A new philanthropic group made out of entrepreneurs from mainland China brings the environmental issues to the forefront.
By ELEANOR YAP
A professional network of entrepreneurs from mainland China have come together under a grant-making foundation called World Future Foundation (WFF) to address environmental and social concerns. WFF believes that utilisation of the power of wealth combined with new tools, skills, methods or ideas in the non-profit sector are keys to solving worldwide environmental and social issues.
Founded by Dr Feng Lun, who has enjoyed success in the real-estate sector in China, his first-of-its kind organisation gives funding for research in Singapore. The organisation, which is based in Singapore, has a board of directors comprising of individuals from China and Singapore, as well as a consultative committee of professors from NUS and NTU including Professor Tan Thiam Soon, Professor Heng Chye Kiang and Professor Ng Wun Jern.
SALT Online sits down with Lu Bo, managing director of WFF, to find out more about the organisation, why it gives to Singapore and the environment concerns that WFF feels passionate about:
Can you explain why your Foundation focuses on environment issues?
We believe environmental issues are a serious concern today and there are no national boundaries for conducting research in this area. International collaboration is needed in order to solve environmental issues because one country cannot solve them alone. This is an important issue to our founder, Dr Feng, and something he has focused on in China, before coming to Singapore. He has set up a number of charitable foundations in the past eight years, with WFF being the only one outside China.
At the centre of our Foundation’s concern is the environment and sustainability research, mainly on natural and social environment. We have focused in the past heavily on the natural environment but this year, we are looking to get into new programmes dealing with the social area. In terms of natural environment, I am talking about climate change, usage of water, new energy and lifestyles in urban areas, while social environment, meaning policymaking, the relationships between individuals and society, and urban management. Both are important to humankind.
You are based in Singapore. Are you looking at having a base elsewhere or giving outside of Singapore?
We currently want to focus our efforts in Singapore and not other countries for the time being.
Can you explain WFF’s giving in Singapore?
Most people give money to the needy but that is only one aspect of charity. The other is innovation. In different countries, there are different priorities. For instance, in China, most donations are being allocated to education, poverty alleviation and disasters, while in the US, a more developed country, money goes to religion, education and healthcare.
We believe Singapore is a very good platform to develop research on environment and sustainability. For instance, our programme on the “PhD Prize in Environment and Sustainability Research” was set up three years ago in NUS and NTU where we give US$10,000 to each winning student for a total of 10 awards given for the best theses geared towards solving these issues. There is no nationality requirement, it is just academic. We help students from worldwide, with research benefitting people worldwide. We encourage them to come to Singapore and do research here so we are promoting Singapore as a national research hub.
Another programme that we have is the annual “Vertical City Asia” International Design Competition where we invite top students from 10 of the best architectural schools across the world (including NUS) to attend our event in Singapore every July.
Each of the schools sends two teams and we give them a real-life scenario in Asia where they need to use their skills and imagination to design a city and allocate 100,000 people in 1sq km. This problem of scarcity of land will continue to be a growing problem and we feel Asia is an emerging market and we want to introduce this market to the schools so they would consider helping to address this issue. In other words, they join the urban evolution; it is good for their future as well as good for Asia and its people.
These programmes highlight the fact that WFF is about more than simply giving money. We try to use the money we give to run programmes to inspire innovation from the younger generation, so together we can solve real worldwide problems.
Can you elaborate further on this growing problem?
The population in Asia is booming and our resources are limited. This conflict will not be resolved in the next 20 to 50 years. In China, with our one-child policy, our birth rates have been going down in the past 35 years, however, the general population is still increasing. Currently, it stands at 1.34 billion.
We want to encourage these students in the competition to see this reality. Without the competition, they would not see Asia but only US and Europe where there is a rich supply of land.
So why choose Singapore as your base?
Dr Feng already gives in China and he felt he wanted to do philanthropy abroad. We conducted research and paid visits to a number of regions including the US, Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore and more. We finally decided on Singapore because of a number of reasons including a stable Government, good transportation and social environment, and a world-class infrastructure. Besides this, in 2007, the Singapore Government wanted to develop Singapore as a regional philanthropic hub, and the country issued a series of policies to encourage NGOs to grow healthily. A lot of international NGOs have set up their bases in Singapore over the past years. With all this in mind, it was natural that we would choose Singapore for our base.
In setting up the Foundation, what challenges have you faced?
Before joining WFF, I had more than 15 years of experience working with international NGOs operating in China, but this is the first time I’m running a charitable foundation.
The first challenge is that China and Singapore are quite different from each other in terms of the stage of economic development, social and ethnic issues, legal environment, etc. Since we set up the Foundation in Singapore and decided to contribute to the society, I’ve had to learn more about the country and its people.
The second challenge is that we focus on environmental and sustainability research, but this kind of research often takes a long time, and is very difficult to be evaluated by quantitative measures. How to measure the outcome of our programmes and satisfy our donors are questions I think about every day.
How much money have you raised to date?
The amount raised or donated is not the most important index to evaluate a charitable foundation. I believe the most important thing is what the Foundation is actually doing and how it contributes to society, since it is always the foundations that are the pioneers of social innovation.
How many donors do you currently have?
Dr Feng is our major donor, but we have several others as well as a network of potential donors. Last March, we brought 23 Chinese private entrepreneurs into Singapore to look at how NGOs operate here. Many share Dr Feng’s vision of WFF so they are all potential donors to WFF.
We are the first charitable foundation in Singapore funded by mainland Chinese and we focus on environmental and sustainability research. We believe we are very different from other foundations.
You mentioned on your website that WFF follows “the latest trend in the development of global philanthropy and the only way to settle complicated social and environmental issues”. Can you explain?
Rich people give to the poor – it was like this in the past. Now, with environmental and social problems becoming more complex, the rich giving to the poor is not enough to solve the problems. We believe three key things are important. One is rich people – or what we call “power of wealth”, another is the non-profit sector and the last being new technology. Only if we collaborate with all these three factors, can we solve the realities and the challenges.