How a bet on the horses can help solve social problems in Hong Kong

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 25 September 2016 15:00 GMT

Japanese jockey Yutaka Take riding A Shin Hikari crosses the finish line to win the Longines Hong Kong Cup race at Sha Tin racecourse in Hong Kong, China December 13, 2015. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Betting on the horses is one of Hong Kong's passions - and if you lose, your money is going to a good cause - Jockey Club director Leong Cheung explains how the club creates social impact

By Astrid Zweynert

HONG KONG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An outing at the races is one of the quintessential Hong Kong experiences and more than two million people visit the Hong Kong Jockey Club's race courses in Happy Valley and Sha Tin every year to bet billions of dollars.

Funded in 1884 to promote horse racing, the Hong Kong Jockey Club is a non-profit organisation, licensed by the government to provide betting and to operate a lottery. A large share of any losing money from bets contribute directly to the welfare of Hong Kong's society through charitable contributions made by the club. In the past year, it  invested almost HK$3.9 billion by supporting 215 charities and community projects.

The club was ranked it 6th among the world's top 10 non-government donors in the World Charity Index 2015.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to Hong Kong Jockey Club's executive director of charities and community, Leong Cheung at the Philanthropy for Better Cities Forum, the first conference of its kind in Asia focusing on metropolitan social issues and what part philanthropy can play to address the many challenges cities face from mushrooming populations.

Below, Cheung spells out how the club's charitable work is shaping up.

Q:How does the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust tackle social challenges in Hong Kong?

A: The Jockey Club has a very unique position in Hong Kong. We have been around for over 130 years and throughout that long history we have built a very strong trust within the community. We have never had shareholders and all the value created is social value for the community. It’s been the club’s ethos since day one that we work for the community and for society.

We are the biggest philanthropic organisation in the city. We support projects of across 10 areas: arts, culture, heritage, education, elderly services, endowments, emergency relief, family services, medical and health services, sports and recreation and youth.  We build the Ocean Park in th 1970s, the University of Science and Technology and the Academy of Performing Arts in the 1990s, to give just a few examples. A lot of community clinics and even some hospitals were donated by us when in the 1950s and 60s we had a lot of immigrants coming from the mainland and we needed more medical facilities.

Our work crosses all age ranges and across all social levels, and while it's hard to say exactly, we estimate we touch at least 75 percent of Hong Kong's population through our work. We seek out the root causes of social issues, and collaborate with a strong network of partners - including government, non-governmental organisations, academia and businesses - to create multi-sector platforms, develop and pioneer innovative solutions. The ultimate goal is to create social impact.

Q: How do you decide what to fund as Hong Kong faces growing social challenges, for example a lack of affordable housing, a rapidly ageieng population, rising poverty?

A: We work with non-governmental organisations who ask us for support and we help them to refine their ideas to see if it is feasible and creates the social impact we're looking for; we help them with the execution of their project through our funding.

In the last few years we have become more proactive and strategic in our philanthropy by looking into larger-scale projects working with youth, elderly services and in sports, in addition to the 10 categories we have always invested in and continue to support. As part of that more strategic approach we go out in the community to better understand their needs and partner with multiple parties to try and tackle a particular social issue.

Having good partnerships is key rather than to think we can solve the problem ourselves.  We are a not the government and (that means) we can act in a more agile way. We don't claim to have a particular expertise but we do have the financial resources and a deep understanding about various social issues and the communities affected by them. ...Strategic philanthropy sounds sexy but if you really want to be strategic you have to be innovative and take some risks...Every project we have to go in with a plan but also with an open mind because things will change - whatever business plan you have, it will change.

Q: Could you give some example of how you have become more innovative in your philanthropy?

A: One of our key projects is our computational thinking and education programme for primary school pupils. We recognised that computational thinking and coding are essential skills in the 21st century, so we joined forces with the Education University of Hong Kong, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the private sector. It's a HK$216 million programme covering 32 pilot schools with 16,000 students over four years.

It's not just about teaching pupils how to code. We're also building capacity among primary school teachers in collaboration with the Education University - where 85 percent of our primary school teachers graduate. The programme will be evaluated with a view to roll it out in the future in primary schools across Hong Kong.

Some countries have coding already in their curriculum, like Estonia and Israel. But there has never been any direct evidence that knowing how to code improves computational skills and boosts problem-solving capacity. It's just been assumed that this is the case. That's why want to build up evidence through our pilot programme.  It's very important for us is that the evidence goes beyond the policy realm of Hong Kong. The kind of evidence we're building up could be useful in London, New York - anywhere. It can make a contribution to the global intellectual capital.

Another project that goes beyond just tackling the immediate problem is an initiative that allows older people to manage their own health at e-health corners installed at centres for the elderly across the city. This means the health of participants can be monitored in real time and when there is an alert, healthcare professionals can follow up with a phone call or through a visit.This is an example of how people can stay healthy for longer through technology, a key issue here in Hong Kong where we have one of the longest life expectancies in the world and a rapidly ageing population.

Q: Where do you see the key differences between Eastern and Western philanthrophy and how could the two become closer?

A: Let me start by telling you about a gentleman called Fan Li. Around 2,500 years ago he retired from the imperial court to become a businessman. It is said that he became extremely rich and that three times he gave away all his wealth to the poor. Like this story there are many sayings in our culture how you should give back to your community after you made it is a tradition here as well.

What's different is that in the West in recent times  people say I'm doing philanthropy, it's a good thing, so I don't mind being known for it.  In Asia, it's still very much part of the culture to see it as a private thing without the need to broadcast it, and sometimes it's even seen as a virtue, not to boast about it. But the downside of that is that the experience doesn't get shared, it doesn't become a motivating story for other people to follow.

This is an issue particularly given the growth of China and other Asian cities - you see more and more new foundations, some are more daring in what they come up with but it is not as open yet as in the West...Sometimes, the eyeballs are all attracted to how much is being given - we do that as well, we're the six-largest in the world but while  scale is important there is a lot behind the scale, it's a question of what kind of social issue are you trying to address and how you do it, not just how much you spend on it.... Now there is an opportunity for Asia at this particular juncture to start thinking about new ways of addressing social problems and have a dialogue about it, also with the West.

Q: What opportunities do you see for other cities to share your experiences of doing philanthropy in Hong Kong?

A: Urbanisation is a pivotal global trend. In Asia, it is a major driving force for development, particularly China. Through our "Philanthropy for Better Cities" forum we provide a platform for experts and professionals working in this field to share their experiences, exchange ideas and build relationships by looking at some of the big challenges all cities, whether they are in Asia or elsewhere, face: ageing and health, youth and education, environment and sustainability, innovation and technology and the role of public-private partnerships.

What we're aiming for is to have strong partnerships across all sectors of society - with charities, academia, the government, the private sector - to tackle metropolitan issues because urban problems are complex. We can share a lot of what works in an Asian city, but we also want to learn from other parts of the world because it is a global issue that cannot be tackled in isolation.

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