Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation – Hong Kong

Founded by Robert Chen, James Chen’s father, the family foundation resulted from their successful work in ceramics, building materials, packaging, etc.

Robert Chen grew up very poor, having experienced starvation where he and his family ate bark off trees, in a village outside Shanghai. Upon accumulating wealth, Mr. Chen was successful at engaging local, provincial officials of his boyhood village to help him apply his donations to build infrastructure for his village. that lacked drainage, clean water, etc. As a result of local officials support and Mr. Chen’s visits to ensure installation of clean water, sanitation, etc. projects, the town began to prosper.

James Chen discussed how his father gave intuitively and funded projects that were less related to strategy, but based more on emotion. When James’ generation was asked to assume giving responsibility, they were surprised at the number of inappropriate requests his father had endured for years.

As a result, the family established the foundation to give the process some structure. Because the family could not by themselves agree to one mission focus by which to give strategically to related purposes, they invited outside Board members, which elevated decision-making to another level.

As a Board, they decided to move from the “hardware” support accomplished by their father, to more “software” focus related to children’s education — specifically, school libraries in their father’s home village, Hong Kong and communities in some West African countries..

The Foundation’s mission today is to provide help develop and attract qualified, inspired librarians, the right number and type of educational and reading books that children will find interesting, etc. They continue to follow Robert Chen’s example with frequent visits to funded project sites to entrust the appropriate expenditure of their support.

At this point of the presentation, James stepped back and described his perspective on philanthropy in China.

Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in China typically “chase the dollar” for any purpose rather than for their mission’s purpose. Due to a limited number of responsible NGOs, the Chen Family Foundation has been unable to give away its designated annual one million in resources. The Foundation disciplines giving to the responsible NGO that is able to effectively manage the gift versus just pushing money out the door. The challenge is finding enough NGOs that meet their funding criteria.

Mr. Chen’s perspective is that most NGOs from whom the Foundation receives solicitations do not have the basic platforms of transparent management. Today’s typical NGO is unable to demonstrate a succinct mission plan, shows limited acumen in management of fiscal resources, staffing, provision of services, etc.

Mr. Chen says funders can, but often don’t, nurture responsibility. He was very honest in saying that people of wealth in Hong Kong give primarily “for face” and status (same is true in U.S.) and throw money to groups often without any further contact as to what happened to the money.

The same principle of “for face” also holds for serving on most NGO volunteer boards. People are there for status and socializing purposes without any focus on setting policy and helpful NGO direction.

James Chen also stated that there is a lack of “information sharing” between private funders of major gifts. The Chen Foundation is developing a website that lays out why some funded projects succeeded and others failed.

He then returned to outlining future strategies for the Chen Family Foundation:

  • Meet the problem in which a study listed Hong Kong as the second worst in the number of parents reading to their kids. As a result, they wish to build out their venture philanthropic project called “Bring Me A Book”. This project enlightens parents to the knowledge that they are their children’s “first teacher” and the necessity of reading to them often.
  • Develop publisher awards that recognize publishers who print children’s books in Chinese first.
  • Mentor NGOs to build infrastructure capacity, much like Robert Chen did for his village many years ago.

Further thoughts:

I’m beginning to think that Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) in concert with future People to People delegation trips could partner with foundations to grow the number of fundable – NGOs by reviewing some basics.

As in the U.S. and other countries, many fringe NGOs are unable to adequately communicate the root problem facing their communities, the needed responses to resolve and what role their NGOs have in resolving the problem. Discussing the benefits of communicating an effective case for support, stewardship of resources, maximizing volunteer leadership, etc. may prove most useful.