Pro bono around the world – Michael and John, Asia

Pro Bono Lab launched in 2020 the study “International Panorama of pro bono”. Its objective : analyse the diversity of pro bono practices around the world. Discover the testimony of John and Michael, from Asian Charity Services in Hong Kong.

Asian Charity Services (ACS) started in 2007, with the original goal of improving the professionalism of small NGOs in Hong Kong, where there was at that time about 8 000 registered non-profit organizations (NGOs). The majority of them are very small, under-resourced and under-funded, so their goal is to help them become more professional in terms of the way they think, they operate, they strategize, fundraise and govern the organization.

John Louie used to be the Executive Director of Asian Charity Services (ACS) for 3 years, from 2015 to 2018. He stepped down in the last quarter of 2018 because he’s now a senior citizen and doesn’t want to work full time, but he’s still working part time as Director of Volunteer Engagement.

Michael Tse has been in the ACS network since 2015. He’s been a Volunteer Consultant in many ACS projects and capacity building workshops for NGOs in the past 9 years. He has other responsibilities as well, such as helping to engage the community.


1. Tell us more about the national context in which your organisation operates: what might be specific to your country (culturally, socially, economically, on a legislative level etc) that might make your work as a pro bono facilitator different from other facilitators in the world.

Michael: Hong Kong is quite a unique place, it’s a Special Administrative Region of China since 1997, and it operates under “one country two systems”. Hong Kong for a long time has been the gateway to China because of its open economy, low tax regime and British legal system. As a result, a lot of international and global companies have set up offices here. We therefore have a lot of very skilled professionals with international experience in Hong Kong that make pro bono a very unique place to be. Secondly, Hong Kong was a British colony from 1842 and it grew from a small fishing village to one of the major cities in the world. The British ruled Hong Kong for 155 years and they put in place an administrative system based on the “small government” principle. So the colonial government outsourced a lot of social, welfare and community services to non-government organizations. In the early colonial years, the Catholic and Anglican churches came and set up schools, hospitals and social service institutions for the community. That’s how the charity sector started in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has a longstanding culture of volunteerism, of charity, and I would say it’s spreading all the time. Chinese culture is not, by nature, a very emotional and generous culture. People work hard, some of them help and give to their relatives and neighbours in need, but charity has not been as widely promoted and practised in China as in most developed countries. But in Hong Kong there is more of this culture of helping and giving to the community.

Hong Kong has a longstanding culture of volunteerism, of charity, and I would say it’s spreading all the time.


2. If you had one legislative measure put in place by your government to facilitate the work you do, the pro bono…what would it be?

Michael: The term pro bono in Hong-Kong is more commonly used to refer to legal advice, but not as it is used in France or in the United States. But you ask how the government can help to promote volunteerism and also charity. We do have a social aid tax, a welfare tax. There are a lot of non-profit organizations that do social work which are funded by donations, and the people who give to them can get tax-deductible receipts. But it’s not a big tax incentive, they’re much less than in other parts of the world like the US (the maximum income tax rate is effectively 15% for individuals). So, a lot of companies that donate to NGOs do it more for corporate branding and public relations, the actual financial incentives are less than in other countries.

John: But still, people give. The people of Hong Kong are actually very generous and not just for the wealthy, but the middle-class as well. A lot of international NGOs use Hong Kong as a fundraising base for Asia.

Michael: So I think tax incentives could be one, but the government itself has been promoting volunteerism with NGOs, agencies and community service organizations. Now, as in the past, it is mostly a question of tracking volunteer hours in Hong Kong as a whole. They’re moving towards a much more proactive approach to match organizations, create opportunities for collaboration and cooperation. I think they are becoming more successful at that, so it will help to make the pro bono concept more effective.


3. What are the different activities that you put into place within your organisation?

Michael: We have different kinds of engagement models for different types of engagements with NGOs, sponsoring organizations, as well as for volunteers. Since 2007, we have been helping NGOs to become more professional in running their organizations. We help them to strategize. We are helping mainly small NGOs that can afford to pay for professional training. These small NGOs have very passionate founders who want to serve a particular needy or underprivileged community in Hong Kong. They have the heart and the passion but they don’t have the business and management skills. We select volunteers with suitable business and management skills who can help them strategize and plan more effectively because they are not connected.

The methodology of our longest-running NGO workshop program covers three areas: Strategic Planning, Fundraising Strategy and Board Governance. This workshop program lasts about two and a half months where a team of 4 to 6 volunteers will be matched with an NGO’s leadership team of 4 to 5 people. The intensity is quite high, with 3 separate workshop sessions of 3 hours each. There is also preparation and assignment work for both the NGO leadership team and each volunteer. In total, each volunteer needs to commit about 20 hours of work in two and a half months. Most of them are full-time professionals and because of that the workshop sessions are held outside office hours in the evenings.

We recognized that we had a good ecosystem of NGOs and so we wanted to create a community among them to promote more communication and collaboration, so we have a seminar program called IGNITE. Five times a year, we engage 60 or more NGO leaders to meet, and we invite business leaders and NGO leaders who are subject experts to give talks about topics that are relevant to improving their leadership skills and organizational effectiveness. It can be about crowdfunding, agile resources management, strategic planning to suit the new normal, etc. It’s a place where they can meet with, exchange ideas and share experiences with other NGO leaders, as well as with experts from the business sector.

John: Another program called ENGAGE is to help NGOs learn about and make better use of social media and online platforms to communicate with their key stakeholder groups: these can be donors, volunteers, general corporate communications to the public, and the beneficiaries they help. In one of the modules, we engage a crowdfunding expert who explains how to make effective use of crowdfunding platforms, what types of messages to post, and examples of compelling stories NGOs need to tell in order to attract donors. At each ENGAGE workshop, we invite a dozen or more NGO teams, each team is composed of 3 people from one NGO and we match them with 2 volunteers who are business professionals in communication, sales, marketing or other relevant business fields to help these NGO teams work on the message and the story they need to tell. At the end of the program, each team will give a 3-minute pitch to a judging panel to present what kind of content they want to include in the video to put on their website or on a crowdfunding site. The judging panel then selects the top three teams and they all receive funding to produce a professional video.

We recently had an encouraging successful case with a small NGO, only about three years old, which serves the homeless people in Hong Kong. After participating in the crowdfunding program and winning the video funding, they made their video and launched an online crowdfunding campaign to help the homeless. They raised 600% more than they hoped to get within a week, which was a huge success story!

Michael: ACS also conducts a one-day hackathon program called SPRINT, kind of similar to what Pro Bono Lab and Taproot can do. We engage about 30 NGOs to work together with some 60 volunteers on a particular issue in separate teams for about 6 hours. These are some of our main programs, we plan ahead and hold them at different times during the year, and we communicate regularly with NGOs and volunteers to invite them to join these programs. Occasionally, people come to us for a special project, corporations come to us and also NGOs or donors for an issue they have, once or twice a year.

Small NGOs have very passionate founders who want to serve a particular needy or underprivileged community in Hong Kong. They have the heart and the passion but they don’t have the business and management skills.


4. Most pro bono facilitators run programmes involving one or several corporate professionals to share their skills with a non-profit. Does your organisation innovate compared with this “traditional” model and how?

Michael: My impression is that most of our peers around the world tend to want a fair model that broadly engages volunteers of all kinds, maybe not in France because you are a bit ahead in pro bono. But the majority of the volunteers at ACS are individual business professionals and they find us, have a positive experience and tell their friends and colleagues to come to our website and sign up. Then we give them some training to enable them to work effectively with NGOs and match them with suitable teams. Also, the majority of employees with multinational companies come as individual volunteers who will then share their experience, which allows us to engage with large corporate partners. Through individual volunteering, we get a good mix of volunteers with different functional skills joining our programs. Hong Kong is a very unique place because the city is a banking and financial centre, supply-chain and logistics centre, and legal centre that serves as a gateway for many companies from around the world to access the markets in China and other countries in the Asia Pacific region. Therefore, we have world-class lawyers, bankers, accountants, management consultants, marketing and communications professionals… from global companies in our volunteer base.

John: Hong Kong has a very good local public transport network, so that most business professionals and NGO leaders, when they join a workshop or seminar that we organize, can normally arrive within half an hour from their office. It’s a very convenient city, even though with the coronavirus situation we can now no longer organize events involving a large number of people meeting face-to-face.


5. Have you adapted your activity to the coronavirus situation? If yes, how? What does it change for you? Have you set up any special measures/device?

John: I think we are probably more adaptable and functional than other NGOs that actually have to work on the ground with the beneficiaries they serve. Since early February, we have converted almost all our programs to an online basis. Our seminars have become webinars now and also our workshops have been conducted with Zoom meetings.

It’s actually a good seminar and workshop tool because you can have multiple breakout groups: you can start with one large group to include all the participants, and then break into many different small teams or groups. People can still discuss quite effectively online and share documents on their computer screens without too much difficulty.


6. Share with us an inspiring example of a pro bono programme you put in place recently:

John: I can elaborate a little bit more about the NGO that helps homeless people. In Hong Kong, there are not many people living on the streets, only about two thousand (out of a population of over 7 million), but there are many, about two hundred thousand people who are poorly housed. This means that they have a roof over their heads but their living conditions are very bad. Some people live alone, not with their families, and rent a bed space in a small apartment, say about 50 square meters, and share it with 20 to 30 people.

Imagine a space of a twin-size bed, it’s their home, they eat there and sleep there.

The Hong Kong government builds low-cost rental apartments for low-income families, but the supply is insufficient and it takes a long waiting time to get it, up to about six years. In the meantime, due to the high cost of housing, they have little choice but to rent “sub-divided apartments”. For example, a 50 or 60 square meter apartment can be divided among 3 families and each family has only 20 square meters. Many single people and families are poorly housed and live this way.

In the summer it can be very hot and there is no air conditioning in some sub-divided apartments. Before this year, some homeless people and some living in sub-divided apartments would go to 24-hour McDonald’s restaurants (which are all air-conditioned) late at night and stay until dawn. The management of the local McDonald’s chain doesn’t mind 3 or 4 such people staying overnight in each outlet especially after midnight when there are few customers (they are unofficially known as “McRefugees”). Since the coronavirus pandemic, the government requires all restaurants to close at night, so some former “McRefugees” now have to sleep on the streets.

This charity organization therefore decided to run a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to pay for temporary accommodation for these people. Initially, they had hoped to raise about one hundred thousand Hong Kong dollars, which is about 12K euros, but within three days they received donations amounting to more than 600% of what they had hoped for. It was a great success story and it happened shortly after they had attended the ACS ENGAGE crowdfunding workshop.


7. Do you have a Community? What does that bring you? How do you animate it? Do you organize for example some event with your volunteers?

John: Yes we do, every year we organize a volunteer and community appreciation night. In past years it was held on a weekday evening after work and the venue was provided pro bono by one of the big banks who reserved a large room in their office for our use. We brought together our volunteers and also invited some NGO leaders, corporate and foundation partners. During the event, we gave short talks about topical social issues and updated everyone on recent activities of ACS, and we also interviewed some of the volunteers and NGO leaders who had benefitted from our programs to share their experiences. We also encouraged our volunteers to invite friends who may be interested in becoming potential volunteers to introduce them to ACS through this event. In previous years we gave annual awards to the volunteers who had participated in the most ACS events or contributed the most volunteer hours in the previous year, and also to recognize the most active new volunteers. One hundred to one hundred and fifty people attended this event in each of the past years. The corporates venue hosts were very generous and also provided wine, drinks and finger food. These annual events provide not only a very good networking opportunity for our volunteers with each other but also strengthen our community relationship with NGO leaders, corporate and foundation partners.

Michael: We actually make sure that our volunteers become advisors and by doing so, we are like a network. We train them so they can provide services to NGOs and build a community together.

John: After serving NGOs in ACS workshops, some volunteers become NGO board members or donors, and can also help them to establish corporate partnerships. We are working to transfer management knowledge and skills from business professionals to NGOs. We now have a whole group of volunteer NGO advisors.

Many business professionals with multinational companies have been working partly from home and have not been able to take business trips outside Hong Kong since early this year, so we actually have more volunteers available now than before.


8. How do you match the volunteers and the NGOs?

John: We keep an online data base of volunteers, recording their work experiences and educational background, we also ask for their language skills because some NGOs we serve are English-speaking but about 90% of the NGOs in Hong Kong are Chinese speaking. Some NGOs are Catholic or Protestant, so we also try to match them with volunteers who have these beliefs. Some volunteers are more interested in helping a particular social sector or beneficiary group (e.g. children and youth, poverty alleviation, the environment, etc…), so we also try to match them with these criteria as much as possible.

Michael: There is a technical match and a human match. It’s not just a question of checking “hard” functional skills, but also “soft” skills, showing empathy, establishing a real dialogue. We must ensure that rapport is established between volunteers and the NGO leaders they serve.


9. Do you evaluate your programs?

John: After each workshop and seminar, we distribute a survey to the participating volunteers and NGO leaders to find out how they found the program: What did they learn? What can we improve? What are the positive and negative aspects of the event? This is the most immediate feedback, but apart from that, for the longer strategy workshops lasting more than 2 months, the NGO leaders have to develop an implementation plan at the end of the workshop program to define what changes they want to make in their organization in the next one to two years. We usually contact them again after 9 months to a year to find out how they are doing, and send them a survey to find out what they have actually implemented, whether they had encountered any difficulties, and if there were any changes in the operating environment since they completed the workshop.


10. Why is pro bono or skills-based volunteering important according to you, and why it will be even more relevant in the future?

John: I think many business professionals in Hong Kong have been very successful in their careers. Hong Kong’s globally-linked economy has provided a lot of good career opportunities in the last few decades for lawyers, accountants, management consultants, marketing and communication people, HR people… because all the biggest banks in the world are here, the biggest consulting firms, the biggest accounting firms are here. I think those who are successful want to give back to the society and help those who are needy and less fortunate, but they don’t want to just feed an old person or hold a baby, they want to make use of their professional skills to help.

ACS provides them with a very suitable platform where they can help charities with their professional and management skills. Because people are not permitted to meet together in groups due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we see a growing opportunity for more skills-based volunteering engagements using online platforms. Many business professionals with multinational companies have been working partly from home and have not been able to take business trips outside Hong Kong since early this year, so we actually have more volunteers available now than before. Large multinational companies are also trying to keep their professional employees engaged in volunteering to develop their social awareness, empathy and leadership skills, as well as meet the corporate social responsibility targets. Pro bono work and skills-based volunteering using online platforms would also allow volunteers and NGO leaders to observe the social distancing rules under the “new normal”, resulting in a win-win scenario for business professionals, the multinational companies that employ them, and the social sector as a whole.

Michael: Also, in terms of stakeholders involved, there is a concentration of large NGOs that receive most of the government funding. Small NGOs are in a very different and unique community, and need to compete for donors, funders and volunteers creatively in order to survive. Pro bono can contribute to the growth of this small NGO sector and help it become a more sustainable and mature sector.

Learn more about our volunteers in the following article. 


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