Wow, the potential (and some pitfalls?) — reflections from the AVPN Conference

shoemaker_250By Paul Shoemaker

Whenever I travel abroad I am conscious of not projecting an American lens onto other regions and cultures of the world. So you might take my thoughts with a grain of salt. I was in short blown away by what I saw, heard and felt in three days at the AVPN 2015 Conference. This was my first visit to the conference and to Singapore, at the gracious invitation of AVPN founder Doug Miller. Social Venture Partners has offices in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune, and Melbourne. I have visited some of them and talked with all of them over the last few years, so I’m not completely unfamiliar, but I wasn’t ready for three dynamics in particular that hit me full force at the AVPN Conference:

One: The potential is staggering. Not just new wealth creation, which is surely a key driver, but also the human and social capital being accumulated towards social change in the region. I didn’t expect less per se, but I was consistently impressed by the discussion’s level of sophistication.

During the Tuesday morning plenary when we were discussing what a positive working relationship looks like with a grantee, I commented genuinely on how the views of Vidya Shah and James Chen leapfrogged the norms of American philanthropy. And that wasn’t the last time over the three days. The level of CSR, impact investing, strategic and venture philanthropy being explored and implemented is quite impressive, and it’s just the beginning. The potential for creating positive change in in the region is mind-boggling.

Two: The collective and individual philanthropic practices — things like focus on capacity building vs. projects, restricted vs. unrestricted funding, using human and social vs. only financial capital, etc. — are formative and not yet set in stone, unlike American philanthropy, which has a hundred year history — one it is sometimes now burdened by. The “train tracks” for philanthropy in Asia, if you will, have not been laid yet, which is exhilarating. I hope everyone will continue to learn from the U.S. about what works and especially what doesn’t work, and then add in plenty of their own regional practices and policies. I had this occasional fantasy that there would have been a venture philanthropy association in t Americahe U.S. 100 years ago that might have prevented some of the negative entrenched practices we have today. Most surely Asia should make philanthropy, or more accurately civil society building, in its own image. I hope we will learn from America’s mistakes (and successes) along the way.

Three: At the same time the regulatory, tax and legal structures that facilitate and encourage Asianmore philanthropy are also not yet set in stone, often to the detriment or in limiting ways currently. Crystal Haling’s report, Levers for Change, clearly articulates that much is to be done to build the infrastructure that supports a strong philanthropic sector and culture. This is where potential pitfalls, depending on what is implemented, dictate rocky moments for some countries in the years ahead. Through gatherings like the AVPN conference, hopefully a collective wisdom can be shared as these important practices elements are put into place in each country.

Surely there are wonderful, positive things about American philanthropy that can contribute to the process. But it’s important to learn from the mistakes and debilitating practices that have become ingrained over the decades, chief among them the prevalence of restricted/program-only funding, a lack of attention to capacity building, and arms-length relationships between nonprofits and funders. It’s almost ironic in that there appear to be slow yet palpable strides made in each of these areas in the U.S. in recent years, but there is still a long way to go. Asia has already leapfrogged the U.S. in its use of impact investing for social change.

I’m excited by points one and two for Asia, and mindful of point three. But with the help of the AVPN community, in the next 5 to 10 years we could see a powerfully positive future materialize for more and more people across Asia. Wow.

Paul Shoemaker is founding president and board member of Social Venture Partners International.

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