29 May 2019

Philanthropy in Singapore is going mainstream

As I approach my 20th anniversary living in Asia I am becoming more reflective of changes in the philanthropy landscape. Since the turn of this century, many Asian countries have made remarkable economic progress.

And this growth is bringing with it a new era of wealth creation and generosity.

State of giving in Singapore

The nation state is one of the top givers in the region. Singapore was ranked seventh in the World Giving Index 20181. And this is especially significant when you consider the fact that Singapore was at the 114th spot just a few years ago in 2012.

This is surely reflective of a community that has changed dramatically in the last few years.

According to the report, 58% of Singaporean respondents say they donate money, while 39% volunteer in their neighbourhoods.

These figures are especially impressive when you consider the fact that in Willie Cheng’s book “Doing Good Well”, shared that Singapore’s National Volunteer & Philanthropy Center (NVPC) reported a volunteerism rate of only 15.2% and when it comes to giving of money, it cited 0.28% of individual donations as a percentage of per capita gross national income in 2005.

While a growth in wealth and disposable income is definitely a factor in triggering these positive numbers, according to the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society’s “The Doing Good Index 2018”, which put Singapore squarely in the ‘Doing Well’ cluster, favourable policymaking was also a major push.

For example, the Singapore government has a 250 per cent tax deduction policy for qualifying donations to help incentivise people and companies to continue donating. In fact, in last year’s budget, S$190million yearly will be allocated to boost philanthropy2.

The country also has a relatively easy to understand and shorter time for registration for charitable status, which undoubtedly helps attract more philanthropic individuals.

How philanthropy needs to evolve

The upward trend in philanthropic activities is heartening if one considers the formidable challenges we face.

Poverty of spirit and generational poverty are debilitating in affluent communities like Singapore. According to the NVPC in Singapore, there is clearly an economic disadvantage for the growing number of single-parent families, the numbers of mistreated children have spiked, and the number of young drug abusers have been growing.

There is a newer train of thought regarding the need to be more solutions-driven about the pressing and interconnected challenges best articulated in the United Nations 17 Social Development Goals. This has led to an increased focus on systemic solutions, emphasis on resilience, co-funding, and bundled interventions.

Similarly, as personal philanthropy matures in Singapore, I believe the expectations of its results should as well. The question I often get asked is: how do we move from simply doing good to making significant change?

I believe that personal philanthropy can look to corporates and the incorporation of Environmental Social Governance (ESG) into their business framework for inspiration.

With a growing awareness of the risks that climate change brings with it, more and more governments and investors alike are requiring companies to disclosure their practices and how they have incorporated sustainability strategies into how they work.

For example, just last year HSBC was part of Asia’s first sustainability-linked club loan with Olam International, which linked the interest rate of the loan to achieving specific ESG criteria3, so the more sustainable the business became, the lower the cost of the loan.

To enjoy a reduced interest rate, Olam has to meet improvement targets for a range of ESG metrics, which are tested on an annual basis to ensure the pre-set improvement targets are achieved.

This process of creating working standards and frequent disclosures has seen significant success in incorporating sustainable processes in the corporate world.

Similarly, rather than simply handing over funds to different charities, philanthropists can up their game by setting criteria or goals to ensure that the most is being made use of their donations aid. The organisations that receive these funds would then be expected to disclose their “results” and if they have successfully achieved specific aims.

By using a more organised and solutions-focused approach, I believe that we will be able to achieve even more social and environmental impact.

A double-edged opportunity

I often contend that philanthropy also provides personal benefits to the participating individual and family.

Learning to share and work with others is one of the first developmental stages in child development and enriches our lives. What is taught through philanthropic giving is applicable to life – stewardship, needs assessment, financial review, making choices, negotiation, collective decision-making and much more.

Respecting individual and group values and viewpoints, and balance in looking outward at others’ needs in your community, are paramount for good relationships with diverse stakeholders.

One of our major donors recently said to me that a better understanding of and taking positive action on the wealth divide and root causes behind issues like economic migration, political turmoil and poor governance and environmental damage is a choice we must make if we want to live peaceful, stable and healthy lives.

A contribution piece by Cynthia D’Anjou-Brown, Head of Philanthropy, Asia Pacific, HSBC Private Banking. A version of this piece was first published in The Business Times on 29th May 2019.

1 https://www.spd.org.sg/singapore-ranked-seventh-in-the-world-in-giving
2 https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/singapore-budget-2018/singapore-budget-2018-s190m-yearly-to-boost-philanthropy
3 https://esg.theasset.com/ESG/34308/olam-secures-asias-first-sustainability-linked-club-loan-facility