China and across and learning from what Hong Kong has done, because it’s been involved in philanthropy for so long, is a very interesting thought in terms of that wealth transfer moment that we’re all aware of around the world as well. And how do we encourage and foster this?

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 24:31
We are being asked all the time by Chinese families and family offices to help them think this through? And in China, I mean, you kindly mentioned this, these studies that we did, the China issue guide studies we did four, education, poverty, health and environment, and really look at the way in which funding is deployed there at a very granular project level. Where’s is the money going? Who’s benefited? What’s being left out? Where are there gaps that deserve additional support? I think that when these families come to Hong Kong, and many of them come because their IPOs are here, so the money’s here, they have the sense of we are committed to giving back. We are part of the system. If it wasn’t for this system, this place, we wouldn’t have become wealthy. We hear it all the time. And so therefore, it’s incumbent on us to kind of give back or pay it forward, whichever direction you want, but to engage in this way. And so there is a lot of energy and interest in the notion of philanthropy. There’s also a lot of interest in impact investing, but less actual follow through, because people don’t quite understand it, yet. But I think that’s a way, impact investing is set to start taking off from Asia.

Ben Morton-Wright 24:31
So Ruth, we’re running out of time, unfortunately, our 20 minutes is up. So I’m just going to finish this and wrap this up. And it’s been a fantastic discussion. So thank you so much for your time. Are you optimistic about what’s going to happen next? I think you could probably guess what I’m going to say, but you know, ever the optimist! But where’s your head on this current thinking? Because we’ve had a lot of change, we’ve got a lot of initiatives, we’ve had the pandemic that we’ve come through. So Asia is an important marketplace for philanthropy, in terms of capital flows. Where are you at in terms of the next 5/10 years?

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 26:48
You know, two of the countries in Asia, India and Indonesia, the majority of their population is under 25. So, there’s a lot of young people, there’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot that’s going to happen here. I think that the world cannot continue to develop in the way that it has. It’s not sustainable. So these emerging markets, like India, and Indonesia, with all these young people, cannot follow the same economic development trajectory that your country and mine set forth. It just can’t happen. So we need new models, new ideas, new strategies if the planet is going to survive. Do I think that these might come from this part of the world? Absolutely. I do. I think that they understand that we need to think about agriculture different, we need to think about livelihoods different, of course, energy transition, but that’s linked to, you know, helping people to have a quality existence. And so I think that these places are going to innovate in ways that the world needs, and I am excited about it. I’m hopeful about it. I’m worried that they don’t do it quick enough.

Ben Morton-Wright 28:26
There you are, an optimistic and a bit of pragmatism as ever. Ruth, you know, congratulations on all the work that you and CAPS have done. Without you, we would be in deep trouble, trust me, we really wouldn’t know what’s going on as I’ve said before. It’s so important for the development of philanthropy in Asia, and congratulations on your 10th anniversary. And thank you for a wonderful interview, which was so insightful as ever. And thank you for your time today.

Dr Ruth A Shapiro 28:52
Thank you, Ben. I appreciate that you’re a cheerleader for our work and I’m very happy to be in conversation with you.

Ben Morton-Wright 29:03
Thank you.