Track Sessions IV

K. Community Philanthropy: 'How can we strengthen the involvement of local communities?'


  • Annie CHEN Principal and Chair, RS Group
  • Clotilde PEREZ-BODE DEDECKER President & CEO, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo
  • Catherine LOH Chief Executive Officer, Community Foundation of Singapore


  • Philo ALTO Founder and CEO, Asia Value Advisors

Mr Philo Alto started the session by reiterating insights gathered during the PBC so far: all of us had come to better understand the different flavours of philanthropy, had got to know about players who were facilitating these efforts in different sectors and geographic areas, and had learned about innovative tools such as impact bonds. To set the stage for this session, the panel described ‘community philanthropy’ (CP) as a means for the community to build its own power and voice. It could have its own assets in the form of money, skills, knowledge, community, heritage and networks. The way CP achieved this was by combining different forces like capital, knowledge and skills, and using that to serve a wide array of needs through an approach based in the community’s socio-cultural context. The idea of CP was to streamline funds to address community needs in a more thoughtful way.

Ms Clotilde Dedecker, who heads the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo in the US which started in 1919 and holds US$470 million in assets, said CP could be traced back to the US in the 20th century when family foundations such as the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation became established. This inspired the community to question how they could get involved, despite having low resources to start their own foundations. The concept of community foundations then evolved to lower the entry barrier to ‘giving’. Today, there were 1,800 community foundations worldwide, most of them localised in the US and the UK.

This opened the discussion on how the sector had evolved in Asia. It was in the ascent, the panel agreed, with Singapore pioneering the efforts owing to its melting-pot culture and national wealth.  Ms Catherine Loh, who established the Community Foundation of Singapore 10 years ago, hoped for the trend to grow in Singapore and rest of Asia. She noted how in the past 20 years, unlike in the 1960-80 period, the growth in the number of private foundations had plateaued in Asia. Some of the barriers to growth had been rigid legal and compliance structures, and aversion to start-up capital risk. She saw opportunity in seeking government support for new foundations with risk capital, so that they could better absorb the ‘sunk cost’ of starting up. Another enabler, she said, was strong inter-donor and donor-community trust in the system so that the efforts could be better targeted and sustained. The panel discussed how this trust could be built with the community by carefully selecting representatives who embodied values and ethics that inspired people, and who came from diverse backgrounds and ideologies to which people could relate.

The conversation then became focused on how Hong Kong could better sustain its growing appetite for and interest in philanthropy. Ms Annie Chen from the RS Group said interest in private foundations was growing in Hong Kong, but players saw little opportunity at the moment to establish CP. The panel suggested that Hong Kong should imbibe best practices from examples in the US and UK but needed to adapt its learning from these to Asia’s, and particularly Hong Kong’s, unique culture. Ms Chen supported Ms Loh’s suggestion of investing in research to better align efforts with Hong Kong’s unmet and invisible needs. She observed that the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong had demonstrated that the social fabric was weakening, and the societal gap was widening. This created an urgent need for the community to come together as a whole, and CP offered a promising gateway for it.

Ms Loh described how philanthropy was experiencing a major shift due to changing needs on the ground. More than grants and direct investment, communities were demanding support for skill building and knowledge transfer. This required organisations to diversify their offerings and seek stronger partnerships in the ecosystem. Additionally, there was a mismatch between needs and donor interests (“supply”). Ms Loh and Ms Dedecker both noted that most donors were interested in education, women and children, but evidence showed that other areas had higher unmet need. To alleviate this problem, the panel emphasised the increasing importance of CP organisations investing in research and needs assessment.  In this way, donor interests would be better aligned with actual needs, and impact measurement would be grounded in a more robust baseline.

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