updated 23 Jul 2012, 07:27
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Wed, Jul 11, 2012
The Business Times
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Women taking on larger role in philanthropy
by Timothy Loh

Women in Asia are starting to have a big say in philanthropy - and this is tipped to change the way the business of giving is conducted.

According to a study of the rich by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in the United States last year, women in 90 per cent of the cases are the only ones, or the co- partners, who decide where money is going for charity causes.

Maya Prabhu, executive director of philanthropy services at Coutts - the United Kingdom-based private bank famous for its British royalty and wealthy pop star clients - sees the trend starting to take root in Asia and many other parts of the world.

One indicator of the shift is the presence of young women from the conservative Middle East in Coutts' Future Leaders programme, she says.

Coutts Private Office head Duncan MacIntyre agrees, pointing out that the emerging trend is hardly noticed: "We believe people have overlooked the role of women and the critical role they play in the wealth population."

Which is why Coutts has, over the past four years, hosted women's forums in the UK and in Asia.

There is also a Coutts Network in Singapore and Hong Kong that conducts special courses and talks for women on subjects like self-development and balancing work and family.

One force driving women to play a bigger role in philanthropy is perhaps education. With women becoming more educated, they are turning into leaders in business - and successful and wealthy in their own right.

In Asia, where many families have only daughters, "there's a real sense of 'our daughters can play a leading role in (the family business)'", Ms Prabhu says. "A lot of young women are now educated in the West as well - education that's equal to (that of) their brothers."

She says the rising visibility of women in philanthropy is not so much because women are doing more, but because of "greater formalisation" of philanthropy in recent years with more people setting up "family foundations and other vehicles that give a more formal feel to philanthropy".

"The motivations for philanthropy - (preserving) family values, preparing the next generation (to handle wealth) - these are very natural roles that women play in the family anyway," Ms Prabhu says. "The person who signed the cheque and presented it to the organisation may have been the male members of the family - but women played a key role in influencing those decisions and in generating the values that spurred the decision to give."

Women have also become more confident, and this has pushed them to step forward to talk about their work - and to get recognised, according to her. This also helps to move forward the role of women in philanthropy.

Since Ms Prabhu joined Coutts in 2008, she has also noticed a marked difference in how men and women approach philanthropy.

For one thing, women tend to be more cooperative in giving.

"They want to hear from others and work with others - there's a much stronger sense of collaboration," she says.

Another difference she notices is that women approach philanthropy in a stronger spirit of learning than men do.

"When women get together and they want to talk about philanthropy, it's very much in 'learning mode'," Ms Prabhu says.

She adds that "women are more tentative about the sum of money involved until they feel they've done a load of research. So they will be very careful and thoughtful about doing that kind of research before they get to that decision (of giving)" - unlike men, who tend to "take much bigger and bolder decisions" with regard to philanthropy.

But Ms Prabhu is quick to caution that "there's no one right way" to do philanthropy, and that she is not suggesting that women do it better than men.

"It's just to say there are different ways of doing it and women do adopt a slightly different approach," she says.

Still, women's approach to philanthropy offers useful lessons - and Ms Prabhu predicts that these will have a positive bearing on the direction that philanthropy takes in the future.

"You will see much greater collaboration between philanthropists," she says.

"They'll be looking for ways to collaborate more, which strengthens the field - because better work can be done and there's a stronger ethos towards that."

Ms Prabhu also foresees that the caution with which women approach philanthropy will cause "strategic and thoughtful philanthropy" to take deeper root in the region.

While that's not to say men give without much thought, Ms Prabhu sees due diligence as a "defining characteristic" of women in philanthropy.

Strategic philanthropy, a relatively new trend, can be seen as a form of impact investing where more thought is given to the larger context of the work philanthropists support.

Philanthropists first research the issue they intend to support before they decide on the resources to give, whether in the form of grants or investments.

Strategic philanthropists see their work as a learning process and will change their strategies according to how the organisations they are supporting perform.

Coutts says philanthropy is part of its legacy.

Angela Burdett-Coutts, grand-daughter of founder Thomas Coutts, was "one of the greatest Victorian philanthropists", according to Ms Prabhu.

Over the course of her life, she set up the Urania Cottage (a home for prostitutes), supported the Brompton Cancer Hospital (now the Royal Marsden Hospital) and gave away more than £3 million to various charitable causes, among various things.

"This is an extraordinary legacy for us of a woman philanthropist. That's why, as a bank, philanthropy is in our DNA," says Ms Prabhu.

This article was first published in The Business Times

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