Columnist: David Willson David's Beyonder Story
I recently met with the group of students that I will be mentoring this year as they move through the Young Entrepreneurs of the Future program, an ambitious and inspiring program run by the Epoch Foundation, teaching entrepreneurship to university students in Taiwan.
These students are drawn from universities all over Taiwan and I must admit that I often feel guilty when I mentor them. They are usually profuse in their thanks for my time and comments and dismiss it when I offer them thanks in return, but I always feel that I gain so much more from them than they do from me. Their enthusiasm and desire to be different from their parents, to make society better, fills me with hope and inspiration that keeps me from becoming despondent about the current state of Taiwan’s economy, education system and opportunities for young people.
(Team Dots, if you are reading this, you should know that you impress and inspire me.)
It is much rarer to find that kind of drive for a better world in older business leaders (although there are a few that I know and I am looking forward to introducing them here). Chairman Wu, from SunFar Electronics is one of those people.
The first time that I met Mr Wu I was struck by how unassuming he is for a senior business leader. He is a humble man (usually he is just wearing jeans and a company polo whenever we meet) who is very committed to corporate social responsibility – committing not just company money, but also his own, to this purpose.
During the course of completing his EMBA Mr Wu came to the realisation that government could not possibly provide the resources needed to improve the world, as most resources are actually held within companies. He decided to try to motivate companies to be more responsible corporate citizens.
In 2010 he transformed his company into a Charity Committed Corporation aimed at helping underprivileged children in Taiwan.
To further this aim he set up an organization called ‘20 for Future’ which asks its members to dedicate a minimum of 20% of their profits to social causes. SunFar was of course the first company to sign on and it has been followed by another seven companies so far.
To date members of 20 for Future have donated over NTD$180,000,000, benefiting over 190,000 underprivileged schoolchildren in Taiwan.
Mr Wu decided to concentrate on helping children because “you have no choice in where you are born. Children are innocent. Society often seems to believe that children from an underprivileged background somehow deserve it, or that their parents caused it. This is not the case. Many of their parents work hard, but the jobs they have are minimum wage and no matter how much they work, it is almost impossible for them to fully support their children.”
Mr Wu has strong views on using funds used only for direct assistance to recipients and does not like it that NGO’s and other social ogranisations spend some money on their own operations and so he supports a government website (EduSave) where teachers list the needs of their students – needs like shoes, meals, tutoring and many things that we from privilege would regard as ‘little things’. All of the funds raised through the website go directly to recipients.
On this point, I differ somewhat from Mr Wu. Whilst I fully recognise that many people have direct needs that must be met, I also believe that in order to support worthwhile causes and change in society many NGO’s and other social organisations require funds in order to operate. I do not see this as a bad thing. Everyone deserves to make a decent living, even those who choose to try to improve society and work at these organisations. Helping society should not be the sole province of those wealthy enough to not need an income.
I also believe that to an extent directly providing aid to someone is a bit like the old adage about giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day, versus teaching him to fish and therefore feeding him for life.
Through our own foundation, we have quite deliberately chosen to try to effect lasting systemic change aimed at permanently breaking the poverty cycle, which is why we have chosen to concentrate on teaching entrepreneurship skills to youth, giving them the skills needed to survive and hopefully thrive in the modern world – skills like leadership, critical thinking, communication and teamwork.
There is room, in fact a necessity, I believe, for both approaches. Basic requirements such as proper nutrition and access to things like textbooks must of course be present before anyone can benefit from skills training. However, I do believe that things like skills training are then required to try to break the requirement for basic support. The poverty cycle (where children born into poverty tend to themselves live in poverty and then in turn bring their own children into poverty) has proven hugely difficult to break, and I firmly believe that it is only through skills training and education provision that it can be permanently broken.
To deliver this kind of systemic change takes considerable financial resources and my experience has been that it is much harder to attract those resources to these efforts than it is for example to the building of a new library. Systemic change requires years and decades of effort and offers few photogenic moments and ‘feel-good’ moments and as a result very few people are prepared to support these initiatives, preferring to go for ‘quick wins’.
My personal view is that it is only through systemic change that the need to purchase shoes, textbooks and meals for underprivileged children ever has a chance of being alleviated.
Despite that difference in opinions with Mr Wu, there are far more areas on which we agree. One of the things that he said particularly resonated with my beliefs about work and programs designed to assist society, be it charity, social enterprise, mutuality or corporate social responsibility. Mr Wu said to me that “A person’s contribution to society is not about how much you give, but about how much society benefits as a result of that giving.”
This is a clear sign of Mr Wu’s business focus on the numbers and something that I completely agree with – the results are the main thing that matter.
I believe that Mr Wu’s level of commitment to doing good through the vehicle of corporate social responsibility is almost unique in Taiwan. Indeed, at the end of last year he was the recipient of ‘Good People, Good Deeds’ national award, created in 1958 as the highest national award available in Taiwan created to recognise those people who make a substantial contribution to the betterment of society.
Go into a SunFar store and you will see how deeply embedded 20 for Future is into the company. Staff wear 20 for Future t-shirts. Banners and posters are everywhere. Purchase something and you are asked to indicate where in Taiwan you would like the donation the company will make from that purchase to be directed. 20 for Future is everywhere, telling compelling stories of the children that have been helped.
This is clearly a charity committed organisation. But is it corporate social responsibility at the strategic level that I often advocate for? I have some doubts. Here I have to apologise – I realise that it is not popular to express opposing points of view in Taiwan – but I believe that doing so is how progress is made and in no way does doing so mean that I do not think that what is being done already is not incredibly worthwhile.
To refer back to Mr Wu’s comments on people being judged on the benefits derived from their giving, I think that the same standard should also be applied to companies and whilst, without reservation, I laude the SunFar initiatives, I cannot help but wonder if there would not be other, perhaps more effective, ways in which they could provide benefit to society.
I am a big advocate of corporations focussing their corporate social responsibility efforts on areas in which they have expertise, rather than simply making charitable donations. Whilst I do not in any way challenge the need to assist underprivileged children, I cannot help but wonder if there is not a lot of unrealised benefit being left on the table by not linking social efforts with the company’s main business expertise.
The company is an expert in technology and retail, with a lot of embedded expertise in both. I cannot help but wonder how much benefit could be derived for society if some of this expertise was directed at assisting underprivileged children, or indeed, anyone who needs the help.
Imagine for example using the experts that exist within the company to partner directly with schools in areas near those experts to improve the quality of technology education, which I know from my son’s experience in public school in Taipei to be appallingly bad (I can only imagine what it is like outside of Taipei). This would have a lasting effect on those children, providing them with valuable skills for a 21st century workforce that would ultimately even have a national effect on Taiwan’s ability to compete in the modern world.
Imagine a program aimed at the large numbers of youth who are opening or wanting to open their own stores, be they cafes, clothing retail or anything else. Again, SunFar has enormous embedded expertise in retail and would be able to build a highly effective program to help those youth to succeed as they embark on their own journeys into retail and potentially building paths out of poverty.
Clearly the contributions made by SunFar have had enormous impact on hundreds of thousands of youth and I do not want to abrogate that, but I cannot help but wonder how much more could be done with a strategy that leveraged the strengths of the company to do social good, rather than simply giving a percentage of profits to charity (as wonderful as that is).