How has philanthropy in Asia changed with COVID-19, and what will it look like in 2021 and beyond?

The advent of COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it. As governments set about rebuilding their frayed economies and societies, philanthropic foundations have also had to pause and press the reset button – rethinking the way they give and who to aid. Melissa Lwee-Ramsay looks at the impact that the pandemic has had on the Asian philanthropic industry

COVID-19 has been described as one of the worst pandemics in history. Some 36 million people around the world have been affected by the virus, with more than one million casualties. Economically, things aren’t any better – we face a recession that is forecasted to be the deepest since World War II.

But the problems do not stop there. Beyond these tragic statistics, there is the possibility of an even grimmer reality. In September 2020, the UN International Labor Organisation warned that COVID-19 has grown the rich-poor gap, highlighting that the poorest and most vulnerable among us are the ones bearing the brunt of the economic fallout.

Despite all the seeming doom and gloom, there is a silver lining. A slower paced world has provided us with the opportunity to stop and press the reset button, and think about the world that we want to live in and how to get there. And for the philanthropic industry in particular, the time has come for it to think beyond immediate and short-term relief efforts, and meet the new challenge of addressing the longer-term impacts of the pandemic.

migrant workers
Leap201 established the Leap for Migrant Workers fund to address the challenges faced by those affected by the pandemic

In Singapore for instance, Leap201, a venture philanthropy organisation that identifies and invests in social enterprises in Southeast Asia, has played an integral role in supporting communities during this difficult time. Raising S$1.9 million from philanthropists, Leap201 established the Leap for Migrant Workers (L4M) fund in May 2020 to address the challenges faced by the migrant workers in Singapore who were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of L4M, Leap201 launched Care4MigrantWorkers (C4M) in September in collaboration with Migrant Workers’ Centre to narrow the gap in insurance coverage among migrant workers.

“Apart from existing regional projects, Leap201 is taking a proactive role in helping the vulnerable who have the greatest needs in Southeast Asia,” says Michael Lien, chairman of Leap201. “The launch of C4M demonstrates our commitment to the cause as we continue to address this unprecedented COVID-19 situation together with our trusted partners.”

Private charitable trust Firetree Philanthropy signed COVID-19 philanthropy response pledges that were developed by coordinating bodies and civil society and detail how Firetree will respond to the crisis and beyond. The team also connected with the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, a peer-to-peer funder initiative launched in 2018 that helps foundations develop their grantmaking values and practices along flexible and trust- based principles.

In India, the Harish & Bina Shah Foundation is already starting to think about the future even as it continues to play an active role in the country’s COVID-19 relief efforts by approving ad-hoc pandemic-related grants speedily.

“While we continue to evaluate short-term grants to ease COVID-19 related pain points such as hunger, we believe it is important to start shifting the conversation from relief to rehabilitation,” reveals Amira Shah, a member of the foundation’s board of directors. “We are looking at ways to fund re-integration work as well as initiatives that address the institutional inequity in our country’s systems and processes that were highlighted by the pandemic.”

Naina Subberwal Batra
Naina Batra, CEO of Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, believes the philanthropy ecosystem will be challenged by the ‘long tail’ of COVID-19

Managing expectations

In addition to rethinking their strategies to address long-term issues, Naina Batra, chairperson and CEO of the Singapore-based Asian funders network Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN), believes the philanthropy ecosystem will also be challenged by the ‘long tail’ of COVID-19. She predicts: “As the economic and social follow-on effects of this pandemic continue to bite, demand for non-profit sector services will continue apace. In the face of donor fatigue and forecast reductions in donations of between six and 30 per cent over the next year, leaders in the sectors foresee that the philanthropy ecosystem will continue to operate under hugely challenging conditions.”

In these situations, points out Jennifer Chen, chief executive of Hong Kong-based Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation, there is a greater need for consolidation and collaboration within the industry. “The philanthropy ecosystem in general, has traditionally been a bit silo-ed because many foundations and NGOs have strict governance systems and are very passionate about their own initiatives. However, when you are in a recession and overheads are an issue, you need to think about how to increase efficiency with lower costs. With our grantees for example, we have encouraged them to move to a co-working space in a less expensive part of Hong Kong, and to share resources such as administrative staff. In the process, not only do they economise, but they also start to realise that sometimes, more can be achieved through partnerships.”

lightup indonesia
YCAB Foundation and Perusahaan Listrik Negara launched LightUp Indonesia, a social movement to provide donated electricity to poor households

Picking the right battles

Indeed, for many players in the philanthropy industry, COVID-19 has forced them to pause and rethink different aspects of their giving – from strategy and efficiencies, to beneficiaries and how to measure results.

For some, such as the YCAB Foundation in Indonesia, it has also been a lesson in understanding where the funds make the most impact. As a response to COVID-19, YCAB – together with FAB Group and Do-It, and supported by Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN), the government-owned electric company – launched LightUp Indonesia, a social movement to provide donated electricity to urban poor households who are 900VA (volt-ampere) customers of PLN from April to August 2020. The plan was to support 100,000 families, but it soon became obvious that even though the funds were there, not every family was equipped to receive them.

“When COVID-19 broke out, we had to adapt very quickly by putting everything online. For the schools that we support, we moved lessons online, and with LightUp, we created videos and instruction booklets on how to receive the funding, all of which were ready for dissemination in double time,” recalls YCAB’s CEO and founder Veronica Colondam. “But what we did not anticipate was that even among those whom we wished to support, there was a group that had smartphones and another that did not. And even within that group with smartphones, there was a sub-section of them that were not literate enough to follow instructions on how to receive the rebate.”

Hence, says Colondam, it became evident that they had to pick their battles well. “It was a lesson in understanding that even though we want to help as many people as possible, there are certain segments of those in need that are better served by other players such as the government, simply because we are not in a position to reach them.”

COVID-19 has made many realise that even in a wealthy country like Singapore, there are many others suffering from poverty

Anyone and everyone can give

That said, COVID-19 has, in many ways, breathed new life into the philanthropy industry in Asia, particularly when it comes to local collaborative philanthropy.

Not only has there been an increase in individual giving, AVPN’s Batra muses that COVID-19 has also made many realise that even in the wealthiest of countries, there are still many who need help. “Even in a country as prosperous as Singapore, there are families who do not have the necessary equipment and technology for online learning or to work from home. I think examples such as these, have helped to highlight the work of local NGOs and social enterprises whose work are sometimes overshadowed because they are based in a wealthy country.”

Moving forward, Batra anticipates that philanthropy will continue to play an important role in addressing the inequities in the post-COVID world, particularly when it comes to financing.

“In some markets, conventional financing will never work due to the underlying economics, population served, regulatory constraints, and/or political risk,” she concludes. “Foundations can play a role in these markets by providing patient, flexible financial support to mission-driven intermediaries and support the impact investing field by using traditional grants to fund learning and policy activities, along with enterprise development and financial innovation. Philanthropy can innovate and take risks when the private sector and governments cannot, and this is especially true during times of crisis.”