Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Meet this year's top philanthropists trying to make a difference

The 40 noteworthy givers include billionaires, celebrities and other generous folks

Published: Jul 23, 2017 06:12:10 AM IST
Updated: Jul 23, 2017 04:23:17 PM IST

Each year since 2008, we’ve scoured the Asia-Pacific region for our list of top philanthropists. We look for men and women who made news with their altruism over the past year, and we also seek to spotlight people who have compiled a record of notable contributions over the years.

The members of this year’s honour roll pursued causes from launching a food bank in Singapore and training burn victims to be bakers in India to establishing a school for gifted children in Indonesia and training government officials in leadership and good governance in the Philippines. For the first time, philanthropists from Myanmar and Vietnam make the list.

The goal is to pick only true philanthropists—people who are giving their own money, not their company’s (unless they own most of the company), because we don’t consider donating shareholder funds as charity. And we also don’t list people who work in philanthropy solely as foundation heads, volunteers or fundraisers. We want to focus on the people supplying the financing and sketching the broad vision. If our effort in compiling this roster encourages more people to support worthy causes, then we’ll consider it a good deed.

Meet this year's top philanthropists trying to make a differenceImage: Virgile Simon Bertrand for Forbes
Preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Charles Chen 45

Three decades ago, Charles Chen’s illiterate grandmother encouraged him to take the national college entrance exam. “University education was the key to opening a door that would alter one’s destiny,” says the former Tencent executive. Indeed, it was in college that he met the other four core founders of the internet-services giant and also his future wife.

Last year, he committed $320 million to improving education. The money will fund the Yidan Prize (Yidan is his Chinese given name), which will be awarded each year to support the most transformational ideas in education. The first two winners will be announced in September, and each will receive $3.9 million, including $1.9 million to pursue their projects.

Chen left Tencent in 2013 and became a full-time philanthropist, establishing the Tencent Charity Foundation and giving $300 million to upgrade Wuhan College, a private liberal arts college in China. He’s inspired by how the internet has transformed human interaction worldwide. “We need new thinking for a successful transition to the fourth industrial revolution, an era of human-machine interdependence,” he says. “It is time for us to rethink who we are educating, how we are educating them and why we are educating them the way we are.”

Meet this year's top philanthropists trying to make a difference
Image: Namas Bhojani for Forbes

Compassionate Kitchen
Muthalampet Mahadevan 62

Komala C, who is just 22 years old, hails from a village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and had never heard of croissants or muffins. But over the past year, she was trained to bake such goodies and now works at the chic Swiss bakery Writer’s Café in Chennai. It’s a new lease of life for Komala, who tried to immolate herself a few years ago after a fight with her mother. That left her body 60 percent covered with burns.

Restaurateur Muthalmapet Mahadevan started the café in 2016; roughly a quarter of the 30-member staff are burn victims. The profits go to a non-profit organisation that trains burn victims such as Komala as bakers. He’s setting up a second cafe, at the Spastic Society of Tamil Nadu, which supports children with cerebral palsy. Over the years, he’s trained and employed nearly 30 people with cerebral palsy at his restaurants across Chennai.

Mahadevan has long used his business to transform the lives of people. He’s set up baking equipment at a juvenile home, a prison and an orphanage. He’s jump-started a popcorn-production unit that donates proceeds to the Spastic Society. He’s contributed more than $1 million to a variety of causes and now donates at least a third of his annual income to philanthropy.

The Chennai native is often referred to as Hot Breads Mahadevan because of his eponymous chain of bakeries, which he started in 1989 and then expanded around the world, from the Middle East to the US He holds a stake in more than 350 restaurants, cafes and bakeries across 16 countries. These restaurants, such as Copper Chimney, Wangs Kitchen and Benjarong, span the gamut from Indian to Chinese to Thai cuisines.

Meet this year's top philanthropists trying to make a difference

Fighting for Refugees
Tahir 65

In March, after a second trip to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, he contributed $2.2 million to provide families with a monthly allowance and to install solar panels in their schools. This comes after donating $1 million last year to fit 10,000 refugees with winter coats. He’s also contributed $2 million to a UN campaign to provide 2 million refugees with temporary shelter by next year. And last November, he announced that he and his family are giving $10 million to support the education of refugee children across the globe. The self-made billionaire has previously donated millions to health initiatives, universities and other causes. In 2013, he signed the Giving Pledge. (Tahir is the majority shareholder in Wahana Mediatama, which publishes Forbes Indonesia.)

Meet this year's top philanthropists trying to make a difference

Food for the Table, not the Trash
Nichol Ng 39
Nicholas Ng 37

Coming from a family business that has been distributing food to restaurants, hotels and supermarkets in Singapore for more than 80 years, the sister and brother have been frontline observers of food wastage. “We’ve seen it at the receiving gates, where vegetables and fruits are being sifted out according to their sizes. The sizes that are too big or too small are rejected,” says Nichol, who estimates that 785,500 tonnes of food is wasted every day in Singapore. “There are hungry people in Singapore; it’s just that it’s a topic that nobody talks about. Putting the two together, hungry people and excess food—can we do something about it?”

In 2012, Nichol and Nicholas tapped their personal funds and, using warehouse space from their business, started the Food Bank. It’s a non-profit that collects excess cooked food from hotels, discarded fresh produce, items with a near-expiration date and packaged goods from trading companies, supermarkets and individuals. It distributes the items to almost 200 charitable groups across the island.

Other initiatives include food drives and placing boxes in more than 70 locations around Singapore so the public can donate unwanted food. “Nicholas and I managed the Food Bank on our own for the first 12 months, until we realised this animal was growing too fast,” says Nichol, a mother of three. As cash donations began to stream in two years ago, the Food Bank hired two full-time staffers and bought a van and a truck. “Today we have 1,000 volunteers, and I give talks regularly to corporates and schools to spread the message of what we are trying to do.” She says next year they plan to start helping neighbouring countries set up food banks.

Len Ainsworth 94

Signed the Giving Pledge in March, promising to donate at least half his estimated $1.3 billion betting-machine fortune to charity. Has ramped up his philanthropic efforts in recent years, focusing on medical research, universities and engineering.

Andrew Forrest 55

Donated more than $300 million in May to various causes, including cancer research, education and greater opportunities for indigenous people. It is the largest philanthropic donation made at one time by a living person in Australia. The iron-ore magnate and his wife Nicola were the first Australians to sign the Giving Pledge, in 2013.

Graham Tuckwell 60

With his wife Louise gave more than $75 million to Canberra’s Australian National University last July, the biggest donation ever by an Australian to a university. Funds will be used to build student housing for winners of his Tuckwell Scholarships, established in 2013 with a $50 million donation.

Chen Tianqiao 44
Chrissy Luo 41

Contributed $115 million last December toward the $200 million Tianqiao & Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology. The gift is aimed at boosting brain research. The husband and wife made their fortune—which topped $1 billion as recently as 2015—in the online-videogame industry. They plan to give more money to Caltech and also endow brain research at institutes in China and elsewhere.

He Qiaonv 51

Her Qiaonyu Foundation, launched in 2012, pledged $15 million last November to set up a fund to counter global warming. In May, the fund agreed to provide $1.5 million to the UN Southern Climate Partnership Incubator initiative to boost environmental cooperation among developing countries. The head of the country’s largest interior design and landscape architecture firm is also a member of Mulan Club, a group of female business leaders in China that donated $44 million to Peking University in May to foster entrepreneurship by women.

Hoi Kin Hong 64

Set up the Powerlong Philanthropic Foundation last October with $29 million pledged for poverty relief, culture, education, health care and environmental protection. The real estate mogul also donated $23 million last year to other causes, including $15 million to boost the development of his rural hometown in Quanzhou, Fujian.

Yao Ming 36

Funds youth basketball leagues in rural China.

Adrian Cheng 37

Grandson of the late jewellery and property magnate Cheng Yu-tung aims to bring obscure Chinese artists into the mainstream through his K11 Art Foundation. Founded in 2010, the non-profit nurtures talent, primarily from the mainland, and has created a bridge to international museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Serpentine Galleries in London and Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.

Michelle Ong 60

The celebrity designer, whose jewellery was seen in the movie The Da Vinci Code and who has dressed movie stars such as Kate Winslet and Glenn Close, has been donating and raising funds for charity for more than 25 years. In 2010, she launched her First Initiative Foundation, and it has disbursed $3 million to support cultural development, musical performances and arts education. Every year, she brings together world-renowned pianists, film-makers, designers and artists for charity performances, followed by classes that they hold for local students. Her mission is to put Hong Kong on the world stage in creative arts. “There is nothing elitist about music or the arts; they bring beauty to everyone’s life,” she says. “Hong Kong people are focussed on business, but we shouldn’t ever forget our creative side.”

Neil Shen 49

In April, he donated nearly $3 million to launch the Yale China Fund for Emotional Intelligence. The fund will operate under the Yale Centre Beijing to help train children aged 3 to 6 years in emotional intelligence. Last year, he donated $7.3 million to Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where he had earned his undergraduate degree before heading to Yale for a master’s, to set up a medical-research fund. “I was greatly helped” by those institutions, he says.

Sanjeev Bikhchandani 53

Internet pioneer who launched job portal among other things started donating in a significant way a decade ago after taking his company public. Recipients include his high school, college and business school, all in India. “One must give back to institutions that have moulded you,” he says. He’s best known for co-founding and being an early donor to Ashoka University, a private liberal arts institution named after an ancient Indian emperor. He also backs several non-profits that “are doing good work” such as a charity that focuses on services for disabled people and another that helps children with cancer. He has donated $15 million so far.

Subhash Chandra 66

Media mogul and his three brothers marked Essel’s 90th anniversary by pledging $777 million in May to their DSC Foundation. Its activities include funding social entrepreneurs. Simultaneously he set up Sarthi, a non-profit that connects citizens with government. In addition, the tycoon has given away millions through Ekal Global, his 28-year-old charity that has provided free education to 1.4 million tribal children in 55,000 villages. He says he has long observed the traditional practice of the Agarwal community, from which he hails, of donating 10 percent of his personal net earnings annually to charity.

Sanjay Lalbhai 62

Textile magnate and his wife Jayshree converted their more-than-a-century-old ancestral mansion in Ahmedabad city into an art museum that is free to the public. It houses the family’s collection of 130 pieces of classical Indian art and antiquities that was acquired by Sanjay’s grandfather Kasturbhai Lalbhai; the museum is named for him. It includes such treasures as Mughal miniatures and a 16th-century Persian manuscript from the library of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. An annex showcases the couple’s contemporary Indian art collection and includes a cultural centre and an exhibition space for young artists.

Anand Mahindra 62

Has donated millions of dollars over the years to causes such as educating girls, providing clean drinking water and supporting tribal farmers. Chairs the Naandi Foundation, which has spawned three for-profit social businesses. The first is a joint venture with danone.communities to set up low-cost drinking-water plants across the country, serving more than 700,000 customers. His second, in partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, offers after-school support to students in city slums through a tech platform. The third, Araku, works with tribal farmers by connecting them to global markets. It has helped farmers convert wasteland into plantations producing premium coffee. In 2010, he donated $10 million to Harvard to set up the Mahindra Humanities Center.

Rajiv Mehta 56

His Ratna Nidhi Trust, set up by his late father 50 years ago, focuses on the disabled by distributing the Jaipur Foot, the famed artificial limb, in Mumbai. Field trials are under way for a 3-D-printed artificial leg that the trust developed with the help of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and which won a Google Impact Challenge for Disabilities award in 2015. The $1.2 million annual budget also covers a Food for Education programme that distributes free meals to disadvantaged children studying in 37 Mumbai schools that are not covered by the government’s Mid Day Meal programme. The World Bank and Alibaba have backed Mehta’s mission of donating 1 million educational books to 10,000 schools and colleges in India by 2021. He also offers scholarships to children of terrorist-attack victims.

Rikrik Rizkiyana 46
Co-founded a boarding school for gifted children from poor families. Donated $1.2 million and has raised another $600,000. The Cugenang Gifted School in Cianjur, West Java, opened in 2010 and now has 23 students. Applicants must have an IQ of 130 and be younger than 9. Students receive a free education, room and board through high school; parents are allowed to visit anytime. The school accepts students of all religious beliefs. It helps fill a gap in a national system that doesn’t provide specialised education for exceptionally bright children. “We give our best to direct every gifted kid into a proper understanding of the world, of the people as well as of kindness and humility,” he says.

Harry Susilo 77

Launched the Susilo Institute for Ethics in a Global Economy at Boston University (BU) and established a permanent, multimillion-dollar endowment to fund classes for students in Boston and research work around the world. Both of his daughters graduated from BU. The institute is developing a global network of researchers who examine the business philosophies and practices of different cultures and discuss their findings at an annual symposium; the first was held in Surabaya last year, the second in Boston last month. His mission, raising the level of integrity in the next generation of business leaders, is the result of his decades running his food-manufacturing business, which gave him a front-seat view of the murky dealings that led to Indonesia’s financial crisis in 1997.

Nagamori 72

Fulfilling a long-time dream, in March he announced a $90 million gift to set up an engineering programme and a facility at Kyoto Gakuen University. The plan is to launch the programme in 2020 with 200 undergraduate students—half from overseas—and up to 100 graduate students.

Akio Nitori 73

With a gift of his company’s shares, the billionaire discount-home-furnishings retailer started the Nitori International Scholarship Foundation more than a decade ago. The main goal was to help graduate students from around Asia to attend Japan’s top universities. In 2014, the foundation, which holds a 3.5 percent stake in Nitori worth more than $660 million, started making grants to colleges in the US, Taiwan and Vietnam for scholarships.

Watanabe 53

The information-technology entrepreneur launched the non-profit Future Dream Achievement organisation in 2010, and it’s helped more than 4,000 jobless or underemployed young adults and people with disabilities gain full-time employment. Its programmes, which run from three to nine months, help people learn job, interviewing and office-software skills, as well as introduce them to potential employers. Other programmes help workers maintain their mental health—something he decided was needed after witnessing the stress his IT engineers experienced.


Lim Wee Chai 59

He and his wife, Tong Siew Bee, started the Top Glove Foundation in 2009 with an initial $300,000. Since then, the foundation has donated roughly $5 million to various causes, with a focus on education. Recent beneficiaries include several Chinese-medium schools in Malaysia as well as Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, which received $70,000 in 2015 to create a chair for the Top Glove Professor of Chemistry.
Tan Kai Hee 80

At his 80th-birthday dinner party in January, he announced he was putting $22 million of his shares in Hai-O—the Chinese traditional-medicine company he started in 1975—into a trust, with stock gains and dividends to be donated to cultural, social, environmental and educational charities. At the same time, he also pledged more than $500,000 to 38 entities, including the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia and the Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies. Over the previous nine years, he had donated some $5 million; beneficiaries included victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, dozens of Chinese-medium schools around Malaysia, and Yayasan Usman Awang, a foundation dedicated to the memory of the late National Laureate that aims to promote unity in multiracial Malaysia.

Ken Tun 43

Donated more than $1 million for rural development, reforestation and education over the past few years. At least 300,000 trees have been planted out of a goal of 500,000. A special interest is the country’s 1,000-year-old system of Baka (monastery) schools that today educate more than 300,000 poor children of all faiths in 1,600 schools. He helped organise three conferences of Baka teachers and leaders; the one in May created the Sustainable Baka School Association to promote a child-centred approach to teaching. Also this year, he founded the PyninYawDaya (‘Ray of Education’) Foundation to develop social enterprises that will support Baka schools and their graduates.

Medved-Po 46

A former actor and model, she started Generation Hope, which donates all profits from the sale of Hope in a Bottle bottled water to Friends of Hope, a non-profit that builds classrooms around the country. She began the venture in 2012, has spent nearly $900,000 and has sold almost 9 million bottles, built 37 classrooms and improved the learning environment for more than 7,000 students. “I believe investments in education carry the greatest ripple effect to narrow the wealth gap over time and my building a classroom was tangible and easy enough for everyone to understand,” she says.

David Zuellig 60
Daniel Zuellig 56

These cousins help steer the foundation, which has improved health care in rural areas, significantly reducing mortality rates for infants and mothers. The family’s Zuellig Group—a low-profile but powerhouse pharmaceutical company in Asia—has contributed an average of $2.3 million annually over the last five years to the foundation. With 83 staff members, it trains rural governors, mayors and their staff in leadership and good governance. Beginning in 2009 with nine municipalities, the programme now serves 640 municipalities—42 percent of the country—aided by partnerships with the Philippine health department, the UN and the US government. The company’s roots extend back to the cousins’ Swiss grandfather, who started a Manila trading business in the early 1900s.

Albert Hong 82

Bounced back from a life-threatening bout of pneumonia in 2013 and decided he wanted to do more for the community. Later that year, he gave nearly $25 million to the Singapore University of Technology and Design, helping to fund scholarships and bursaries, as well as the university’s research projects. The university has since named a lecture theatre and lecture series after him.

John Lim 61

Set up the Lim Hoon Foundation in 2008 in memory of his schoolteacher-father, Lim Hoon. The aim is to reach out to “sandwich students”, who are poor but have the drive to excel academically. It hands out community-education awards each year and funds up to 15 scholarships annually with the Singapore Management University. His father taught at Tao Nan School in the 1950s and worked to develop Singapore’s school system. The foundation boasts an endowment running into the millions of dollars.

Kim Jeong-Ho 50

After leaving Naver, he launched the social enterprise Bear Better. It aims to expand employment for people with developmental disabilities; 200 of its staffers—83 percent—have such disabilities. It started in 2013, and it produces, sells or delivers items such as flowers, coffee, cookies and business cards. He’s also been a steady contributor to the international relief group Food for the Hungry. Since donating $110,000 in 2008 to help North Korean children, his donations have reached nearly $1.2 million.

Kwon Oh-Seob 57

Gave $10.4 million last November to his alma mater, Korea University, which will use the money to finance a new building for its College of Science named after his Mediheal brand. His company produces skin care masks made of gel sheets. Its popular Mediheal line is among the country’s top sellers.
Lee Young-Lim 76

Pledged $110 million in December to Kyunghee University, her alma mater. She called on the university to continue making advances in Oriental medicine and take a step toward becoming a world-class university. With her donation, it plans to create a research-and-development centre focussed on Oriental medicine and renewable energy. She originally majored in Western medicine but switched to Oriental medicine after suffering from liver parasites. After spending much of her career in Iran, working as a doctor for top government officials and also starting a construction company, she returned to South Korea and started Younglim hospital in Seoul in 1994.

Chang Hui-mei 44

Best known by her stage name, A-mei, she donated $66,000 to Taitung County in eastern Taiwan for disaster relief and reconstruction after Typhoon Nepartak wreaked havoc on her hometown last July. Before that, she had donated some $273,000—proceeds from one of her concerts in 2012—to St Mary’s Hospital in Taitung. Long a supporter of same-sex marriage, she has helped organise two star-studded concerts to rally support and raise funds for lesbian-, gay-, bisexual- and transgender-rights groups. In May, the island’s top court ruled in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. In 2009, she started the Dream Fulfillment Scholarship project with an initial donation of $16,600 to World Vision, which sponsored hundreds of indigenous students for a year.

Chuang Yung-Shun 65

Last month, pledged $3.3 million to China University of Technology for scholarships and faculty benefits and to establish an e-learning system and a Chinese-language centre. In 2009, he donated $6.6 million toward the construction of an 11-storey building at his alma mater, the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, the largest single donation the university has received. The building, named after Aaeon, provides a platform for the research work of the local electronics and medical-device industries. Last year, his wife, Marian Huang, gave $3.3 million for the construction of another building there, to be named after Onyx when it’s completed next year. Formerly a junior high school teacher, Huang now manages the group’s foundation, which has spent $2.8 million on scholarships and financial aid for disadvantaged families as well as on art sponsorships and disaster relief across Taiwan since 1999.

Lin Yu-Ling 80

Set up a charitable trust in 2015 with a billion dollars’ worth of his assets, which include several commercial buildings and plots of land in Taipei’s upscale Xinyi district. The assets generate $30 million annually for the trust, which aims to nurture talent and encourage innovation by awarding scholarships, sending students overseas and making grants to individuals who have contributed to society.

Keeree Kanjanapas 66

The billionaire property and mass-transit developer has increasingly turned to philanthropy since passing control of the company that runs Bangkok’s elevated-train system to his eldest son. He focuses on health and education in the parts of the country with the greatest need. He spent $1 million to build a school in Sa Kaeo Province, then added a school for the blind in Khao Yai, where he also equipped a hospital. Another million funded a pair of dialysis centres offering free service in several provinces to people with kidney ailments.

Vijitpongpun 59

Since 2010, the property developer has donated more than $5 million, focusing on hospitals, university scholarships and Buddhist organisations. Underprivileged children, the disabled and patients with HIV and AIDS are also beneficiaries. Among the recipients of his $1 million in donations last year were the Child Protection Foundation, the Mirror Foundation, Operation Smile and Wat Pra Baht Nam Phu’s AIDS hospice.

Pham Nhat Vuong 48

The richest person in Vietnam is also one of the country’s biggest philanthropists. His Kind Heart Foundation, which he started in 2006, has spent roughly $180 million in Vietnam on education, health care programmes and assistance for the poor. Under one project, the foundation has given 24,000 heifers, or breeding cows, to thousands of poor families in rural areas. Recipients raise and keep the cows after giving the first calf to another family in need. Last year, 3,000 cows were given away. This year he’s donated $70 million to a programme that provides free surgeries and transplants to poor people at one of his Vinmec international-standard hospitals, a chain he built in Vietnam and converted into a non-profit last year.

Shu-Ching Jean Chen, Chen May Yee, Grace Chung, Susan J Cunningham, Sunshine Lichauco de Leon, Rebecca Feng, Ron Gluckman, Jane Ho, Joyce Huang, Neerja Pawha Jetley, Naazneen Karmali, Kim Hee-Joung, Lan Anh Nguyen, Jane A Peterson, Anuradha Raghunathan, Lucinda Schmidt, James Simms, Jessica Tan, Katherine Taylor

(This story appears in the 04 August, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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