Hong Kong's super-rich are jumping onto the philanthropy bandwagon

By added on 15/10/2015

"World civilisation" - those were the buzzwords that caused a stir on the philanthropic scene recently when Hong Kong property tycoon and casino owner Lui Che-woo dangled an eye-popping award to honour contributors to such a cause, reports South China Morning Post.

With the launch of his HK$60 million annual award, the tycoon joined the ranks of mega-philanthropists in the city. It follows last year's high-profile gift of more than US$350 million by property tycoon Ronnie Chan Chi-chung's family foundation to Harvard University.

The fast-expanding benefactor bandwagon in the city is reflected in a recent UBS/PwC 2015 Billionaire Report that forecast an unprecedented wave of philanthropy, with the current generation of billionaires reconciling themselves with ageing and the need to preserve their legacies.

In Hong Kong, with its long history of wealthy families setting up philanthropic foundations, a pertinent question is whether the city's super-rich have put their money to good use rather than for "conscience laundering", in the words of Peter Buffett, son of US magnate Warren Buffett.

According to Coutts Million Dollar Donors Report 2014, which compiles donations in excess of US$1 million, almost half of the annual charitable giving from Hong Kong, totalling more than HK$7.3 billion in 2013, was from foundations. Higher education and religion enjoyed the biggest slices of the donation pie.

The Li Ka Shing Foundation, set up in 1980 by tycoon Li Ka-shing with a pledge to donate one-third of his assets - now worth US$9 billion - was the city's biggest giver in 2013. The two largest gifts were a grant of HK$1.5 billion to build the Tsz Shan Monastery in Tai Po and HK$1 billion to set up the Technion Guangdong Institute of Technology in Shantou, China.

The foundation, which focuses on education and health care projects, has so far donated more than HK$17 billion worldwide, with a pledge to give 87 per cent of the funds to projects in China.

Henderson Land tycoon Lee Shau-kee, who founded the Lee Shau Kee Foundation in 1988, which gave out more than HK$282 million last fiscal year, also created a buzz when he donated a site in Tuen Mun to Pok Oi Hospital to build the city's largest nursing home in 2013. He also donated a Yuen Long site to Po Leung Kuk for building the city's biggest youth hostel this year.

Christina Tung, head of philanthropy and values-based investing, APAC for UBS Wealth Management, says family philanthropy has a long history in Hong Kong where mega-rich families have become more strategic with the use of foundations.

"Family foundations are a very good instrument in passing down family legacies and values to their children for generations," she says. "Since charitable foundations can only be used for charitable purposes, they can propel the next generation to carry out the family's vision and keep the philanthropic flame burning."

Of course, another advantage is the tax exemptions that charitable foundations and institutions can enjoy.

PwC Hong Kong private banking advisory services partner Antoinette Hoon says their research suggests that if philanthropy does not happen in the first generation, it is unlikely the second generation and beyond will have a similar instinct.

"The older and younger generations have different mindsets about philanthropy and areas of focus. The older generation may be more focused on health and poverty issues whilst the younger generation is likely to have more innovative ideas," she adds.

Christine Kwan, chief operating officer of HKCSS WiseGiving, notes the trend of strategic philanthropy is especially thriving among the younger generations.

"As the younger generations take up from the patriarchs, they tend to move from the traditional way of signing cheques to become more proactive and engaged in philanthropy," she says.

With the growth of philanthropy worldwide, big charitable organisations and foundations are run like businesses. "They identify major social problems that they set out to solve with planned strategies and they measure their impacts," the billionaire report notes.

"The new model of philanthropy is where billionaires give not only money but their own time and expertise. They usually have a focus area where they would like to see improvements in society, notably in health and education," says Hoon.

"By setting specific goals and targets it can help determine an actual impact from a social or a financial perspective."

Tung points out that in the past big givers only focused on the output of a project, such as the number of students or poor families they helped. "Nowadays they expect to measure the long-term impact and outcome of their charitable work, including the financial, social and environmental returns of a project, to see whether money is well-spent," she says.

For example, Tung points out, for an early education programme on the mainland, project managers will track the students' performance after they finish, such as how many continue their studies and how many new teachers have been trained as a result of the programme.

However, in Hong Kong, the philanthropic activity of the super-rich is largely unrecorded, with no specific research done to provide an in-depth picture of the city's big givers and the impact of their donations.

Darwin Chen Tat-man, chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of Social Impact Analysis, a non-profit organisation, notes that as big donors expect tangible outcome of their projects, non-profit organisations as recipients are compelled to find robust ways to measure their projects.

The available tools include social impact assessment, Making the Case for social change measurement, and quantitative analysis espoused by UK-based Social Value International for NGOs to measure the social value or impact of their projects. They set out different indicators for assessing the outcome and impact of projects. Data is collected through interviews and polls.

"The current trend is that big givers want to see visible results from their gifts. We need a sound evaluation methodology to make the results visible," Chen says.

Chen, a former vice-president of Unesco Hong Kong Association, says an authoritative impact assessment can provide a benchmark for measuring the philanthropic outcome of a project, thus generating an impetus for NGOs to seek self-improvement and showing to the public donations are spent wisely.

"In the past, most of the NGOs relied on connections to seek funding. But with a sound impact assessment in place, they can show to the public the effectiveness of their charity projects, and the way they spent the money is justified and worthy of more funding support," Chen says.

But Kwan argues there is no such thing as a magic formula for outcome assessment, saying it all depends on the scale and complexity of what givers and service providers want to evaluate.

Tung also admits that some philanthropic causes cannot be measured in dollar terms or economic returns, such as elderly care or promotion of equality and human rights.

"So far there is no authoritative assessment to measure whether givers' money is well-spent. No one can say absolutely which philanthropic causes give value for money and which do not," she says.

In addition to the visible impact of a specific cause, big givers' preferences largely depend on their personal passion or connections.

"Billionaires tend to give first of all to their home country or those where they have links," says Hoon, explaining the reasons for the swing towards philanthropy on the mainland. The Coutts report showed mainland charities received more than one-third of the total amount from Hong Kong donors in 2013, up from 12 per cent in 2012.

"Donations are sometimes something very personal. Some families may have a history of cancer, and that's why they give out a lot of funds to cancer research," adds Tung, noting that the city's super-rich prefer renowned universities overseas to those in China in terms of the amount of donations made.

"Some givers may have very close connections with a university in the US, for example, and prefer to donate a large sum to that instead of one in China."

Chen says traditionally the Chinese hold dear the values of higher education. This explains why big givers consistently donate to renowned universities, especially overseas institutions.

"There should not be any national boundaries in higher education or academic pursuit, Chen says. "Since those overseas universities have a very good track record in academic excellence and scientific research as well as cultivation of talent, it is natural that philanthropists will prefer to donate more money to them in order to see tangible results."

Despite this, Tung says early education is often overlooked. "People are not long-sighted enough to be aware of the importance of early education which can generate economic returns in the long term," she says.

Tung and Kwan concede some givers donate to boost their business empires. For example, some support community projects on the mainland like international schools and hospitals to prop up property prices in that area. "But if the donations can help one's business as well as the needy to make it a win-win situation, then why not?" Tung argues.

The city's mega-rich also tend to steer clear of any politically sensitive issues such as human rights to avoid offending Beijing, Chen claims. "It is really difficult for organisations to address justice and human rights on the mainland as they will face a lot of political pressure from the authorities, as with Oxfam in China. If you want to further the cause of human rights you need to do it under the facade of advocacy, like what overseas organisations are doing now," he says.

Looking ahead, Kwan urges stakeholders in the sector to capitalise on the idea of social impact investing to maximise philanthropy's value across society.

"Philanthropy is not just for the super-rich. We see more retired professionals doing wonderful work, maximising their expertise, network and time, and of course donating money. This is a trend in Hong Kong's philanthropy landscape and it is a good sign that philanthropy will continue to grow," she says.

"Impact measurement is for both donors and grantees, so that they may reflect and learn what they did well, what difference they made, and how they may improve in future initiatives."