Jess Warren investigates the growth of philanthropic work in Ho Chi Minh City, tracking down the people working hard to better the lives of others. Additional reporting by Chloe Owen. Photos by Angeli Castillo.

Many of us want to do good. Whether that’s doing something to make someone’s day a little easier, or dropping some change into a charity collector’s pot. But for some of us, this isn’t enough.

There’s a growing number of people within the expat and local communities who are collaborating to sow the seeds of philanthropy across the country. As a result, altruism is flourishing in new ways within and beyond Ho Chi Minh City.

Canadian-born Ben Mawdsley embodies this desire to do more and help improve people’s lives. Starting small, he encouraged the students who attended his free Sunday English class to find solutions to issues within their hometowns.

For Ben, the desire to help comes from a moral responsibility. He pointed out that “we’ve been born in comfortable conditions; we have a responsibility to those that are less well off, and [Vietnam] is a place where you can make a real difference”.

As a result he has created Audium, a community group of locals and expats who are working to better the lives of others within Vietnam. Nicknamed the ‘Audium Army’, the forum operates to network and support each other with their efforts to create positive change.

Now running huge food drives to orphanages in the surrounding areas of Ho Chi Minh City, Audium collects donations of food and supplies, and delivers these much-needed goods to children who are in need.

Currently, Ben’s approach comes from his desire to help others, and to see the difference he can personally create. Originally self-funded, but now supported by sponsors, Ben’s honest and unwavering attitude to wanting to help those in need is exemplified in his charity work.

Audium’s next step is to take their charitable desire and work towards creating sustainable, long-term change. Focusing on the skills that can be developed in these young people, Ben’s five-year plan involves opening a completely skills-based school.

His plan is to equip those that attend with the hard and soft skills that will help them through life. Listing the facilities he wants to include, such as “a dojo, a kitchen, a garden, and classrooms”, Ben’s vision is to provide the skills for his students so they can venture off into the world. Whether that is gaining a job here in Vietnam, or going to work or study abroad.

Growing from simple charitable acts, to a long-term and sustained approach to philanthropy, Ben exemplifies how people’s desire to help others can grow into something bigger than they initially imagined.

Charity or Philanthropy?

Philanthropy is a word thrown about within the charitable and corporate worlds, and yet it has a variety of applications. Philanthropy is much more than a charitable act, and it goes further and is far more rewarding than reaching into your pocket and dishing out money. Instead, it is the altruistic efforts that individuals and organisations take to improve human welfare.

Philanthropy is an ancient idea, dating back to Plato, the Greek philosopher who wrote in the mid-fourth century BCE. Plato’s will left his farm to his family, with instructions that the proceeds be used to fund the academy Plato founded, this was the beginnings of philanthropic work, as the money helped to keep the academy running. Yet philanthropy has now grown beyond simply a monetary donation.

By donating your time, voice, reputation and effort, this can often provide greater help than any monetary value, as the impacts are longer-term and more sustainable, all for the benefit of social welfare.

Where charity can often be seen as temporary monetary assistance, such as donating to the World Wildlife Fund, philanthropy has a more sustained approach, considering the needs of a community group or environmental project, and donating time and energy to the cause.

For Ben, it is evident to see how he is transitioning Audium from simple acts of kindness, to a philanthropic institute that develops the skills of disadvantaged youth across the country.

Make a Small Difference

Ann Maasbol, a Danish expat based in Ho Chi Minh City has taken a similar approach to Ben, as her work with Make a Small Difference (MASD) focuses on children who have had an unfortunate start to life.

“We decided to mainly work with one daycare shelter for children in the Mekong Delta by introduction of a friend, who has family in the area of Tra Vinh,” explained Ann.

“Their need was urgent and nobody else supported them, we like to help where there is no or very little support, or where we can see that we can make a small difference.

“Transparency is very important to us, and everything we do. We do it ourselves or ensure that we only deal with people that we trust and are always directly involved in donating funds without going through middlemen.”

Similarly to Audium, Ann said MASD has found themselves with an army of ambassadors, who work hard and help [MASD] a lot.

“They give a lot of themselves and everyone has their own special skill set that we value,” she said.

As with any sustainable charity and philanthropy work there is the need for capitalising on specific skill-sets.

Now looking for new projects in Hoi An and across Vietnam, MASD is aware of the need to supply long-term support for its new venture.

Streets International

Also taking this skill-based approach to philanthropy is Neal Bermas who started Streets International in 2007.

Inspired by the street children he saw wandering around District 1 on his first visit to Ho Chi Minh City almost 20 years ago, Neal believes all the “children of the world are our responsibility and deserve our support”. Much like Ben, he was driven by a desire to make a difference.

Taking a very specialised approach to help young people grow their hospitality skills, Neal recognised the great opportunities that emerging economies provide for the tourism and hospitality sectors.

With his own expertise in business, hospitality and culinary studies, he was equipped with the theoretical and practical knowledge to train people in hospitality, and provide them with a very professional and focused skillset.

Having grown to help more than 250 young people get jobs working in some of the best international resorts and hotels in Vietnam and beyond, the Streets International Hoi An campus runs three concurrent classes, each with about 25 trainees at a time, with roughly half the students coming from Ho Chi Minh City and southern Vietnam.

For Neal, the sustainable side to Streets International is essential.

“We know about the importance of transparency, developing operating standards, working with budgets, and at the same time staying focused on our mission,” he said.

Running his enterprise with such business acumen ensures their important work can be sustained into the future.

Proudly stating that “our enterprises are top-notch and profitable”, Streets International are able to provide no-cost, residential, culinary and hospitality training and apprenticing to terribly poor, disadvantaged and out-of-school youth in Vietnam, and soon from Cambodia.

“Working with our heads and our hearts makes for a winning and sustainable enterprise” said Neal, who emphasises the practicality of making change happen.

Interestingly, Streets International does not have a large volunteer programme. Neal said the volunteer dynamic often does not support an enterprise with the sort of consistency and long-term commitment that he believes is necessary.

However, while volunteering with Streets International is limited, Neal had some words of advice for any expats looking to get involved in charity and philanthropy.

“Get to know the organisations closely, and carefully check out both their governance and financials” he said. The impermanence of a singular monetary donation is something that concerns Neal, who expresses the importance of results.

“While the work of many charities touch our hearts, do they stand the test of time and analytics?”

“Our desire to help can be implemented more effectively if our resources are channelled into reputable organisations.”

Strategic Philanthropy

The governance, financials and analytics of an organisation are increasingly being discussed as more people move towards strategic philanthropy.

Going beyond the idea that philanthropy is all about giving, strategic philanthropy is a growing topic among individuals and companies that wish to mutually benefit from their actions. As a result, the term corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been brought to the table.

CSR exists for strategic and ethical purposes. Businesses and corporations often adopt CSR policies due to the ethical views of senior management. If a chief executive objects to the harm their company causes to the environment, they may look at ways to counteract the damage, such as engaging in a tree planting programme that offsets carbon emissions.

CSR strategies are also used to grow the trust of shareholders, as taking responsibility for corporate actions reduces business and legal risks. As a strategy, it encourages positive impacts on consumers, stakeholders, employees, investors, communities and the environment.

From this, there has been a rise in the idea of social business. That is, conducting business while having a positive impact on society and the environment. Easily integrated into a business strategy, and providing all the choice to senior management about the things that they care about and want to improve, the philanthropic side to business is growing here in Ho Chi Minh City and around the world.

LIN Centre for Community Development

The Listen-Inspire-Nurture (LIN) Centre is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation that strives to facilitate change. The centre connects local not-for-profit organisations (NPO) and grassroots organisations, skilled volunteers, and donors to aid in effective sustainable development and poverty alleviation in Vietnam.

Peter Cornish, the centre’s head of marketing and communications, said LIN bridges the gap between individual and corporate philanthropy and recipient NPOs.

“We encourage strategic giving, that is long term and sustainable, rather than one-off charitable donations,” he said.

“We focus on the importance of long-term planning and providing support to organisations that provide social benefit to the community.”

LIN works to connect organisations like Audium and MASD to volunteers with the skills to progress their work, as well as the all-important financial donors.

As recognised by Neal, specialised support is the most effective for changing lives. Linking volunteers who have a range of professional skills, such as accounting or website development to NPOs can help develop the organisation’s capacity.

Nga Nguyen, who volunteers as a member of Narrow the Gap’s Grant Allocation Committee for Round II.2018 (see a list of grant proposals on page 23), said many young not-for-profit organisations could benefit from expert support and advice on how to achieve their objectives in a more effective, sustainable way.

For LIN, they believe the community here in Ho Chi Minh City has the skills needed to progress itself. Peter said LIN works “specifically with local NPOs that are solving local problems that impact our community” which keeps the focus on achieving goals in Vietnam.

Where Audium, MASD and Streets International have recognised the need for operating with transparency and strong principles, LIN helps encourage this among other NPOs that are yet to see the benefit.

By providing a range of services such as workshops and training sessions, hosting meetings for individual NPO staff and volunteers, and providing physical spaces for NPOs to use, LIN helps to grow these partnerships.

The centre also supports donors who wish to help implement strategic, thoughtful philanthropy through one-on-one consultations, and information sharing. By creating the networking opportunities for  NPOs, donors, and volunteers to meet and understand each other’s needs, LIN fosters the idea of collaboration, and partnerships that benefit both sides.

This summer, LIN held the second annual How Doing Good is Good for Business conference. The event gathers international and local representatives from a variety of sectors to exhibit models of CSR and explore how businesses and NPOs can mutually benefit from partnerships.

Peter said LIN was active in encouraging this strategic approach to philanthropy, as well as spreading the understanding that doing good can be good for business, and that it was a two-way exchange. The corporation has got to benefit as well as the NPO and their recipients.

The conference encourages and enables businesses to grow sustainably and strengthens partnerships between businesses, nonprofits, and government.

Narrow the Gap

Established in 2009, LIN’s Narrow the Gap Community Fund aims to allocate local resources better, which can then be used to tackle the root causes of social issues in local communities. The programme engages people with a shared vision in order to raise awareness, which are invested in projects that address a variety of local needs.

The community and the programme’s Grant Allocation Committee vote to decide which organisations will ultimately receive support. The aim is that by running a selection process that engages local residents and grows public interest, the overall community participation to confront local problems increases.

By operating transparently, it encourages a range of people to get involved, from residents of Ho Chi Minh City to international individuals, businesses and organisations.

While local not-for-profit organisations and philanthropists benefit, the ultimate benefit lies with the marginalised groups who lack equal access to opportunities. These groups include undocumented migrants, people with disabilities, the urban impoverished, ethnic minorities, women, children, and other groups that are prone to facing discrimination.

Nga says Narrow the Gap provides an opportunity to connect with professionals in the field to know you’re not alone and they give you the support when you need it. Thus, the programme provides the bridge between organisations in need of guidance and professionals who are willing to offer it.

Narrow the Gap’s Success

Last year, Friends for Street Children (FFSC), a local Ho Chi Minh City organisation, secured funding from Narrow the Gap for their project entitled Supplying Drinking Water for 50 Households in District 8. The project addressed the potable water shortage by supplying a water treatment tank in the middle of the district, and was well received by all of the residents.

It was only through Narrow the Gap that FFSC was able to secure the funding to achieve their aim of increasing local families’ access to drinking water.