Warren Buffett

first person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 August, 2006, 12:00am

Hong Kong's tycoons are too low-key about their philanthropy, argues Terry Farris, head of philanthropy services for UBS Asia-Pacific. He believes the region needs its own high-profile givers like American investment guru Warren Buffet to inspire more wealthy people to give to charitable causes.

When Warren Buffet announced in June that he was giving away the bulk of his US$40 billion fortune to Bill and Melinda Gates' charitable foundation, the world sat up and took notice.

Here was a hugely respected man who had made a vast fortune and already set aside enough to ensure that his children would enjoy very comfortable lives - and now he had decided to give away most of his remaining billions.

Philanthropists often leave money for good causes when they die. The difference with Buffet is that he wants to see his money make a difference while he is still around to make sure it is wisely spent. He wants to witness some of the good that it will do.

His gesture reverberated around Asia. Soon afterwards, actor Jackie Chan said he would give away half of his estate. In every conversation I have had with wealthy Asian families since, it a gesture that has got them thinking about the importance of philanthropy.

But although there is a great deal of quiet philanthropy in Hong Kong and Asia, there are no Warren Buffets. I believe it is time for the region's philanthropists to stand up and be counted so that a culture of benevolence can take root here.

People like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have changed the way philanthropy is seen. When Ted Turner gave away money, people felt bad that they weren't doing the same. When Bill Gates gave it away, he made it look fun, and Buffet said: 'If it's that much fun, let me join in.'

Philanthropy is good for the beneficiaries and good for the giver. It is seriously advantageous for the giver's image and business. If you want to raise your profile and make yourself known around the world within a year, become a philanthropist.

Take the rock singer Bono as an example. Here's a guy who wears sunglasses indoors and might be mistaken for a mafioso. But he's been named joint Person of the Year by Time magazine and you'll see him sitting in on UN meetings. His philanthropy has become an incredibly powerful tool.

In Hong Kong and Asia, philanthropy is far more low-key. The first generation of wealthy families gave to their children to make sure they are better educated, then to their home villages and communities to improve their lives, and thirdly to their extended families.

When they reach that third stage, they start to look outside the family circle to see if there is more they can do. Now that children are being sent overseas for western education, they are beginning to take a broader view and look for bigger dragons of need to slay with their wealth.

On the mainland today, so many of the home villages now have so much money that Hong Kong people are realising they need to refocus and give to the western part of China where the need is greatest.

Philanthropy holds unexpected benefits too. It can be the glue that holds wealthy families together. It is a process that brings younger and older siblings together and engages them in the family's common business. If we look at corporate social responsibility, philanthropy can be a positive way of positioning a business in the community.

Hong Kong and Asia need their own champions of philanthropy. This region is a club-like society in the sense that if one person does something, the rest will follow. We have quiet givers, but we don't have people prepared to stand up and say 'I am a philanthropist'.

We have Li Ka-shing, of course, but we need people who step forward and challenge other people to give too.

In the past, people in the west like Bill Gates have been more comfortable talking about their philanthropy, while Asians have maybe seen it as boastful. It's important that they now step forward to build awareness.

We need a number of key families to throw down the gauntlet and help generate more humanitarian giving. Hong Kong and Asia will then be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and stake their claim as global philanthropists.