By Abbie Jung and Jana Svedova
In Hong Kong’s hyper-competitive society, Type A achievers take any opportunity to one-up their peers, even in philanthropy. The glut of black-tie gala dinners, happy hour fundraisers, bartending events, auctions and marathons offer ample opportunities for donors to feel good about themselves and get recognition for their financial contributions toward social good.
A group of young local and expat millennials don’t think you can save a rainforest in one happy hour. They choose a different way to incite change.
The Future Funders Giving Circle is made up of six young professionals, all under 40 years old, who dedicate time, professional skills, knowledge, network, influence and capital to help thinly-stretched social ventures develop their businesses and grow their impact.
Organized by Synergy Social Ventures, a nonprofit that invests in early-stage social ventures, participants attend boot camps where they learn about social enterprise and philanthropy, including Synergy’s due diligence and venture support processes. The group uses the process to vet and invest in a venture. In addition to financial support, they use business and finance skills honed in the private sector to provide entrepreneurs with hands-on help.
Four of the Future Funders are finance professionals, while the others work in corporate finance and business sustainability consulting. All of them work 80-hour weeks, travel internationally several times a month and barely have time for dentist appointments. Still, they meet at least once a month to discuss social enterprise and developing social-change models.
Future Funders started with Dawei Wang and Lori Ngo, two finance professionals who heard about giving circles from a friend but didn’t find any in Hong Kong. Instead, they started volunteering with Synergy Social Ventures, providing hands-on professional support for social ventures in the Synergy portfolio.
When co-founder Abbie Jung shared Synergy’s newly-formed experiential philanthropic education program, the young couple went all-in. They committed $10,000 and volunteered hours on top of their already hectic work schedules.
Despite their desire to plunge head-first into philanthropy, neither came from charitable families.
“Both our families are first generation immigrants and, frankly, there’s is not a sense of ‘give back to the community’ because they went through a lot to get to where they are. They really internalized all the resources to support the next generation,” Wang says.
The couple’s thinking shifted dramatically during their honeymoon in Cambodia. A villager approached them asking for English lessons so he could find a job. At that moment, they realized throwing money at poverty isn’t the solution. People are self-determined and want to create a sustainable future for themselves and their families. They realized the best way to help these villagers is to provide jobs and support other ways people could provide for themselves.
“As we were growing up, particularly as we travel, we feel the world is not a place where there’s an equal distribution of wealth and opportunities. So, the more we see, the more we realize that our parents were from a different generation and we have to think differently.”
Unlike the usual fly-by philanthropy in Hong Kong, where donors learn about the issue from a video that plays at the end of the gala, the Future Funders program challenges its’ members to dig deeper, understand organizational challenges and connect with social entrepreneurs actually solving those problems.
After a full year of strategy bootcamps and debates, the Future Funders’ first $50,000 co-investment with Synergy went to support a business development manager for Brooklyn Bridge to Cambodia (BB2C), a Phnom Penh-based social venture that develops and manufactures treadle water pumps designed for rural subsistence farmers in Cambodia. These pumps decrease the time farmers, often women and children, spend watering their field and enable them to grow higher-value crops in the dry season.
“We saw more of their day-to-day. We saw Bunika [a BB2C staffer] going to the field two, three, four times a day,” Ngo says. “When meeting the people behind the ventures, it wasn’t just the commitment; it was the energy and enthusiasm that they had. Everyone that we met working as part of these organizations were very, very enthusiastic, no matter what they did.”
It’s unusual to use a grant to cover administrative expenses. Most grants support program related expenses, while impact investments tends not to give grants at all. Future Funders believe in using intimate, first hand knowledge to provide tailored help investees can use to achieve the social impact they are trying to create.
They believe the new Business Development Manager will increase sales through distribution partnerships, help farmers increase production and use BB2C profits to develop new agricultural technology products that can improve the lives of rural farmers in and around Cambodia.
“It’s is a chance you have to take based on the people, product, and your belief that it will make an impact,” Ngo explained.