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Corporate and High Net Worth Giving in the time of COVID-19: A 4-part Insights Series (final)

Insight number four: Donor-grantee partnerships in the Asian new normal

The charity fundraising landscape was already experiencing rumblings of change over the past few years – and now COVID-19 has brought things to a head. Fresh research by our team at Just Cause highlights the need for non-profits to think in new ways about fundraising and partnerships. We cannot sit and wait for things to go back to the way they were.

Over the past few months, we’ve been taking stock of what corporate and High Net Worth (HNW) donors in Singapore and Indonesia are thinking and doing. As the world hunkered down on lockdown, over 25 experts in this field generously took time to speak to us on the phone. We talked to charity leaders, policy-makers, CSR managers, private bankers, consultants and philanthropists across Singapore and Indonesia.

We asked all of our interviewees one basic question: what does COVID-19 mean for the future of private philanthropy and non-profit fundraising? Their responses were at times inspirational and at other times truly bleak. Some people said they simply could not predict. But woven through many of the conversations, we could see several silver linings shining through the clouds. This blog post introduces the fourth of those insights…


Donor-grantee partnerships in the Asian new normal

Donors have been discussing the topic of effective grant-partnerships for years, although it’s probably fair to say that pre-COVID-19 there had been a lot of talk and not so much bold action. The “new normal” context has now given a fresh sense of urgency to these questions. How can donors move beyond clunky reporting regimes that stifle innovation? How can they build genuine, collaborative partnerships that adapt to changing needs fluidly and effectively but whilst still maintaining accountability?

From top-down to side-by-side:

Over the past five years or so, various organisations (particularly in the US) have been pushing philanthropic donors to re-think the way they structure grantee relationships. There has been growing acknowledgement of the fact that traditional grant application and reporting processes are often burdensome and at worst, misleading.

For example, the Center for Effective Philanthropy is a goldmine of examples and ideas around how donors can establish more meaningful and fruitful grantee partnerships based around shared vision, joint planning and deeper, more flexible commitment to impact measurement and learning. Another US-based initiative is the trust-based philanthropy movement spearheaded by the Whitman Institute. The movement consists of a group of donors who have come together in recent years around six core principles, most notably: unrestricted funding, simplified paperwork and mutual feedback between donor and grant partner.

Slower uptake in Asia:

But this kind of thinking on collaborative partnerships has come mainly from US and has played out somewhat differently here in Asia, where we have seen fewer donors embrace ideas such as trust-based philanthropy. One obvious challenge for donors in this region is the need to guard against corruption in those countries with weak non-profit regulation. Another issue is the more complex and nuanced notion of trust and relationship-building that exists across many Asian societies (for more on this we recommend Pragmatic Philanthropy, Asian Charity Explained by Dr Ruth Shapiro and our friends at CAPS in Hong Kong).

But COVID-19 is forcing the issue:

Grantee partnerships may be harder and more complex for donors here in Asia, but the past few months have nevertheless prompted a wave of action from donors in this region. Paperwork has been slashed as donors adapt to the urgency of COVID-19 response needs. For example, one corporate donor told us they have trimmed their grant application form down to one page, and that filling it in is now a process of “co-creation”. Another talked about how to build trust through regular WhatsApp chats – and how trust is now all the more important given that fly-in, fly-out site visits are a thing of the past.

Some regional donors have even stepped up to make a public commitment towards greater flexibility and better two-way communication with their grant partners. One of the first to act was the Firetree Trust, who published this blog about it back in March. Then in May this year, the Asia Venture Philanthropy Network launched a Funders’ Pledge centred on these principles – and has attracted 13 signatories so far, including big names such as the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation and Credit Suisse.

So how will donor-grantee partnerships in Asia evolve from here? Are we going to start seeing a lot more US-style “trust-based philanthropy” and its principles of unrestricted funding and two-way feedback? Or is there an Asian version of partnership starting to emerge in the new normal?


At Just Cause, we’ll be continuing to explore this trend in our work with donors and their grant partners over the coming months. If you have any thoughts or ideas about trust-based philanthropy in the Asian context, we’d love to hear from you!


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