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04 Feb. 2014 | Comments (0)

Philanthropy in Asia is developing rapidly to serve the region’s growing number of social entrepreneurs and high-potential nonprofits. Giving circles are one innovation in Asia that holds potential for companies and their employees.

A lot has been written about the relationship between entrepreneurship and venture capital. Sir Ronald Cohen, a British businessman and philanthropist sometimes referred to as the father of British venture capital, likened it to the two intertwined strands of DNA—mutually supporting each other’s growth. At the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy (ACSEP), we’ve been thinking about how philanthropy in Asia is responding to the growing number of social entrepreneurs across the region, and whether the DNA analogy might helpfully describe their relationship. Back in May, 2013, we scoped out some potential research areas in a paper that looked at contemporary Asian philanthropy through the lens of innovation. The paper’s broad themes were entrepreneurial philanthropy, strategic philanthropy and the philanthropy ecosystem, and in future blogs I’ll explore the positive role corporations in Asia can play in supporting social entrepreneurs in the region.

Collective Philanthropy

The giving circle is an innovation we noted in our paper that intrigued us, and over the past few months we’ve been researching them in a half dozen Asian countries (this research will be published in a forthcoming ACSEP working paper and an article in the March 2014 issue of Alliance). A giving circle is formed of individuals who pool their philanthropic capital in support of a non-profit, usually adding value by volunteering their time and skills. There are hundreds of giving circles today in the United States, several of which started up in the 1990s by new economy entrepreneurs like Paul Brainerd (Aldus Corporation) looking for fresh and impactful ways of giving. Ravi Venkatesan transformed the fortunes of Microsoft India during his chairmanship from 2004-11. His recent book, Conquering the Chaos, is full of insightful advice to CEOs on why to win in India is to win everywhere. It’s also a book guided by a strong moral compass—Ravi acknowledges that his business values were shaped at engineering firm Cummins and further strengthened at Microsoft. In 2012, he launched Social Venture Partners India (SVPI), with support from former Seattle colleagues who were active members of SVP, a North American network of giving circles that is fast developing an Asian footprint.  SVPI already has more than 65 partners in Bangalore—corporate leaders and entrepreneurs—and is launching in other Indian cities.  Partners commit a minimum of US$3,000 annually, donate their time, and unlock their networks to help nonprofits achieve step-change growth.


Ravi, like Paul Brainerd, is what Paul Schervish, Director of the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, in his Moral Biography of Wealth, calls a hyperagent—an individual who shapes the world around them, who builds industries, institutions and sectors, not just manages a company. When such people move into philanthropy they bring this systems-changing capacity with them. SVP’s Asian network has also stretched to Japan, China and Australia, creating city-based giving circles that lever the skills and generosity of individuals and their companies.  One partner at SVP Tokyo has taken corporate engagement a stage further by setting up a giving circle at his work place, the research and consulting arm of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group.  Staff teams allocate grants and offer pro bono advice to promising social businesses.  Nonprofits benefit, and so too do the staff and the company—in terms of team building and rounded professional development.

In Hong Kong, a small giving circle of mostly expatriates and permanent residents, New Day Asia, offers small grants and advice to nonprofits working with children in Nepal, Cambodia, India and China. The group partners with one of Hong Kong’s prominent law firms, which donates funds and encourages its staff to volunteer their skills. The giving circle provides the company with a philanthropy platform, access to pre-screened charitable organizations and an opportunity for its staff to better understand the effective giving of time and money. Giving circles are just one example of philanthropy innovations taking root across Asia that can impact the way a company thinks about its own giving.

  • About the Author:Rob John

    Rob John

    Rob John is an independent philanthropy consultant based in Cambridge, UK. He has published widely on venture philanthropy as a fellow at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Oxford and NUS B…

    Full Bio | More from Rob John


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