The Asian decade

Andrew Milner

This was the billing of AVPN’s first face-to-face convening since 2019 and with the return of the conference has come a new purpose and of responsibility, articulated by Naina Batra in her opening address to the 1096 delegates (the number tells its own story of the engagement of Asian social investors of all stripes with AVPN).

Coming of age

Both are timely. In the Covid period, the funding gap to achieve the SDGs has risen from the breathtaking to the eye-watering and now stands at an estimated USD42 trillion. There is increasing inequality in gender, in healthcare and in renewable energy. The philanthropic and social investment models proposed in the west may not work in Asia, she said, asserting that, ‘the solutions will come from this room.’ Another significant development is that AVPN now presides over a number of pooled funds in healthcare and nutrition, digital transformation in NGOs, employment and economic empowerment for women and girls and climate. These, she said, have come about not only because of the urgency of the areas in question, but from the realisation that the power dynamic in philanthropy has to shift to ‘the frontline and to trust-based philanthropy’.

Naina Batra: 'There is a critical disconnect between capital and impact in Asia'. Photo: AVPN

Naina Batra: ‘There is a critical disconnect between capital and impact in Asia’. Photo: AVPN

Ng Boon Heong of the Temasek Trust in Singapore also spoke of the coming of age of Asia. He, too, saw trends towards investment in the improvement of governance and a move from ‘chequebook philanthropy’ to active investment in impact. Temasek itself is an exemplar of this. Fifteen years of grantmaking have convinced the Trust that more is needed, so it is now focusing on impact investing. Asia accounts for sixty per cent of the global population, he said. Solve Asia and you go a long way to solving the problems of the world. Not that grantmaking should be abandoned wholesale. Satrijo Tanudjojo of the Tanoto Foundation, for one, argued that ‘grantmaking is leverage’. It brings in other funders and will always be necessary for those organisations who are unable to generate other forms of funding. It is also being used by the Menzies Foundation in Australia to build a platform to create an impact fund. In other words, it has a role in pump-priming other forms of support.

The key words

Already, many of the terms and concepts that would resonate over the conference’s four days had been aired – collaboration, sustainability, digital transformation, gender and climate change (these two can be taken as read in any philanthropy conference), impact investing and blended finance. Some of these were touched on by Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s Minister for Maritime and Investment Affairs. Blended finance, for instance, is important in the country’s energy transition and AVPN has a key role in bringing together the elements of this. Covid, he said, ‘shows that we can solve complex problems, so long as we work together.’ The message was reiterated by his junior, Sandiago Uno, the Minister of Creative Economy and Tourism.

The Asian Gender Network

Photo: AVPN

Inevitably, many of these themes intersected. The pandemic has set the equality clock back for two billion women in all sorts of areas – education, healthcare and economic empowerment among them. Accelerating women’s economic power is central to many of the SDGs, noted Svida Alisjahbana. What women’s organisations need is access to networks, support, education and – ‘only last’ – funding. Shinta Widjaja Kamdani and Noni Pernomo both pointed out the important role of technology here. It allows women to work from home, but educating women in technology and encouraging them to take up careers in it are both underfunded and lack role models. Vidya Shah of Edelgive in India also pointed out the need to disaggregate the different issues making up the gender question. There is not ‘one space with gender written on it,’ she said. The social and cultural elements of gender reflected, and were reflected by, the economic element. The understanding of this is critical for development projects in Asia, she said. She argued the importance of leadership and stressed the key role the recently formed Asian Gender Network could play, of which all the panellists were members.


Almost every speaker at the conference dwelt on its necessity of collaboration. Most of them also noted, though less loudly, that it’s difficult. As Liz Gillies of the Menzies Foundation put it, ‘if you think you’re in deep collaboration and it’s not difficult, then you’re not in deep collaboration. If previous experience had not demonstrated the need for collaboration sufficiently, then Covid certainly has, said Edoardo Colovecchio of Oppenheim Asia. It had underlined the need for partnership ‘across the board’ – between government, philanthropy, family offices and the private sector.

Words like humility, audacity, moral imagination and moral leadership, even love made themselves heard from the stage, not just in the corridor.

Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen also urged collaboration in her keynote speech: ‘we are each other’s destiny. Others’ problems are ours.’ More practically, we need to move capital where it is needed, not where it is safest. She also spoke of the need for moral leadership, citing the example of a Pakistani doctor, an Acumen fellow, who has developed Telehub, a health app to get health advice to Pakistani women from doctors based anywhere in the world speaking their language. The app is now part of the official Pakistani health establishment. Following on from this, she explained that the Acumen Academy now operates in 11 countries to produce leaders of their societies ‘who know their countries in a way that our current leaders don’t,’ leaders with ‘the humility to see the world as it is and the audacity to imagine what it could be.’

Jacqueline Novogratz: ‘we are each other’s destiny. Others’ problems are ours. Photo: AVPN


Ultimately, said Dato’ Shahirah Ahmed Bazari of the Yayasanah Hasanah Foundation in Malaysia from its work on collaborations in the areas of Covid response and digital education, the premise of any collaboration is to amplify impact and a successful collaboration depended on three things: pre-alignment of objectives and definition of expectations; seeing people and mission as the ‘true north’ of the exercise; and letting go of ‘egos and logos’.

But the last word on collaboration lay with Naina Batra. The pandemic had enforced collaboration, one of its side-effects which was positive. Let’s continue the partnerships that were forged in those difficult years and often with unexpected allies.

Trust-based and unrestricted

There is also a need – again accelerated by the pandemic – to base more support on trust and to believe that the recipients are capable of knowing how to use it. Clare Woodcraft called for an end to funders in the global north who don’t understand the institutional challenges of Asia dictating the terms of funding to Asian organisations (a point of principle as well as of practice is obviously at stake here). Something else the pandemic has highlighted is the need for flexible support and for funding organisations, yet, as Clare Woodcraft of IVPC pointed out, figures showed that, apart from McKenzie Scott’s much-hailed donations, only 5 per cent of the funding given during the pandemic was unrestricted. There can be no excuse for this, she claimed.

Part of this, too, is about the need to diversify funding. Local organisations need support from local sources to be sustainable and to break their dependence on large external grants and to produce resilience. As Romy Cahyadi of Instellar noted that for NPOs, current grantmaking practices may be rigid where organisations need flexibility. In terms of grantee relations, funders need to be humble, vulnerable even, and brave enough to have difficult conversations, argued Romy Cahyadi: ‘if you don’t listen, it’s like saying, you have to change, not us.’

So what is trust-based grantmaking? Most agreed that there was no black and white definition. Cesar Del Valle of Candid said unrestricted funding has a paradoxical quality in that the trust involved is double-edged. If you misused it, it corroded trust. Rachel Oh of International Rescue made a similar point from the recipient side. Funders’ attitude is ‘if we give you unrestricted funding, where’s it going?’ It actually introduces the seeds of mistrust in a trusting relationship.

There remain good arguments for making funding more and more unrestricted, said Francis Macatalud. You sometimes need to invest in an organisation lest it starve. It might seem like a waste to fund overheads, but restricting funds to programmes can be a false economy. How to tempt funders? Provide rigorous evidence of impact, said Alex Peterson of the Global Innovation Fund, then you will get unrestricted funding.

Trust-based funding surfaced again in panel discussion on the need for collaborative philanthropy to achieve gender empowerment. AVPN’s interest in pooled funds stemmed both from evident need but also led to the realisation that they enabled trust-based grantmaking. The organisations supporting women and girls need to be strong in order to provide them the support they need, therefore unrestricted funding is the way to go. Pooled funds also allow you to take on important challenges said Alex Peterson, to manage risk and to invest in innovation and innovation in international development really pays dividends, she argued.

Impact investing

The concept of impact investing moved increasingly centre-stage during the conference. But what are the challenges and how do you measure the impact created? Training and research emerged as critical, training not just for impact investors on where and how to invest, but for social enterprises themselves. Sometimes, noted Patricia Sosrodjojo of Seedstars, social entrepreneurs seek impact investment but aren’t equipped to deal with the requirements it imposes. Laetitia Lienart of Credit Suisse also highlighted the need for proper research. ‘As funders, we’re patient to do the job right and understand needs,’ she said. At the other end of the work, Liz Gillies noted that Menzies Foundation pays for all evaluation, ‘because that’s the impact driver.’ But what do these evaluations measure? Is there too much focus on facts and figures, and too little on qualitative results? For Liz Gillies, there is no dilemma. Metrics and other data underlie what goes into an intervention. The important thing is to make sure that the data is not simply there to tick a box.

The missing category, she feels, is field builders, people who have a view over the field but can take action, too. Is this a role for a combination of academics and consultants (the one without the other is no good, she believes) funded by philanthropy? Overall, the field is still grappling with how to see and communicate success, argued Patricia. Finally, says Letitia, think creatively about what you can do to support organisations. This, she said, echoing a remark made in the opening sessions, won’t always be money.

Moving at the speed of trust 

The theme of doing the groundwork right was taken up by Elizabeth Yee of the Rockefeller Foundation. What Rockefeller learned from its work on renewable energy in Myanmar and India led to the setting up of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet to encourage a more rapid transition to clean energy. The moral of the experience, she feels is: do your homework – what’s the change you want? What do the stakeholders want (‘you can only move at the speed of trust’)? Make small investments and fail fast, then invest heavily in interventions that are producing results.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. We can’t adapt from one crisis to the next, we need to focus on systemic change.

If collaboration needs to move at the speed of trust, the digitalisation is proceeding with a haste we can barely keep up with, largely thanks to the enforced impetus of Covid. This is sometimes good, sometimes bad. In terms of financial education and inclusion, for instance, the pace of development has created an even bigger gap between those who are digitally literate and those who aren’t, a workshop on the topic on the last morning heard. We need to teach them the skills necessary for inclusion if they are not to be left behind, said Sofia Shakil of the Asia Foundation. Maria Perdomo of UNCDF agreed. She also noted that while 2018 figures showed that financial inclusion had reached 70 per cent of the global population and that new figures to come out shortly will very likely show an even higher proportion, there is still a big gender gap, especially in South East Asia. Financial education is about more than access now, it’s about usage and the confidence to use the means to enjoy it.

On the positive side, Neha Kansara of Friends of Women’s World Banking in India said there had been a push from women entrepreneurs towards digital take-up. In this respect, Covid seems to have achieved what FWWB has been trying to accomplish for years. There still remains, too, the problem of reaching adults with low levels of literacy. Presenters’ suggestions included the use of appealing visual material like posters, instilling confidence through practice and using games and interactive activities to draw out and explore users’ experience and relating it to the concepts being taught.

The role of government

Though there was some scepticism expressed, most acknowledged the primary role of government.  Only governments with their reach and power can make an individual success general. As one speaker put it, ‘if the government works, we all win.’ But many philanthropists are still shy of involvement with government. Electoral cycles can work against the continuance of a project, as Liz Gillies pointed out. Their budgets often have little or no flexibility. Are we speaking the same language, wondered another speaker? The terminology social investors on the one hand used and governments on the other was ripe for misconstruction. Moreover, they sometimes lacked quality data on the basis of which to proceed, especially local level. All these problems notwithstanding, the position was summed up by Wei Ning of Chandler Institute of Governance in Singapore. If you care about impact, climate change, education, healthcare – any of the topics which surfaced in the conference – you should also care about governance.

Infectious generosity, audacity and big bets

Generosity ‘makes the recipient feel worthy of being seen.’ Christopher Anderson of TED was quoting a woman he referred to simply as Lydia. She had received a large, no-strings gift and had spent the money on others rather than on herself. She isn’t an isolated case, Anderson argued. She was responding to the force of generosity, a force we can amplify by making it infectious. There are three keys to doing this: creativity, audacity and collaboration. The second of these had led TED to set up the Audacious Project, a collaboration to raise funds for big ideas, no matter how remarkable they seem (the most offbeat proposal it has received is one to decipher the language of whales to see if, from there, it is possible to identify pollution ‘hotspots’ in the oceans). More mainstream projects were also showcased at the conference – Educate Girls which aims to enrol out-of-school girls and improve their learning outcomes, and Noora Health which is pioneering an approach to healthcare by empowering family caregivers. Its own infectiousness is demonstrated by the fact that, last year, it was able to give USD900m to nine projects. People might ask if this is the best use of their philanthropy. The answer is, ‘you will never know. Take a risk!’

Christopher Anderson of TED. Photo: AVPN


The showcased organisations illustrated these points. Noora had trained two million family caregivers in two countries, said Shahed Alam. Audacious Project funding would enable them to move to two more and to open ten times the number of facilities delivering the programme, allowing them to project a figure of 70 million caregivers trained by 2027. Similarly, Audacious funding will allow Educate Girls to enrol 1.56 million girls in schools and improve the learning outcomes for a million children in five years – at the previous rate of progress, it would have taken them 45 years, reflected Safeena Husain. What she called ‘incrementalism’ is the enemy of impact. To achieve something on this scale, big bets are needed.

Risk, reward, failure and catalysis

But though it claims to be the risk capital of innovation, philanthropy is risk-averse, says Vidya Shah (she is not the first to make the observation). This, she believes, is because it confuses mistakes with failure. If you want your funding to be catalytic, ‘make mistakes, but don’t fail. And make a long-term commitment.’

Being catalytic is not about money, it’s about leadership, believes Nicola Forrest of the Minderoo Foundation in Australia, and about convening. She cited the example of the Thrive By Five campaign. The government had consistently shunned the issue but the pandemic had showed up the deficiencies of early childhood education in Australia. Minderoo had brought together over 70 organisations in an advocacy campaign and had brought in economists to demonstrate the costs involved in intervening too late – $15bn dollars a year. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate, she exhorted. We can’t adapt from one crisis to the next, we need to focus on systemic change.

Meanwhile, learning from failure was emerging as a topic of conversation for the conference (there was a breakout session devoted to the question). As Vidya Shah noted above, social investors need to distinguish failure from mistakes. Talk about it when things go wrong, urged Rob Rosen of the Gates Foundation. As part of its Covid response, Gates had built a giving platform. Nobody used it. But, he argued, ‘it was absolutely the right thing to do and we learned from it.’ Ultimately, it’s not a failure if you acknowledge your mistake, analyse it and learn.

Many of us have felt for the last two years that we have been rehearsing the apocalypse. Now, the juggernaut has once more begun to roll forward. We need to ensure it is not simply heading towards a different doom.

The influence of Covid remains all-pervasive and underpinned a panel on mental health. It’s a stealthy crisis as all of the panellists pointed out. People are reluctant to admit to problems and to ask for health. The anxiety, fear and grief produced by the pandemic has made it worse to the point where the WHO estimates that one in four of us will suffer some form of mental health challenge in the next decade. As Richard Hawkes of the British Asian Trust pointed out, that’s a huge number in Asia. We need more services, of course, but we also need a more holistic approach, he argued – more all-round support, awareness-raising and a willingness to talk. He spoke of a partnership with the Pakistani cricket team who have been willing to talk openly, a massive boost to the issue’s prominence in the country.

Climate change: getting sustainable finance to the sharp end 

This often means vulnerable communities who can be hard to reach. Landless farmers, especially women, often don’t have title to the land they work, said Sandeep Roy Choudhury which makes it difficult to get finance to them. He argued that the traditional business case, how investors assess risk, needs to change. We need to aggregate some aspects of climate change so that larger ticket sizes are available to investors, which would make them more attractive. Crop insurance, he argued has a clear busienss case and philanthropy can help to de-risk this. Again, collaboration is needed, said Will McFarland. Adaptation has been left behind, he argued and now needs big investment. This can only come from a combination of sources.

Another problem in attracting big finance is the lack of intelligible data and the complex bureaucracy surrounding climate finance, says Niall O’Connor of SEI. Can we not make the bureaucracy and the terminology simpler, a request which met with general agreement. Overall, there is what Naina Batra describes as ‘a critical disconnect between capital and impact in Asia’. Nowhere is this more apparent than in climate funding.


So the AVPN conference is back. Its continuing popularity and its relevance is underlined by the statistics – 1096 delegates, 119 sessions and innumerable meetings and contacts made. But if its structure was recognisable from that of previous years, there were some significant differences in tone and content. Trust-based philanthropy, a term which you would scarcely have heard at previous versions of the conference, was used again and again and was even the subject of one workshop. The vocabulary was different, too – words like humility, audacity, moral imagination and moral leadership, even love made themselves heard from the stage, not just in the corridor. Of course, there was as always plenty of focus on the nuts and bolts, on structuring financial instruments, on dealflow and pipelines, and the things which take investors several removes away from the frontline of what they are trying to achieve, but there was a clear and constant sense of kinship with those suffering and contending with the effects of our ills that was not just evinced in words, but in sentiment – as if AVPN, its members, delegates and speakers were seeking a greater degree of intimacy among themselves and among their kind. Another significant index of change was the development of pooled funds organised by or featuring AVPN – a great departure for an infrastructure organisation. There are now four of these and nothing speaks more clearly of the sense of urgency, of rolling up your sleeves, than this development. To my mind, these changes are for the better. The pandemic has certainly influenced them. It has given all of us a different view of the future. Many of us have felt for the last two years that we have been rehearsing the apocalypse. Now, the juggernaut has once more begun to roll forward. We need to ensure it is not simply heading towards a different doom.


And finally, there was Gatotkaca. Day 2 opened with an extraordinary dramatic performance describing the life of the legendary hero from the Mahabharata, Gatotkaca. Using music, dance, theatre and film, the piece was narrated by woman who sang in a high-pitched voice of great power and beauty. The auditorium held its collective breath. What did it have to do with the conference proceedings? Not a thing …except it elicited an emotional response, not an intellectual one. Social investment and philanthropy are inclined to keep people at arm’s length, to treat them as objects of compassion or units of research. Gatotkaca was full-blast humanity, reminding us to feel as well as think, of the need not just for support and generosity, but for kindness.

Andrew Milner is features editor of Alliance magazine

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