The Philanthropy in Asia Summit 2014 (PIA2014)

doan_300By Dana R.H. Doan

I was excited boarding the plane to Singapore, knowing I was en route to two full days of dialogue designed to improve the impact of philanthropy in Asia. Coming from Ho Chi Minh City, I was hungry for the conversations and first-hand experience sharing that was planned. I was particularly anxious to learn what had changed since the inaugural PIA Summit, held in 2012.

What struck me most during the PIA2014 Summit was the frequent use of the word “collaboration” and associated terms like partnerships, crowdsourcing, sharing and networking. Obviously, this was a desired outcome of the Summit – the programme included a plenary and breakout session dedicated to the subject; however, it also happened organically, as philanthropists described the only possible approach to addressing increasingly complex challenges throughout Asia.

Representing a place-based, community philanthropy organisation, I know well that collaboration is the key ingredient for sustainable development. While it is a central strategy in most of our programmes, collaborations also present difficulties. For this reason, I found it useful to hear philanthropists working throughout Asia Pacific talking about similar challenges and how they work to overcome them.

In her keynote dialogue, Ms. Audette Excel, Founder and Chair of the ISIS Foundation, Australia (soon to be renamed ADARA), talked about the disconnect between many businesses and non-profit organisations, offering the following practical advice:

The business community needs to learn how to respect and listen to the NGO community. They need to bring the same level of diligence to their non-profit work as they do to their business…. Meanwhile, NGOs need to learn what matters to business. They need to research what they do, how they do it, what they could learn to do… We need to fix this misunderstanding…

In addition to cross-sector communication, Vietnam and other countries in the region are also facing infrastructural challenges that limit the capacity to do good well. In her presentation on the Levers for Change report, Ms. Crystal Hayling, co-author, highlighted the fact that donors are not yet in the habit of proactively sharing their research, best practices and lessons learned, all of which could benefit others working to address the same cause. Although Vietnam was not included in their research, the authors would have confronted the same issues here.

One of the unexpected highlights of this year’s Summit was a presentation by a businessman, turned philanthropist, who experienced, first hand, the great potential in collaboration. Mr. Parminder Singh, representing Twitter Asia Pacific, described how he used Twitter’s platform to help coordinate relief efforts in the aftermath of unprecedented flooding in Jammu and Kashmir, India this past September. The platform was so effective that the Indian Military started to use it as well. Mr. Singh’s takeaway, “We always knew there was a lot of good in human beings. But how to leverage that good is the key.” He talked about how volunteers like to be involved on a regular basis. He talked about donors’ need for quick and transparent information (“speed trumps perfection”). He challenged companies to “atomise” their corporate service day events into something more regular for their employees. And he recommended NGOs explore crowdsourcing and find new ways to engage and communicate with donors and volunteers.

Mr. Singh’s comments resonated with my own experiences and observations of philanthropy in Vietnam. While the organisation I represent mobilises hundreds of skilled volunteers each year, hundreds more are seeking opportunities and those we do manage to engage sometimes leave because we do not utilise them effectively.

To address this gap, I see potential in another kind of collaboration, which was inspired by Day 2 keynote speaker, Mr. Fernando Zobel de Ayala, President and COO of the Ayala Corporation, Philippines. In his remarks, Mr. Ayala advised, “NGOs should dream big but make absolutely sure they have the discipline to create the infrastructure needed to achieve those dreams. People like me, with knowledge of the private sector, can help with building the infrastructure necessary for NGOs.”

I agree. That is exactly the kind of collaboration that can take us where we need to go.

Dana R.H. Doan is Founder and Strategic Advisor for the LIN Center for Community Development.

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