The Rise of the Middle-Class Donor in Hong Kong

Edwin Lee is a Philanthropy Advisor with the WiseGiving unit of The Hong Kong Council of Social Service, an umbrella organization of ~400 NGOs in Hong Kong, accounting for 90% of social welfare services in Hong Kong. Edwin provides us with profiles of “middle class donors” and how they pursue impact. This article is part of Asian Philanthropy Forum’s “Exploring the Impact of Asian Philanthropy” series.

Hong Kong is a charitable place. Hong Kong recently earned a respectable 19th place in Charities Aid Foundation’s The World Giving Index 2012 and 9th in the five-year ranking. According to the Hong Kong Government’s Inland Revenue Department, charitable donations amounted to over HK$9.2 billion (US$1.18 billion), comprising HK$3.73 billion and HK$5.5 billion (US$478 million and US$705 million) from corporations and individuals respectively in the 2010-11 tax year. The generosity of Hong Kong citizens has bred the proliferation of 7,194 approved charitable organizations as of March 2012.

IRDapprovedorgsWiseGiving’s sister team, the Caring Company Scheme, administered by The Hong Kong Council of Social Service, has encouraged greater collaboration between the corporate and social sectors. On the individual side, one often thinks of the schools, hospitals, and university buildings contributed to by the successful businessmen in the city. However, is strategic philanthropy an affair only available to the privileged few? Of course not. In fact, we have come across a neglected “niche” of very thoughtful, generous donors in Hong Kong: the “middle-class” recently-retired or near-retirement professional.

chardonationsHKTake these three donors for example:

  • Mr. X is an accountant. He set up a foundation to address intergenerational poverty in Hong Kong. Specifically, the foundation supports four schools located in housing estates in low-income districts to employ qualified teachers to provide after-school tutoring to children from lesser means, with the ultimate objective of improving academic performance, enhancing interest in learning, and nurturing resilience.
  • Ms. Y is a former senior-level executive for a multinational consumer products company. During her extensive work in Mainland China, she learned about the plight of HIV/AIDS-afflicted women in Yunnan. Often widowed by AIDS, these helpless women care for not only themselves but also their families while possessing no skills or resources. Ms. Y designed and implemented a microfinance program so that these women can raise livestock or grow cash crops.
  • Mr. Z is a former professional at a multinational financial services company. After retirement, he set up a fund to provide scholarships to students living in the villages of the Qujiang District in Shaoguan, Guangdong to enable them to attend senior secondary school.

These donors are characterized by:

  • Intensely personal, and heavily influenced by their own values and upbringing: Mr. X himself grew up in a grassroots family in Hong Kong. Through perseverance and diligence, he worked himself into university, ultimately becoming managing partner of an accounting firm. His charitable mission stems from a reflection that while he could work his way out of the poverty cycle, today’s younger generation cannot. His philanthropy reflects his values.
  • Highly engaged, putting their knowledge and abilities to work: Because these donors are professionals from fairly well-educated backgrounds, they approach their philanthropy with the same level of rigor as in their own professional lives. They invest heavily in learning about the social issue they wish to address in order to determine the appropriate intervention and devise methods to measure success. Their tolerance for risk tends to be high, keeping an open mind about trying new models or bringing overseas models to China or Hong Kong. Ms. Y’s decision to use micro-finance to help these women gain economic independence was made after numerous visits to Yunnan to understand their living situation. She invested much of her personal time to coach the local NGO on micro-finance, particularly since it was a novel concept to both the women and the NGO.
  • Recruiting friends to magnify their impact: While these donors are trying new models, they use their personal funds so that they can bear the risk of failure themselves. But once they have settled on a successful model, they want to magnify their impact by attracting other donors. Rarely, however, do they raise funds on a “retail” level. Instead, they will use their infectious passion for their cause to raise funds from friends who share the same values. After organizing trips for donors to visit his sponsored students, Mr. Z now has 43 donors, who have committed to his cause for up to three years.
  • Highly pragmatic: While these donors may be open to experimentation, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will pursue innovation for innovation’s sake. Placing pragmatism above all else, they tend to pride quality over quantity and depth over breadth. Each of the three case studies highlighted serves no more than 200 beneficiaries annually, and the donors have no immediate plans to grow that number. Instead, they are focusing their efforts on ensuring the impact is sustained for the people they currently serve before they expand.
  • Aversion to Publicity: These donors are extremely humble, often citing the small scale of their giving relative to that of the corporate and family foundations.

As the wealth gap in Hong Kong has continued to widen, much attention has been placed on what the haves have been doing for the have-nots.  But these “middle-class” donors putting their abilities, network, and funds to work are emerging as the unsung heroes.


Edwin Lee is a Philanthropy Advisor with the WiseGiving unit of The Hong Kong Council of Social Service, an umbrella organization of ~400 NGOs in Hong Kong, accounting for 90% of social welfare services in Hong Kong.  Prior to joining WiseGiving, Edwin was the Director of CSR for a publicly-listed property and hotel developer, and Charities Manager for The Hong Kong Jockey Club.  He holds a BSE magna cum laude from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from Yale University.

Posts in this series:

A New Year for Asian Philanthropy to Make an Impact, Victor Kuo

Opening the Window to Philanthropy to China Starts with Transparency, Lijun He

New Trends in Philanthropy in China, Karla Simon

Lessons Learned in Philanthropic Impact Investment, Sono Aibe

Evaluation of the Committee of 100 Teaching Scholar Program 2012, Wenjie Tang

The Next Wave of Philanthropy in China, Dien Yuen