National Conference Speaker: Naina Subberwal Batra

When there is no better time than now

After a tumultuous global 12 months, the thoughts of planning for a future made more complex by a pandemic’s deep economic impact can lead to an urgent alternative - to act now. Naina Subberwal Batra, chairperson and CEO Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, certainly thinks that there are opportunities to make a difference right now.

“This is the time to stand up and be counted,’’ she says. “No matter what sector, [or] geography you’re working in, I think now is the time if you really want to make scale impact, now’s the time to do it.’’

Naina, who will be a keynote speaker at Philanthropy Australia’s conference Future Needs Now in April, leads an organisation of more than 600 members, operating in 16 markets across the Asia-Pacific region.  

The Singapore-based funders network takes a multi-sector approach to boosting social investment across the region.

It is, by any measure, a diverse setting for philanthropy, where much of the giving emanates from the “family office’’ of businesses and is often conducted privately. And all of this happens in a region of growing wealth, with an attendant increase in income inequality, and the prevalence of natural disasters that wreak their own havoc.

“Across large parts of Asia there is a strong culture of giving,’’ Naina says. “I don’t think that is something that’s new. I think it’s been there forever. Asians give for a variety of reasons, whether they be religious, or be social. I think what is different from a lot of the West is that the giving is largely discrete - it’s kept quiet, which is why we don’t see many of the bigger gifts kind of public hoo-ha that’s made across many other places.’’

 “On the flipside, I feel there is also a tendency in some of the Asian countries where it’s seen, giving is something that I do personally, it’s not necessary to solve these big social problems – that is the still the role of the government and the state.’’

Naina explains that giving in the region has grown significantly in the past year, encouraged in part by the lack of public discussion and exposure of the contributions from high-net worth individuals. The downside, however, is a lack of collaboration. “Collaborative or pooled giving can lead to a certain number of advantages in terms of scaling up and the impact but also in terms of learning from others who may have worked in that particular sector of geography before, so collaboration doesn’t happen as easily because people are working in these little silos and not really talking about it,’’ she says. Such a private approach to giving also means there are fewer identifiable role models to inspire others to give.

But there is no doubt that global circumstances have sharpened the need to act quickly, especially given the pandemic’s impact on giving. Many organisations’ plans and strategies – the broader pieces of systems change work – were halted because of COVID-19. The challenge is now trying to operate and plan ahead in a radically different landscape.

“I do believe a lot of organisations, a lot funders – and you can’t really blame them – stopped because no one really anticipated the scale of the pandemic,’’ Naina says. “So people thought OK the next three months I’m really just going to focus on frontline healthcare workers, PPE equipment, this kind of stuff, and I’ll go back to business as usual. I don’t think anyone anticipated the long tail of the pandemic, which is still pretty much there. We are finding slowly that other issues are coming back to the table, especially in Asia and I think [it] is better off than our counterparts in the Europe and the US. But it’s slow…we can’t deny that we have lost a lot of really good organisations that have basically not survived the pandemic and the work that they have done and the work they were doing needs to continue. And I think part of what networks like ours need to do is to highlight those areas, which have seen a fall in funding but are crucial.’’

As Naina explains, the arrival of a vaccine helps, but it will not solve every problem.

 “There is no vaccine for climate change. There is no real vaccine for marginalised or economically deprived people, so we need to keep thinking about and keep highlighting that these are urgent issues that cannot be ignored,’’ she says. “So I think part of it is really looking at what is it that has come to light because of the pandemic and how can you use that to somehow address existing needs and bring in a systems change perspective, while you’re not looking at the short term. It’s not easy – you still have to juggle multiple balls but we can’t take eyes off any one these.’’

The international economic consequence of the pandemic has put extreme pressure on government budgets. In Asia, like everywhere else, governments that might have had money earmarked for social expenditure have had to re-allocate it. Corporate giving from strapped businesses has slowed. Governments, however, have still looked to philanthropy to help fill the funding gap. And the quest to find other kinds of philanthropy is growing.  “And that’s where we have to be very clear and very vocal in the fact that these are urgent needs, as urgent as us trying to track how many lives are being lost to COVID and sometimes, these are much more urgent than the pandemic,’’ Naina says.

One of the emerging discussions in Asia has been the next generation of Asian families who are exploring different ways to conduct their philanthropy. “Now there has been a bit of change where we are seeing a large growth in what we like to call the family office,’’ Naina says.  “There’s also a lot of interest in seeing how much of that family office wealth is going towards social impact. I think now there’s this big discussion on whether this is going to be spent in terms of philanthropic expenditure - is it all going to go towards something more like impact investing or sustainable investing?’’

For Naina, more traditional giving is still required to meet the unmet need across the region.

“I think that’s where philanthropy in Asia is very relevant… yes, we are looking at different types of instruments – we’re looking at pay for performance, we’re looking at investment instruments, we’re looking at social impact bonds, we’re looking at impact investment funds, we’re looking at catalytic types of structures. But pure and simple grant making and philanthropy is not going to go away in a hurry.’’

Book your spot for the Philanthropy Australia National Conference 2021: what does the future need from us, now?  Click here to register.

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