“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” Wayne Gretzky
Winning in philanthropy requires knowing the state of social issues today and where they are going to be in the future – and finding where and how one can make a difference.
In today’s uncertain world, philanthropy can no longer exclusively rely on demonstrated and measurable approaches to tackle social issues. Rather, it needs to be complemented by an entrepreneurial approach where more risk-taking is required to more quickly learn whether one’s interventions work.
At Asia Value Advisors, a firm which I founded in 2011 to inform and engage individuals and organizations to create sustainable impact, it became clear to me that Doing Good and Doing Well is not just about “how to make a difference.” It is also about the individual who must ask him or herself: What do I care deeply enough about to invest my time, energy and resources to understand and tackle the problem?
There’s no question that the global economy has had significant shifts in the last few decades — rising urbanization and inequality, persistent poverty and community inclusion issues, an ageing demographic, youth’s under-preparedness for future, and increased crisis and climate resiliency risks. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and this number will swell to about five billion, comprising close to 60% of total population in 2030.
Against this backdrop, it is daunting enough to tackle today’s social and environmental problems. With the uncertainties that lay ahead, a philanthropreneur’s efforts and intended impacts become even harder to measure and assess.
What does it mean for budding philanthropreneurs? We outline five practical suggestions:
Study the landscape of the social problem
Don’t just act; stop, look, and listen to deeply understand the social problem you care about – both its present situation and future developments. Too often, the biggest hurdle for new philanthropreneurs is the bias for action in going down one path too quickly to “fix” the social problem.
To counter this blind spot, go directly to the community facing such problems, speak with them, attend forums, and network with field experts to form your own view. Constantly ask “Why?” to get to the root causes of the problem. Some may prefer direct support to address symptoms of the issue, such as disaster relief where timely response is of essence. Others may prefer to address longer-term systemic issues tackling root causes of a problem such as strengthening a city’s resiliency to crises.
Your philanthropic cause is personal but impact is objective
What does the social problem mean to you and why do you care?
Philanthropic efforts can be life-changing. But to create sustainable impact, it is also hard work. Social issues have been around for decades or centuries. And it will continue to exist in the next century. What will change over time is the social and development context around those issues. For example, pre-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focused on reducing poverty incidence and other indicators by some percentage. Post 2015, in light of significant improvements, higher societal expectations to do much more, these goals are now stretched to “No Poverty” or “End Hunger”, among the 17 targets reframed as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
While your intended impacts may be personal, identify how it can be linked to or framed within the broader development or social goals. This is to prevent siloed thinking that is more common than many would care to admit, thereby duplicating efforts or repeating mistakes made in other places or contexts.
Define your minimum viable problem
Whereas in the private sector the focus is on developing a minimum viable product to pilot, test and scale those that work; in the philanthropic space, it is crucial to define your minimum viable problem to tackle relative to your unique resources, strengths or networks. This will enable you to play to your strengths in effectively tackling social issues whilst taking into account other players and initiatives. It’s not a zero-sum game.
For example, if you have limited bandwidth to directly tackle a social problem, you can contribute your resources to support your favorite charity. As you gain understanding about the issue, you can deepen your engagement to include joining a charity’s board. In contrast, for a large foundation located in a city-state such as the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, it makes more sense for the philanthropic foundation to tackle urban social issues considering the unique role of cities as standalone governance units in most parts of the world. To this end it is no surprise its upcoming international philanthropy forum is aptly called “Philanthropy for Better Cities” to reflect the importance of this approach globally.
Find your angle, and decide on your tools or approach
After identifying the minimum viable problem to tackle, you need to articulate your philanthropic approach, the tools at your disposal, and the time frame, definition, and measures of success for your intended impacts.
Given the oftentimes complex and interdependent nature of social problems, a problem statement that starts with the current situation without your philanthropic intervention needs to be established as baseline. This is contrasted against an intended outcome or goal with the philanthropic intervention which can be either one, or a combination of tools such as charitable giving, venture philanthropy, or impact investing.
It is also important during this process to not over-glamorize the use of the tools at the expense of deeply understanding the problem. It is key to be clear-headed about your business model (as a social venture) or theory of change (as a philanthropist or donor). This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. And today’s busy world requires speaking the language of future funders and collaborators describing impact in terms that funders can relate to.
Entrepreneurial philanthropy, or philanthropreneurship, is not a just an approach to philanthropy. It is a deeply personal acknowledgement that one is intentionally embarking on a philanthropic journey. And each person will have different motivations and objectives.
Scale what works and share learnings on what doesn’t
Every entrepreneur at some point will need to scale their business to attract further funding from investors and strategic partners. Philanthropreneurs are no different. Once their philanthropic efforts have proven success in tackling social problems, such efforts can and should be scaled to generate broader or deeper impact. The amount and nature of additional philanthropic funding will also vary depending on how such impact is defined. For broader impact, the original philanthropreneur may seek to partner with other like-minded organizations or tap into larger donors or foundations with greater funding capacity. For deeper impact, this may entail handing off the scalable elements to similar or larger organizations while keeping in-house those elements which are sweet spots for the philanthropreneur to further venture into.
Lastly, any learnings attributed to this journey should also be shared in the relevant forums or networks so that other organizations with similar initiatives can benefit from this experience.
Philanthropreneurship is not only a personal journey to create positive sustainable impact through one’s work. It is also a systematic entrepreneurial approach to pilot and scale successful outcomes for a better tomorrow.