Asia’s Women Billionaires In Philanthropy: Working From Within
Women make up only a small percentage of top philanthropists in Asia, but their influence is disproportionately large as they transform the nature of philanthropy itself.
In terms of sheer numbers, female philanthropists in Asia lag behind their male peers. Out of the 40 donors listed on the Forbes Heroes of Philanthropy list in 2017, only six are women. (1) On this year’s Hurun index of China’s top 100 philanthropists just 16 are women, compared with an average of 24% in global rankings.
Although few in number, Asia’s female philanthropists are acquiring some prominent additions to their ranks and are marking some new milestones. In May this year Zhonghui You, the founder of Shenzhen Seaskyland Technologies, an educational software company, added her name to the list of the 169 billionaires worldwide who have agreed to give away more than half their fortune to good causes. In doing so, Ms You became the first self-made woman in China to sign the Giving Pledge, an initiative of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.
“I think I can set an example to my peers and hopefully inspire others to pay attention and get involved,” explains Ms You. Her appeal to give more, and to do so publicly, is aimed at the billionaires who have benefited from Asia’s rapid economic growth in the past few decades, particularly in China. More crucially, it is a signal to a particular group to come forward: Asia’s wealthy women.
In March 2017 Forbes released its latest list of the world’s self-made female billionaires. Of the 56 women on the list, 29 come from Asia-Pacific, and of the 15 newcomers to the rankings 13 come from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam or Japan. They also hold an increasing slice of the pie. According to Boston Consulting Group, women held roughly one-third of global private wealth in 2015. It expects this share to rise by 11% a year in Asia-Pacific (excluding Japan), compared with a global average of 7%.
Does this herald a surge in philanthropy in Asia? Women’s wealth is growing alongside Asia’s nascent philanthropic sector. As noted by the Ash Centre for Democratic Governance and Innovation, part of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in China alone donations from the top 100 philanthropists more than tripled between 2010 and 2016, from US$1.3bn to US$4.6bn.
Like Ms You, other female role models are starting to emerge. Japan’s Yoshiko Shinohara, who joined the ranks of self-made female billionaires in 2017, established the Yoshiko Shinohara Memorial Foundation in 2014, which grants scholarships to students in nursing and social work programmes. Particularly in China—from where the vast majority of Asia’s self-made women billionaires originates—these home-grown examples are an important milestone, according to Zhenyao Wang, president of the China Global Philanthropy Institute (CGPI), an organization dedicated to advancing philanthropy in China, which has 50 female members. “[Previously] China learned a lot about philanthropy from the outside world, from the UK, US and Hong Kong,” he says. “But that is changing. Now, as Chinese became wealthier, they look to and respect China’s history of philanthropists.” One example is Qiaonv He, number 30 on the Forbes list. Worth an estimated US$1.8bn, the founder of Beijing Orient Landscape, a landscape architecture firm, made headlines in 2015 when she donated Rmb2.9bn (US$450m) in corporate stock to her Beijing Qiaonv Foundation for environmental causes. She was the first female philanthropist to donate more than Rmb1bn.
Diverse philanthropic channels
The channels these women billionaires are choosing for their philanthropy are diverse. Worth more than US$1bn, Ms You has tried several approaches to giving her money away, including via foundations, one-off gifts, impact investments and supporting social enterprises. While many give to charitable causes, a small percentage have established foundations for their philanthropic pursuits, such as Ms Shinohara and India’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the founder of Biocon Limited. Just under 30% of Asian women billionaires on the Forbes list have a foundation, compared with more than 80% of American women on the list. “I am inclined to pursue a philanthropic foundation approach in the future,” Ms You adds.
The sector’s underdevelopment means there is significant scope to shape future giving. “These are mostly successful business people, so when they think about philanthropy, they’re also more strategic,” says Yinuo Li, China office director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “[They] want to get one-on-one in terms of how to give, how to establish foundations and how to set a strategy for the foundation.”
Mistrust of non-governmental organisations (NGOs)—and too few NGOs to give to—means that many donors are left adopting a do-it-yourself approach. “Lots of foundations end up becoming implementing foundations,” says Ms Li. “They pick an area and hire people to [execute projects], rather than give grants.”
Paving the way forward
Despite their limited number, these women are making an outsized difference by focusing on changing the nature of philanthropic giving itself. In China, in particular, they are focusing their attention on funding worthy projects in support of government initiatives and nudging policy reforms, thereby facilitating philanthropic activities. Women “helped change policy and push government reform, by donating in co-operation with the government,” claims Mr Wang of the CGPI. As an example he cites Whitney Duan, founder of the Great Ocean Group, whose Kaifeng Foundation is one of the backers of the East-West Philanthropy Forum designed to convene US and Chinese donors and government representatives to discuss social issues such as climate change, for example. Number of women billionaires Number with established foundation
Moreover, says Mr Wang, female philanthropists are bringing a more constructive tone to funding projects in co-operation with government. “[Women] don’t just criticise,” he says. Still, more needs to be done to raise awareness of philanthropy, including organising events among female entrepreneurs that promote giving and encouraging more links between women in Asia and other parts of the world to share information and provide mentoring, according to Ms You.
Broader development of the philanthropic industry would help billionaires of both sexes, too, says Ms Li. “Most people are good at doing business, but professionals with experience running foundations are in short supply.”
It is clear that Asia’s self-made billionaires have the development of the industry in their sights, and women will also be at the wheel. For her part, Ms You hopes her advocacy will aid both specific causes and philanthropy in general. “My happiness derives from this personal mission,” she says.
This article is the second of a two-part series on women billionaires and philanthropy, focusing here on Asia. The article series is part of a larger content programme on philanthropy written by The Economist Intelligence Unit and follows our 2017 BNP Paribas Philanthropy Report.