Armaan Dobberstein, Sumitra Pasupathy

And other insights from Asian social entrepreneurs and philanthropists

Over the last 20 years, Asia has rapidly grown — and personal wealth has seen a 30% net increase in the region. Asia has more ultra-high net worth individuals than any other continent.

Now a powerful force, Asian philanthropy is at a turning point. In recent years we have seen organizations and individuals, such as Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, adopting a new mindset — embracing failure as an inevitable part of learning and growing. They are creating spaces of experimentation and new fields of work.

With exponentially growing populations and increasing societal issues, it’s more critical than ever that Asian philanthropists lead the way to address social and environmental issues. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated how systemic issues — from health to education to the environment — are interconnected, and the need for innovative approaches to solve them.

Ashoka recently hosted The Changemaker Leadership Series in Asia: conversations where we collectively sought insights from pattern-changing Ashoka Fellows alongside high-impact business and philanthropic leaders. These leaders met at “eye-level” with humility and curiosity to talk about how we can together advance change at the systemic level. Here are our main takeaways for the future of philanthropy.

Introducing “thinking-money”

In order to make solutions that are both accessible and scalable, we need people from different sectors and walks of life to think together. Ashoka Fellow Harish Hande — founder of SELCO — an Indian social entrepreneur transforming access to solar powered energy, believes philanthropic capital could and should be used to create spaces for these “system thinkers.” He even coined a term for this: “thinking-money.”

“Thinking money” describes funds used for creating spaces that allow social entrepreneurs the freedom to collaborate, experiment and fail while designing innovations that will eventually shift systems.

“Philanthropy must support the creation of better intellectual infrastructure,” Rohini Nilekani says. “Invest in think-tanks and academic institutions that are designing for long-term cooperation across sectors.”

Accepting failure to achieve scalability

One realisation is clear: as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic we need to focus on funding solutions that will be accessible for large populations.

“We need to turn our preconceived ideas of scaling upside down,” Rohini says. Rather than starting small, then building up, she advocates for solutions that are designed to be systemic from the start. “You have to think about how am I going to solve this problem for 1.3 billion people and then work backwards”.

How do we find these ideas? Harnessing the power of many through open-sourcing and co-creating. That can lead to solutions that work for more people. And it’s why working with systems-changing social entrepreneurs matters.

“In order to create transformational value, funders must adopt the mindset of venture capitalists and provide sufficient risk capital to enable experimentation and innovation for systemic change”, says R Sriram, Trustee of the non-profits Pratham Books and SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action). If funders adjust their risk tolerance upward, and place bigger bets on proven social entrepreneurs, they could achieve far more impact.

“This mindset to support bold, innovative, and game-changing initiatives with risk and growth capital will make a world of difference to humanity at large, and for generations to come.”

Philanthropy must be daring and patient

Designing systemic solutions is no simple task. It takes a great amount of time, resources and access to capital to grow. To implement these solutions in Asia, philanthropists must be both daring and patient with their “thinking-money” and funding, accepting failure in order to learn.

“Philanthropy should focus on offering patient, long-term capital that supports the unproven, early- stage high-risk/high-rewards interventions and organisations that other funders, e.g., government agencies may struggle to fund.” Laurence Lien, co-Founder of Asia Philanthropy Circle writes.

As Kathlyn Tan, Director at Rumah Foundation puts it: “We need to fail and we need to learn and take risks and we need to act regardless of what we have to give whether it is time, money, relationships, because all of it is needed.”

To sum it up

Philanthropy needs to go beyond simple transactional relationships and shift towards a transformational approach.

Philanthropy should push for increased interconnectedness between all social actors that shifts powers and flattens hierarchies; yet provides for innovative breakthroughs, systems change and new mindsets. It is built on the premise of trust, empathy and deeper connection from our inner worlds (of shadows and fears) to take bold new leadership strides as a collaborative team in this world of change.


The contributors to the insights are Harish Hande (SELCO), R.Sriram (Pratham Books/SNEHA), Kathlyn Tan (Rumah Group), Rohini Nilekani (Nilekani Philanthropies) and Laurence Lien (Lien Foundation).

Follow @Harish Hande and @R.Sriram on Twitter and Linkedin.

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