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Launch Issue
Giving Magazine
When West Meets East
by Wangsheng Li
President of Hong Kong’s ZeShan Foundation speaks out.

When I heard Asia being described by Western observers as “philanthropy’s new frontier,” I cringed.

I couldn’t help but wonder how easy it was for otherwise intelligent and well-meaning commentators to overlook the long-standing tradition of charitable giving in Asian societies. Is it mere ignorance or a backward missionary mindset at work? A lack of cultural sensitivity? This calls to mind the lukewarm reception that the push for the Giving Pledge initiative received in Asia.

The conventional thinking is that organized philanthropy (as opposed to charitable deeds that respond to specific situations, without a formal structure) is an invention of Western civilization. Historians and academics may have fun debating that. However, that view has had a profound influence on both Euro-American philanthropy professionals and their counterparts in the rest of the world when it comes to the advancement of philanthropy.

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As an Asian who was educated in the West and honed his philanthropic skills in the US, I draw a distinction between localization and indigenization in the context of advancement of philanthropy. The former places emphasis squarely on developing locale-specific knowledge to promote leadership and professional pipelines for the local philanthropic sector; the latter aspires to transplant well-established theories and practices to a setting that is foreign, be it geographically or culturally.

That is not to dismiss or undervalue the enormous body of knowledge and skills our Western counterparts have developed and perfected over the years. On the contrary, they have priceless instructive value that can inspire and provoke.

In the past half-century or so, we have witnessed a remarkable transition of missionary-driven charitable endeavors in the post-colonial era to mandate-guided institutionalized philanthropy. If charity is a natural product of human civilization, the practice of institutionalized philanthropy is an inevitable result of a (maturing) civil society. Philanthropy with “Asian characteristics” is playing an important transformational role in social development and political reform. While our Western counterparts relish “strategic philanthropy,” I’m chewing on “catalytic philanthropy.”

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