$3 Million Challenge Grant from Vietnamese American Philanthropist

In May, Doan L. Phung, a 68-year old Vietnamese-American philanthropist, gave a keynote speech at the fourth annual Asian Pacific Philanthropy Consortium (APPC) conference in Hanoi, Vietnam. The theme of the conference was “Diaspora Giving: An Agent of Social Change?” and Mr. Phung spoke about his reasons for giving back to Vietnam. At the end of his speech, Mr. Phung announced a $3 million USD challenge grant to the Vietnamese-American NGO (VA-NGO) network, which represents and supports U.S.-based Vietnamese American NGOs conducting humanitarian and development work in Vietnam.

Mr. Phung has been a long-time supporter of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American causes. He and his wife established the Vietnamese American Scholarship Fund (VASF) and the Fund for the Encouragement of Self-Reliance (FESR). He is a founder of the VA NGO Network and has supported projects in Vietnam through established groups such as Social Assistance Program for Vietnam, Nom Preservation Foundation, Room to Read and East Meets West Foundation.

Mr. Phung’s recent gift is just another example of his tremendous generosity and faith in an ability to make a difference. We wondered what life events formed the philosophy and activities behind his philanthropy. Below, we share with you Mr. Phung’s personal journey.

Mr. Phung was born in a small village outside of Hanoi, where no school, library, or medical clinic existed. His mother, who had only a second grade education, worked day and night to feed 6 children while his father fought in the war. Two of his siblings did not survive that period. In 1958, Mr. Phung was selected to study in the US, where he pursued his bachelor’s degree at Florida State University and obtained a graduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After receiving two Master’s degrees in Physics and Nuclear Engineering, Mr. Phung returned to Vietnam to fulfill the terms of his scholarship.

Back in Vietnam, Mr. Phung worked at a nuclear research center in the central highlands regions and supported his parents and nine siblings. There, Mr. Phung began asking himself tough questions about conditions in Vietnam: “I realized that the country had been wasting precious foreign aid money on building the nuclear research center and on training me to be a nuclear engineer. What could we do to improve the lives of millions whose poverty is the cause of all ills that befall them? What could we do to help solve problems of food supply, health care, education, disaster relief, and law and order?”

Mr. Phung decided to return to the US and work in the field in which he was trained. He helped put all his siblings through college in the US and eventually received his PhD in Nuclear Engineering at MIT. For years, Mr. Phung rubbed elbows with policymakers in DC, helping to formulate and support the country’s nuclear strategy. Throughout this time, Mr. Phung was, as he put it, “tormented by the Vietnamese dream.”

“My dream was to have the opportunity to convince leaders to plan 100 years into the future, first to establish the vision of what Vietnam and the Vietnamese people could be and would be, then to build up a system model to plan to get there, taking into account of realistic factors that change all the time but must be corrected for continuously.”

By 1989, Mr. Phung was 50 years old – and news coming out of his home country was mostly still bad: “Our relatives were in lack of food, housing, medicine. We did what we could by sending aid to them, sometimes with great difficulty because of poor communication.”

Mr. Phung and his wife began giving back to Vietnam by establishing the Vietnamese American Scholarship Fund (VASF), providing funds to schools in Saigon, Hue and Dalat, and awarding 500 scholarships a year to outstanding students and teachers. They also endowed five award programs at US colleges and universities, which has supported several hundred children of Vietnamese refugees through the present.

In 1997, Mr. Phung expanded his philanthropic activities, establishing the Fund for the Encouragement of Self-Reliance (FESR). FESR is a microfinance lending program which has quietly supported 12,000 families in 37 communities and was recognized earlier this year with the UN-HABITAT Civil Society Innovation award.

Mr. Phung’s $3 million USD challenge grant, announced at the APPC Conference, is one his most recent and largest gifts. With this grant, Mr. Phung and his wife aim to support an umbrella network of Vietnamese American NGOs, build capacity among grassroots NGOs in Vietnam, and help educators and community leaders “devise sustainable solutions for the mass to realize the Vietnamese Dream.”

You can read more about Mr. Phung’s personal story, in his words, by downloading his keynote speech delivered at the APPC conference.  We thank Mr. Phung for allowing us to share his story here – and for being an inspiration to all of us. Speech–PURSUING_THE_Vietnamese_Dream–Font8.pdf

– Christine Tran

See also: Diaspora giving to Vietnam: An interview with Ivan Small

Photo of Mr. Phung and Christine Tran at the APPC conference