Although fundraising opportunities abound, nonprofits keen to expand into Asia need to know doing so cannot be taken lightly says Megan Mulia from Asialink Business.
Asia will remain the engine for global growth as the 21st century unfolds. Not only has this growth produced a flourishing middle class, it has also given rise to a growing number of Asian philanthropists who are keen to play a bigger role in Asia’s progress.
It’s no surprise then that nonprofits are increasingly looking to Asia for opportunities to expand their fundraising activities. And there’s no reason why
nonprofits that seek to do so cannot extend their reach into Asia. They do, however, need to be alert to a few key messages.
Consider the Fred Hollows Foundation (see image), which has been helping restore the sight of people all over the world for more than 20 years.
Five years ago, it decided it didn’t just want to train surgeons to perform eye operations in the countries in which it operates: it wanted to strengthen health systems in countries around the globe with the ultimate aim of ending avoidable blindness altogether.
As part of its broadening focus, the Foundation opened an office in Hong Kong. Unlike its other operations in Asia, this office was dedicated not to its practical eye health programs but to fundraising and broader engagement.
From here it engages with governments in the region and works with ministries of health and other nonprofits to influence governments to dedicate funds, practices and programs to eye health. In essence, the Foundation is showing governments how best practice eye health programs should be delivered.
The move to Hong Kong came with its own challenges, and the Foundation learned some valuable lessons in how to expand into the Asian region. Here are some ideas worth considering:
Use your Australian reputation and connections
The Fred Hollows Foundation built on its strong links with the Australian government by establishing relationships with Australian diplomatic missions in Asia to secure top-level support for its goals.
With 100,000 Australians based in Hong Kong, it also drew on the expat community for support. Such people understand the dynamics of the country and can help navigate challenges.
The Foundation’s reputation for creating people-to-people exchange between Australia and other countries was also a bonus. This reputation helped secure an offer of support from Goodman Property in Hong Kong, which provided office space and financial backing to help the Foundation.
For Goodman, being able to demonstrate to its stakeholders that it had a strong corporate social responsibility partner with a record of success and its own Chinese connections was a plus.
Work more closely with indigenous partners
Andrews Fulda, Assistant Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, UK, suggests adopting a strategy of ‘smart indigenisation’. This means providing grants to allow, say, Chinese partners to drive projects and programs, thereby ensuring Chinese ownership and sustainability initiatives. He points out that Chinese problems must ultimately be solved primarily by Chinese people drawing on Chinese resources.
Adapt to local culture
The Fred Hollows Foundation did a lot of research, studying competitors in Asia and understanding local nonprofits. It market tested its messaging with the help of a branding agency in Hong Kong to make sure all its materials were culturally appropriate to the local market.
It also adopted a traditional Chinese name that translates as ‘decisive action to restore sight’, a crucial step in engaging audiences unfamiliar with Professor Fred Hollows.
The Foundation’s Director of Public Affairs, Nick Martin, says staff benefited from taking part in an Asialink Leaders Program, which helped to manage local staff more effectively and in a culturally appropriate way. Asialink Business has a mandate from the Australian Federal Government to develop an Asia-capable workforce by offering access to courses and expertise.
The Foundation also recruited staff who had worked in the nonprofit sector and who understood Hong Kong, its people and their philanthropic behaviour. Using local staff to build local expertise gives the impression that the organisation is not just there for the short term.
Staff were encouraged to do things differently, so the Hong Kong office behaved more like a start-up, says Martin. They were given the green light to be creative, flexible and dynamic and not constrained by usual internal practices. This meant allowing a standalone team to create a slightly different culture for how it operated without distracting other staff from the core business.
Be prepared for different challenges
Moving into a new market may throw up unexpected issues and costs that an organisation does not face at home. Such costs may relate to branding, registration processes or banking. And if a provider is not prepared to offer a discounted rate for nonprofits, these costs can mount, so it’s important to factor them in from the outset.
Doing more with less is a given for many organisations these days but paying for expert local advice on registration requirements or the vagaries of the international banking system may be worthwhile.
“As a small not-for-profit in this landscape it’s very costly to actually buy in that expertise. You’re using the same lawyers that a corporate would,” says Martin.
“Those upfront costs are really, really difficult and it means you have to adjust your pace around multiple markets, for example doing one and doing it well then looking at a second and a third rather than potentially getting the benefit of going all at once.”
The international banking system was also difficult to navigate, he says. The Foundation wanted to raise funds closer to the countries in which it was operating and that involved being linked to a major banking partner. On this front, the Foundation chose out seek out and pay for expert banking advice.
Avoid using high-pressure marketing tactics
Rushing into this dynamic region using high-pressure marketing tactics to raise the profile of your nonprofit could be a mistake.
When aggressive fundraising activities came under intense scrutiny in Britain after the death of a charity worker in May 2015, it sparked a wide-ranging debate around organisations whose public image of fundraising activities had become dominated by their aggressive tactics, rather than their ends. When charities use the same marketing methods as makers of fizzy drinks and fashionable trainers, they become seen as brands selling to us like any other, wrote commentator Julian Baggini in The Guardian.
In light of such debate, nonprofits hoping to move into Asia would do well to find other ways to raise funds. This is all the more pertinent in an environment where international nonprofits might face increasing restrictions. A new law that came into effect in China at the beginning of this year, for example, seeks to regulate and restrict international nonprofits that work there.
Megan is Director of Research and Information at Asialink Business, Australia’s National Centre for Asia Capability. Visit asialinkbusiness.com.au.