Pragmatic Philanthropy: Asian charity explained

Book Review
Reviewed by:
Pragmatic Philanthropy: Asian charity explained
Authors: Ruth Shapiro, with Manish Mirchandani and Heesu Jang
Ruth Shapiro’s highly readable title is a welcome addition to the surprisingly underrepresented catalogue of books on Asian philanthropy. Philanthropy sits at the nexus between astonishing wealth creation in the region, systemic poverty and environmental distress.  The book forms part of a larger project by Shapiro’s team at the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS), a Hong Kong-based non-profit supported by high profile philanthropists – the centre’s website contains a large number of case studies that supplement the book.
The book covers a lot of ground in 170 pages.  Chapter 2, one of just two not authored by Shapiro is an enlightening overview of the history of philanthropy in 11 countries, about one third of what is  normally considered to constitute Asian nations and special administrative regions. Other chapters cover the influence of policy, tax and regulation on philanthropy, the key role of personal, family and business relationships in a region where trust is in deficit and philanthropic motivation suspect. Other chapters walk us through corporate giving, which is often influenced by family shareholdings and strategies reminiscent of the Quaker industrialists of nineteenth century Britain. In fact Shapiro tells us that ‘company towns’, such as Jamshedpur in India, where Tata companies provide not just employment but an array of social services, are increasing in Asia, in sharp contrast to Europe and America. The chapter on impact investing introduces us to the sea change in philanthropy caused by the rise of social entrepreneurship and new hybrid forms that combine social mission with profitability. The book does well to highlight Asia’s relatively hostile State environment for advocacy organisations, noting this to be philanthropy’s blind spot in the region.
While the book is easy to read, largely devoid of jargon and pseudo-academic obfuscation, it is for the most part idiosyncratic. It relies heavily on anecdote, much from Shapiro’s own extensive experiences and networks. This gives an authentic feel, but at times is frustratingly difficult to separate opinion from fact. Several stories feature the giving practices of CAPS own benefactors, which creates an impression of potential conflict of interest (something I can sympathise with in my own experience of building networks while trying to maintain the objectivity of a researcher). There are omissions too –  100 words on the evolving nature of corporate volunteerism is not enough; there is no mention of Australia, even for the sake of comparison, which is a shame given the renaissance of philanthropy there. There is no mention of giving circles, which are becoming popular amongst wealthy individuals and ordinary citizens in Asia.
Despite these shortcomings Pragmatic Philanthropy is an insightful must-read for anyone interested in what lies behind the rapid pace of development of the charitable sector, including organised philanthropy, in the major economies of Asia. The book is available as a free PDF download, as well as hardback, which is highly commendable. Even skim reading this on a long-haul flight to Asia would be time well spent. 

This book review is tagged under:

  • History of philanthropy
  • Impact measurement
  • International giving
  • Philanthropy stats & trends
  • Promoting philanthropy