AVPN (Asia Venture Philanthropy Network) will be holding its annual conference in Singapore on April 20-23rd. This year, AVPN will provide country focused sessions and Scott Lawson, CEO of SOW Asia, and other social leaders will be sharing their experiences about Hong Kong’s cross-sector collaboration experiences, reflect on the perspectives of government, investor, intermediary and social purpose organizations. In this blog post, Scott provides us a preview of what he will be sharing.
John Rockefeller, the world’s first billionaire, was once asked how much money is enough? “Just a bit more”, was his response. This may be the best answer to those who ask how much philanthropic capital (human, network, knowledge and financial) is needed to build a vibrant social impact space in Asia.
We all need to give just a bit more. And it is beginning to happen.
In Hong Kong, where I live and work, impactful and scalable social enterprises have “giving” embedded in their business models.
Light.be provides property rental services to low-income families. The model works because owners are willing to offer their flats at a discount when they could be leasing them at market rate.
HK Recycles is the first company in Hong Kong to (verifiably) recycle glass and plastic. The model works because clients willingly pay to have their recyclables collected when they could bin them for free.
Fair Employment Agency provides employment services for overseas domestic workers without the onerous and unethical fees that drive many deep into debt with a cascade of other problems. The model works because smart and experienced senior management at FEA are paid a fraction of what they could make in the commercial world.
Behind each of these enterprises and the intermediaries that support them stand generous donors aiming to be more strategic with their giving.
Interestingly enough, “giving” is seen by many as a weakness in a business model and a barrier to scalability. “Giving only gets you so far, etc…” But we are seeing more evidence that “giving” creates the conditions for scalable impact (along with intentionality, competence and collaboration).
A recent article in the New York Times describes this phenomenon in what is known as the Copenhagen Theory of Change. Most people assume that governments alone can solve big challenges like recycling or affordable housing. For this reason, conventional thinking on economics says that individuals are not inclined to attempt personal efforts to solve big problems- it is not in our interest. We say things like:
- My efforts will not make a difference.
- Why should I bother to act when most of the benefits will accrue to others?
- The government will eventually solve the problem, anyway.
There are two issues. First, governments often frame the “free-rider problem” in the same way as individuals. We’ve certainly seen this in Hong Kong where successive administrations have dealt with the recycling crisis by “kicking the can” further down the road. There is no guarantee our governments will unilaterally step in to address big problems in a timely manner.
Second -and this should give us hope- the theory that individuals always maximize self-interest is a bit more complicated in real life. In the case of Copenhagen, nearly half the residents have parked their cars and now commute to work by bicycle. This massive mindset shift on the climate crisis was not initiated by government policies or resources. It was created by enterprising organizations and individuals who sacrificially chose to act differently.
Our smaller efforts may not be sufficient to create widespread impact, but increasingly, it seems, they are necessary. When merged with regional and national public efforts, our own contributions can clearly move the needle.
Along with colleagues from Hong Kong and other countries in the region, I will share more about the challenges and opportunities before us at the members only session on Monday, April 20. I hope many of you will plan to be there and that we can do a deep dive! Because we only have this unique regional opportunity once a year, let’s make these days count.
All of us going to the AVPN conference are looking for things to take-away: new contacts, partners, ideas, resources, etc. But I’m sure the real reason most of us are going is because we want to give and we want to be with others who enable us to do so more effectively and efficiently.
About the Author: Scott Lawson, CEO of SOW Asia
Scott engages with Hong Kong’s diverse stakeholders, establishing critical connections from the public, private, academia and non-profit sectors to channel valuable financial and non-financial resources towards the impact investing space. He began his career at the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and has since developed a strong network from over 30 years of experience with cultural, education and religious non-profit organizations in Hong Kong and China. Scott earned his MA in International Affairs/Economics from George Washington University and an MDiv from Columbia Theological Seminary.