In 2009, when Annie began exploring areas where she would like to provide grant funding, she did not start with a Total Portfolio Management lens, but instead saw philanthropy as a separate vehicle through which she could make a positive impact on the world. The initial phase of RS Group’s philanthropic journey was more akin to a learning experience than an effort to implement a specific strategic vision, as Annie wanted to use the opportunity of giving to learn and to experiment. As a result, much of the grant portfolio’s early commitments were formed organically or opportunistically, based on a set of values and interests rather than on a clear and focused mission and vision.
Our First Major Grants
Annie’s desire to promote public interest law and the “rule of law” stemmed from her background as a lawyer. A chance connection with a fellow Columbia Law School graduate who founded a public interest law NGO, and an insightful talk on the importance of land rights in advancing the economic well-being of poor farmers in developing countries, led to two of RS Group’s early large grants. These were PILnet (formerly known as PILI), an organization advocating for the practice and support of public interest law and pro-bono legal services, and Landesa (formerly known as the Rural Development Institute), which works to increase farmers’ access to land rights in rural China, India, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
These were followed by a grant to the United Nations World Food Program’s school feeding program in Bhutan, which was an opportunity to not only support an important program and an innovative approach to aid, but also to learn more about Bhutan’s unique approach to economic and social progress, encapsulated in their concept of “Gross National Happiness”. These three grants, made in the first two years of our journey, and which all involved multi-year funding, make up more than 50% of our annual philanthropic budget today.
Giving Back Strategically
At the same time, Annie was asked to be a donor to her alma maters, Brown University and Columbia Law School. While she wanted to support the schools, she knew from the outset that providing a traditional endowment to the universities would not be the right fit for her. By taking the time to have thoughtful conversations with these institutions, she was able to develop grant ideas that fulfill the objectives of both RS Group and the two schools. RS Group’s support for Brown’s Social Innovation Initiative grew out of a desire to support Brown and to encourage the university to build a stronger culture of social innovation and social entrepreneurship within the student body and the faculty. The creation of a Greater China Public Interest Fellowship at Columbia Law School combines RS Group’s support for the school with our belief in the importance of using the law not only to protect private interests, but also to protect fundamental human rights, promote issues of public concern, and to encourage graduates to explore public interest law as a career.
Closer to home, Annie also began to identify with the concept of social entrepreneurship, which she felt had the potential to unlock substantial private capital as well as human talent to address society’s many problems and challenges. Consequently, RS Group began to support the development of the social enterprise sector within Hong Kong, becoming a long-term supporter of Social Ventures Hong Kong (SVhk), and also sponsoring a variety of public events and research projects aimed at growing the sector.
As our portfolio matured and we had to not only consider new grants but also grant renewals, we started to look at our portfolio more strategically and to consider developing a more thematic focus for our philanthropy. This also coincided with our formal adoption of the Total Portfolio Management Approach, which pushed us to examine how our grants are positioned in relation to each other and within the whole portfolio, and how they can inform and create better synergy with other commitments in the portfolio.
As we continued to develop and refine our philanthropic focus together with the rest of our portfolio, sustainability gradually became our central theme, as we came to realize that environmental and social sustainability underpin all of the goals we want to achieve. However, we are also aware that we lacked in-house knowledge and expertise on environmental issues. Consequently, we felt the best way forward was to learn from a partner with more experience, and in 2013 entered into a partnership with ADM Capital Foundation (ADMCF), with whom we felt aligned in our overall strategic approach towards environmental issues. By leveraging on ADMCF’s experience and knowledge, we were able to expose ourselves to a broad scope of environmental issues. To date, we have supported a number of environmental initiatives together, including Clean Air Network, China Water Risk, and marine conservation initiatives.
At the center of RS Group’s beliefs is the idea that, as a society, we need to realign our priorities, putting a balanced and sustainable future for all above financial growth, particularly the kind of growth that ends up benefiting only a few. This core belief and the sustainability lens we now use have helped us to become more “disciplined” in building our portfolio strategically, as we evaluate our existing grants and new requests based on how they can address our priorities and focus areas across our portfolio, while generating the most impact.