Living largesse

A little planning can ensure that philanthropists make the best of their donations, says Tiffany Ap

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 December, 2012, 11:59am

The holiday season invariably brings giving to the mind but with it comes a bewildering tangle of questions of how best to donate.

Frequently, good intentions stall because it is so easy to feel overwhelmed. How can I decide which cause is more deserving? Which charity should I donate to? And importantly, how can I make sure the money I give isn’t pocketed by sham organisations?

Edwin Lee,  philanthropy adviser at WiseGiving,  an umbrella organisation for charities and part of the Hong Kong Council of Social Services,  says many people prefer quick, hassle-free donations, which is completely fine.

He suggests going through well-respected organisations such as Community Chest, which acts as a trustee of the donors by making sure funds are used prudently, or Operation Santa Claus, an annual charity campaign organised by the  Post and RTHK benefiting 16 groups. WiseGiving also keeps a list of 229 charities the group has vetted on their website.

Tina Chan, executive director of the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation,  which is devoted to early childhood literacy and education programmes, advises “not to act on impulse or purely because you see an advertisement or visual image”.

“It’s good to research the organisation,” she says. “Think about the interests you have and start from there.”

Donors who want to be more thoughtful in their philanthropy should take the time to get to know more about a charity’s mission and services. They should also look at the group’s financial documents to ensure that funds are maximised to serve the intended beneficiaries.

That being said, donors should also recognise that some degree of administration expense is inevitable. Lee says he’s noticed an overemphasis of scrutiny on administration costs. They should be moderate but it’s not necessarily the lower the better.

“As an example, a lot of staff training contributes to the ongoing sustainability of the organisation and that should be encouraged. Some organisations are also taking on research departments to try to understand whether their services are having the desired effect on their beneficiaries. That is all administration,” Lee says.

Chan says as a ballpark figure, administration should not cost more than 20 per cent of the charity’s total expenditure. “If the service is more labour-oriented, of course it varies from organisation to organisation.”

Interested benefactors should also check whether the charity they’re giving to is tax-deductible  as individuals can claim a  deduction for the aggregate of approved charitable donation up  to 35 per cent of the assessable income on their salaries tax. A roster  of all eligible charities is listed  on the Inland Revenue Department’s website.

Although these charities are  tax-exempt, the public should  know it is not a government guarantee of sound charitable practices. Non-profits in Hong Kong go essentially unregulated. As Lee points out, there are 7,000 organisations listed and there are bound to be bad apples.

The IRD’s initial assessment is not rigorous and the government does very little follow up and monitoring. “Every five or six years, the government will randomly select some organisations listed [for tax-exempt status] to perform a cursory questionnaire audit,” he says.

Philanthropy, at its best, is personal and should reflect what the donor values. “Donors really need to think about what they want to achieve, and then think about how they can give not just give money but expertise,” Lee says.

“A lot of the donors I work with are businesses that can line up resources which are often more valuable than the money itself.”


Love thy neighbour – a how-to guide

So what practical steps should one take for philanthropy? There are a lot of charities available, and many ways to give.

Lee of WiseGiving offers this step-by-step process on how to donate wisely:

1. Start with a cause.  “People generally start with ‘Which organisation?’ We advise to start with a cause, even for smaller dollar donations as there are so many causes that are worthwhile. It really depends on the donor’s particular values.”
2. Next, choose an organisation. “Google it. Depending on the donation amount and how much time you want to spend, you may want to approach neutral parties like think tanks and academics.”
3. Visit the charity. “Especially if you’re donating locally, pay the organisation a visit. You can act as a mystery shopper to see what level of services they provide or go directly to them and say you’re looking to donate.”
4. Ask to see financial statements.  “It’s a standard requirement of governments abroad. The Hong Kong government doesn’t require it but you can request it yourself. It’s not unreasonable to ask for it. Be wary of organisations that are not transparent.”


Charities for all causes

Amnesty International Hong Kong

Amnesty International works to end abuses of human rights, including forced evictions, infringement on freedom of expression, sexual and racial discrimination. This global organisation was founded in Britain in 1961, and has since expanded to over three million members in more than 150 countries.


The official social service agency of the Roman Catholic Church in Hong Kong, Caritas provides services including education, medical care and community development, with an emphasis on helping beneficiaries become self-reliant.

Feeding Hong Kong

A Hong Kong food bank dedicated to fighting hunger and reducing the amount of quality food being sent to the city's landfills. It redistributes good quality surplus food to thousands of people in need each day. It raises awareness about food insecurity, promotes healthy eating habits and gives nutritional education to the vulnerable in the community.

Friends of the Earth

Friends of the Earth, founded in the US in 1969, is a environmental advocacy group. Since 1983, it has lobbied against air and light pollution, excess energy and water consumption, while monitoring the government's environmental performance. It runs a recycling programme that collects second-hand clothes, electronic devices, foam drinking cups, packaging peanuts and CD cases.

Hong Kong Dog Rescue

Sally Andersen set up Hong Kong Dog Rescue to save abandoned dogs from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department kennels, which, due to overcrowding, were euthanising many animals a few days after receiving them. HKDR rescues and rehabilitates abandoned dogs (many have behavioural problems as a result of being abandoned). The dogs stay at centres in Tai Po and Ap Lei Chau, where they are given daily walks, food, vaccinations and medical care until they can find a new home.


Domestic helpers who become pregnant often have their contracts unlawfully terminated by their employers, leading many to overstay visas and become undocumented. Their children experience significant hardship. Over the past four years, PathFinders has supported these mothers, helping over 1,200 pregnant women to obtain birth certificates, medical treatment and counselling, and providing necessities.

Po Leung Kuk

Po Leung Kuk goes back to the late 19th century, when the trafficking of women and children was prevalent in Hong Kong. It was set up to help rescue these victims, often girls or young women sold by families. The needs of the community have shifted and it now focuses on childcare, youth education and elderly care. It also runs an accredited adoption agency.

Society for Community Organisation

As Hong Kong's rich-poor gap widens and the population ages, Soco has stepped up to provide social services for the poor and elderly. The focus is on eliminating inadequate housing such as cage homes, rooftop flats, and cubicle apartments.


Correction: an earlier version of the story incorrectly referred to Feeding Hong Kong as "the only food bank in Hong Kong."  We corrected the story by removing that reference on December 24, 2012.