Interview: Swee Sum Lam from the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy

When you think of the philanthropy ecosystem, what players come to mind? There are many types of organizations that support the development of philanthropy worldwide. One group of these- academics & their research/teaching centers and departments- provide a lot of research, insight, data, best practices, leadership, and case studies for the field. WINGS considers academic centers that teach and/or research philanthropy to be a key component to strengthening the field. They may train tomorrow’s leaders or provide the research that informs your advising or grantmaking strategies.

In this interview, we encourage you to get to know the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy, a center whose research and capacity building programs are strengthening social purpose organizations and philanthropy in Asia.

ACSEP ISSE 2017-145

Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy Team at the International Symposium on Social Entrepreneurship 2017

Tell us a little about your center.

Founded in 2011, Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship & Philanthropy (ACSEP) is a research center focused on rigorous and multi-disciplinary research on social entrepreneurship and philanthropy in Asia. Through the support and collaboration with stakeholders, partners, and friends, we hope to influence thinking and inspire social innovation that makes for a more vibrant, inclusive and equitable future for all.

ACSEP has a two-pronged approach:

• Education: It emphasizes and supports capacity building through undergraduate and graduate courses, executive education and practical learning experiences. It also serves as a forum for experts and organizations to exchange ideas on best practices. This training aims to develop leaders in social enterprises, corporates, non-profits, as well as philanthropic organizations and individuals in Singapore and Asia.

• Research: It creates knowledge through collaborative research on issues of interest to policymakers, non-profit as well as for-profit leaders, grantmakers, philanthropists, and practitioners.

Through these efforts, ACSEP aims to advance the impactful practice of social entrepreneurship and philanthropy as well as provide the sector with cases and research related to Asian examples in this space.

 How does your center interact with non-academics in Singapore? The region? The world?

In Singapore ACSEP partners with foundations and non-profit organizations in building capacity and enhancing learning in the social sector through training programs and workshops.

For example, we have recently partnered Temasek Foundation Management Services to formulate a series of Temasek Trust Corporate Giving Workshops for the Temasek group of companies and foundations. ACSEP also collaborates with Toteboard to build up a case collection on Asian social purpose organizations. An example of cases written is Non-Profit Management: Scaling for Impact (Magic Bus). This case documents the expansion plans of India-based non-governmental organization, Magic Bus, in her scaling for impact beyond India. Targeted stakeholders interacted with the case protagonists to share impactful practices in participant-centered learning.

In the region, with our appreciation of the cross-cultural nuances in Asia, ACSEP partnered Ateneo de Manila University and Gawad Kalinga (a Filipino non-profit organization) in a 3-year capacity building and capability training of social entrepreneurs in the Philippines. Participating faculty members, working together with Gawad Kalinga trainers, designed a capstone module – Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Development. This module was rolled out in two schools in Ateneo de Manila University. As well, the collaboration also initiated a Gawad Kalinga Training Programme to train leaders and potential entrepreneurs to be drawn from some 2,000 Gawad Kalinga communities throughout the Philippines.

As in the world, ACSEP collaborates with global organizations to advance our understanding of the workings of social entrepreneurship and philanthropy in Asia. For example, ACSEP collaborated with the Agence Française de Développement (the French Development Agency) in the research, entitled “Philanthropic Foundations in Asia – Insights from Singapore, Myanmar, and China”. As well, ACSEP partnered the Sasakawa Peace Foundation to research on “Impact Investments by Foundations in Singapore and Hong Kong”.

Similarly, ACSEP partnered the Thai Social Enterprise Office to conduct a 3-day social impact assessment workshop for various stakeholders drawn from the Thai SE landscape.

Why consider academics as a partner in your research?

Academics are good research partners for social purpose organizations (like philanthropic organizations, charities, not-for-profit intermediaries and social enterprises), government and quasi-government funders, impact investors and corporates for the following considerations:

• Objectivity and independence

Academics are professionally trained to allow data and facts to speak for themselves. The professional discipline in academy demands that academics strive for rigor and robustness; they are less likely to be prejudiced by political and social orientations, economic benefits or personal preferences. Therefore, academics are more likely to present research findings that more closely reflect what is happening on the ground. This professionalism is the basis for the value-add and credibility to the partnership, compared to non-academic research agencies. This is especially critical for policy making or strategic decision making as much is at stake when a wrong policy or decision is made or taken based on wrong inputs. Moreover, participation with academic researchers also serves as a signal to the world that one is open to reason and criticism – in a robust evaluation – and is a serious actor in the sector.

• The sense of safety in knowledge exchange

Following from academics’ professionalism, the academy can offer philanthropists a sense of safety when academics convene platforms, seminars or networking events in the pursuit of knowledge exchange and the dissemination of learning.

• Leverage for impact

Similarly, stakeholders can leverage the validation value and credibility of academic research to advance understanding and impactful practices to change mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors, and bring about systemic changes.

© NUS OAR | Photography by Lionel Lin

Crossing the Chasm Challenge 2017 – held by the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy

What might be some of the benefits of being connected to other philanthropy academics- those teaching and researching philanthropy?

WINGS offers a platform for academics to be connected to other academics working in research and education in philanthropy. Besides convening its own platforms for interest groups, WINGS also leverages on global and regional academic conferences to convene this networking for its members who are drawn from the academic community. For example, I was able to participate in person at the WINGS ISTR meeting, joining other academics who are working in the field of philanthropy. It was interesting to appreciate the diversity of views as we broached various topics, like, the value of data, the ethical issue of data as it impacts on various aspects of our lives, etc.

This platform allows for much learning about the global philanthropic landscape, and in particular, the pertinent foci and challenges that each academic institution is attending to address in context. This offers a fertile field for reflection, rumination, and cross-pollination of research ideas.

Are there any interesting projects or recent publications you’d like to share with the network?

Two projects and two publications shared below.

1) Social Impact Measurement Training Programme

There is increasing demand from funders and philanthropic organizations and impact investors for social impact measurement. To enhance capability training, we will kick off the first offering of the Social Impact Measurement Training Programme on 25 September 2018. This training program will run in a series every other month.

This program is targeted at practitioners from social purpose organizations (including government agencies, social entrepreneurs, and impact investors). Through this training program, ACSEP will offer an independent review of the various social impact measurement systems in the marketplace to help participants formulate what is relevant and strategic in their own contexts. The program takes participants through the different approaches of social impact measurement one at a time to help participants discriminate which approach would be most appropriate for his/her own use. The first session evaluates “The Logical Framework”.

2) ACSEP participated in the Association for Research on Non-profit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA)-Asia Conference 2018, at the Hong Kong University.

Themed “Evolving Government-Third Sector Relations in Asia”, the conference aimed to address the changing roles of the third sector in public affairs, and implications for non-profit management, philanthropic practice, and volunteering.

Dr. Frank Hubers, ACSEP’s Research Fellow, presented his research paper “Does showing inequality make people more willing to redistribute income or donate to charity? An experiment with Singaporean students”. Ms. Joanna Hioe, ACSEP’s Research Associate, presented the research on “Grassroots Philanthropy in Singapore in the New Millennium”.

3) Recently, ACSEP has published the following papers:

a) Philanthropic Foundation in Asia – Insights from Singapore, Myanmar, and China
By Pauline Tan and Swee-Sum Lam

A report by the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship & Philanthropy, in collaboration with the Agence Française de Développement (the French Development Agency). Launch in February 2018, this working paper looks at an emerging trend in which wealthy families, individuals, and corporations in Asia set up foundations to institutionalize their giving. Drawing insights from interviews of foundations in Singapore, China and Myanmar, it details the motivations behind the giving and the characteristics of the foundations, the various challenges and opportunities faced by the nascent philanthropic sector in Asia that can address some of the developmental and structural gaps left by the public, private, and people sectors.


• Featured in AFD English version of their monthly Newsletter for March 2018

b) Impact Investments by Foundations in Singapore and Hong Kong
By Pauline Tan and Swee-Sum Lam

Commissioned by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, this research reviews the current state of impact investments by foundations in Singapore and Hong Kong. It further looks at the trends and challenges and presents a list of recommendations that can enable the impact investment sector to take off.







Swee Sum Lam is the Director and Associate Professor of Finance at the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy – NUS Business School.

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