This month, we are excited to share a conversation between EMpower President & CEO Cynthia Steele and Ben Hall, EMpower Hong Kong Board Director (former Chair) and Managing Director of KKR & Co. Inc. They talk about his experiences visiting EMpower grantee partners and why he’s such a staunch supporter and champion of the organisation.
You engaged not very long after EMpower started in Hong Kong. What is it that attracted you to the model?
It was a real confluence of events. The right timing for me to do something. Also, an organisation like EMpower was something I was looking to get behind, for a few reasons. The first, the idea of giving back to communities that we have lived and worked in, was a powerful driver for me. Secondly, having lived and worked in Asia for a long time and having traveled extensively, you become acutely aware of the inequality of opportunity in these markets and EMpower was a great channel to be able to do something about that. When I studied the EMpower model, the idea of working with grassroots organisations, and bringing resources, capability, best practices, the power of the network and funding to their communities for them to get even better at what they do.
In addition, the network of EMpower is a really unique and special characteristic. I was initially introduced to EMpower by Maddy Foo, who is a very passionate supporter and board member in Hong Kong. Maddy said she connected with EMpower on a very personal level. She motivated me around giving back to an organisation and the linkage with EMpower, but more importantly, recognising the luck we have had in our careers and channeling it back into doing something about these causes. Working with other professionals in Hong Kong and Singapore that I have known well throughout my career was another real highlight of involvement within EMpower. I will just say that the global connectivity of the organisation—it’s really powerful to pick up the phone to call a board colleague in London or New York. And a number of occasions pre-COVID, when I was in those locations or in Hong Kong, it was great to see that those people in other locations or other parts of the world, and how everyone was very attracted to and motivated to help drive and support EMpower’s course.
Fantastic. Because of your long tenure, you have seen EMpower through a lot of transitions, and ups and downs. What strikes you about its evolution?
Going back to your earlier question as well, there are a lot of worthwhile causes and needs out there and a lot of organisations out there that come to you about funding. When I was looking to get involved in an organisation, I was looking to do something beyond that. An organisation to contribute funding, but also to really help the organisation grow, develop, thrive. And I would say that the story of evolution in Hong Kong of an organisation that started off initially doing retail fundraising amongst friends and family. I think that the first fundraiser that I went to at EMpower just had one staff member, who was a pretty new joiner. Soon after I joined the Board, and having seen the organisations we were supporting in these local markets, and EMpower’s strategy and the capability of the team, saw potential for so much more. So, under Neil Harvey’s leadership, the Hong Kong Board and the EMpower team put our minds together and worked to chart a strategy for the future of EMpower in Asia.
We saw the potential of EMpower giving a lot more dollars in grants, and were really keen to make sure the organisation developed along with that: the staffing, the resources, the capability to be really strategic about allocating those funds, and to be good storytellers of the impact of the work. A key aspect was to maintain high levels of governance and accountability. We have had the benefit of attracting some really high-quality board members not just for Asia but globally—over the last few years and particularly with the support of Aleem Jivraj, Aasha Pai, Ben Falloon, Steve Glynn, Sandeep Gupta, Kirk Alexander, Stephen Chang, EG Morse, Richard Johnston, Ross Jennings, Nick and Jessica Koh and others. We shifted to thinking into how EMpower can develop a sustainable footing. It’s what led us to commissioning the Oliver Wyman report a few years ago and to looking at the opportunities in the market. We wanted to make sure we’re not just attracting funds at our annual event, but were able to speak to corporate and foundations, talk to people about multiyear giving and more strategic giving around countries, in order to help EMpower last long after the involvement with the individuals that were involved at each particular point in time.
That’s great. I think you may hold the record for the board member who has visited the most grantee partners. Through those different visits and conversations, what did you learn about the local charities that work in high poverty settings in Asia?
Visiting grantees was something that I wanted to do from a very early stage in my involvement. At the first EMpower event that I went to, there was an option to bid on a trip to Vietnam to go and visit KOTO. I ended up getting up and winning that at the auction—little did I know, that would start a decade-long journey with EMpower. I use that as a way to highlight that there is no better way to form a connection with an organisation and to reinforce your commitment to what you were doing than spending time with people that you’re helping.
I’ve been lucky to visit grantees in Hong Kong, in the Philippines, in Vietnam on a couple of occasions, in Indonesia. That’s always been a really rewarding experience because not only do you see the good work that EMpower does, you also see the committed involvement of the local partners and the difference EMpower’s work makes in the lives of individuals and communities. Being in Indonesia soon after EMpower did a sexual and reproductive health workshop with a bunch of grantee partners in Asia…People were almost moved to tears based on the opportunities that we gave them to come together, exchange, and interact with peers. That was something really powerful. Programme implementation goes well beyond dollars and that really highlighted the importance of what EMpower was doing.
I’ve learned obviously that all help is good help in the sense that these organisations are very resource-constrained and don’t have multiyear funding cycles; their budgets may be year to year or quarter to quarter. Another thing I learned in Asia, is that, without the benefit of multiyear grants or reserves, programme implantation is one natural disaster away from being completely rewritten. EMpower’s multiyear commitments are significant and EMpower doubles down to support our partners in a time of crisis. The third thing I’ve learned is that EMpower isn’t just about funding, it’s about learning and knowledge transfer. Taking the best learnings from programmes in South America, Africa, or other parts of Asia, and translating those lessons into digestible aspects of programme design. It’s also around investing in the organisations themselves. I think that it’s a rare thing because a lot of money gets invested in programs and the organization and its people often gets forgotten. It resonated with me how EMpower thinks about the sustainability of the other organisations. Investing in their program implementation, their governance, their leadership, their fundraising resources—all important so that organisations can thrive and survive long after the EMpower’s grant dollars are done.
During visits, you also meet young people. Without asking you to overgeneralize, have these contacts given you insights about their lived realities in our grantmaking countries?
I think back to the Philippines, when we went and visited ZOTO and the slum communities down by the river, where a number of EMpower supporters have gone over the years, you can’t help but be impacted by what you see, the living conditions. To go back to my early days in Asia, what struck me was that it didn’t make sense that people are deprived of the opportunity to improve their lives in any way they could possibly want to. Some people aspire to run a small business, some to get into a trade, some to take a course in IT, some people to become an accountant, some to go to university, whatever it is. What EMpower is doing with young people in these organisations was saying “Hey, you are as much of a person as anyone else, you deserve to be safe, you deserve to be able to afford nutrition, to have access to education that will open your eyes to possibilities for a young person in your community, and provide inspiration, guidance, and a pathway.” We are not all from the same background but opportunity is something that should exist worldwide. EMpower and the organisations we work with are really providing that in these communities day to day and that’s a powerful thing.
I completely agree.
Another story is from Vietnam, spending some time with my good friend Jimmy, Founder of KOTO. As we know, KOTO works with kids on the streets, giving them hospitality training and teaching them there is a future. This was a Saturday afternoon and we were just going on a walk down by the river in Hoi An and staff were literally coming out from restaurants and running to shake Jimmy’s hands. They were cooks, servers, and restaurant managers, who had all had their lives changed for the better by having been through the KOTO programme. They were earning an income to be able to provide for their family, have a better living accommodation and a sense of security for themselves. It was a really powerful demonstration of what EMpower is doing—working with partners, equipping and empowering individuals in a way that has a long-term payback within these communities over a long period of time: impact for the individual, the family, and the community, creating a multiplier effect on a much wider scale over a period of time.
That’s so beautifully put, and it also speaks to the fact that the sense of family and community lasts long after people leave the programme.
One more anecdote from Hanoi, visiting Blue Dragon, with a few other board members from Hong Kong. Michael Brosowski, the founder there, is someone who is having a huge impact in the community and people are very aware of his work. We heard from Michael and his staff about the communities they are working in, the anti-trafficking work and the work in Hanoi for those of underprivileged background. We had the chance to spend a couple of hours just talking about the Blue Dragon organisation, the support EMpower has given to Project X and the work we’ve done with Blue Dragon. It’s not just about money, it’s really powerful to take skills you’ve accumulated through your career and find ways to be able to relate to organisations that are working in a social capital setting.
I completely agree, and I’ve always felt the potential to build bridges between these two sectors that don’t have nearly as much to do with each other, the private and the non-profit—to leverage not only the financial aspects but the energy, the skills, the connections, the networks that could benefit grantee partners. And in reverse they offer all that to us. Last questions: what influences your philanthropic choices? And have they evolved in kind of your journey with EMpower?
This is a good question. I think philanthropy is very personal in terms of what causes you feel passionate about and the way you choose to engage in it. My approach has always been that whatever you feel passionate about, just do something. People have different capabilities to give but everyone has the ability to give something, whether its money, time, or opening doors. What influences my choices personally is around giving people opportunities who would not otherwise have them. That is a really powerful thing; opportunity creates leverage in other people’s lives and demonstrates to people that you believe in them. The other thing that impacts my philanthropic choices is that I’m a big believer in the network effect. I know that a number of people have been attracted to get involved with or support EMpower in some way because they have seen how committed I and fellow board members in Hong Kong and Singapore are. One person’s involvement has a network effect through their communities, which is really powerful and important for what we are trying to achieve. Similarly, when I give to other organisations, that’s my benchmark. In terms of our friends and networks, when we see people get deeply involved in an organisation and care not only about the cause but also the organisation and its governance, it’s a really important way of driving and allocating our own time and money.
What inspires you about EMpower or what are you most proud of?
I’m inspired by the beneficiaries. I know that we have hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries around the world but we have had historically three annual dinners a year, where we get to put the spotlight on the organisation and get the beneficiary or grantee partner on stage and have them tell their story directly to our wider community. I find that inspiring and it’s just a small sample of incredible work that goes on 365 days of the year and all of the hard work that goes in behind the scenes for EMpower in doing its work. What also inspires me about EMpower is the way we work with the leaders of organisations like Blue Dragon or KOTO or Hong Kong Unison or Kely or Role in Bali, or East Bali Poverty Project. We invest and put a level of belief in the people on the ground to create change in the communities. Our partners need resources but they also need belief and encouragement and the commitment from organisations like EMpower to be able to thrive and do their work. Working really collaboratively to help EMpower survive and thrive is the thing I’m ultimately most proud of. EMpower is a wonderful organisation with a fantastic track record and that is something that all of us can be incredibly proud of having a hand in creating and supporting.
That’s great to hear and you certainly were a huge part of it, through all the transitions we’ve had in Hong Kong. You have every reason to be proud.
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