EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The Sky's The Limit For Asia's Philanthropy Space, Says UBS

Chrissy Coleman, Hong Kong, 3 December 2012


The offering

Marconi is clearly a passionate person – not just about giving back to society, also very much so about his clients. He enthusiastically spoke about treating them case-by-case and supporting them through the initial thinking phase to help them identify a tailored solution.

Thirteen years ago, in response to client demand, UBS WM set up the UBS Optimus Foundation, for which Marconi sits on the board. It works as a hybrid model in that while all the donations come from clients, all the costs are absorbed by UBS. Since its inception, the foundation has worked with over 12,000 contributors, donating close to $130million to over 250 projects in 75 countries.

On a day-to-day basis, with Marconi as the front-man, the advisory team offers a “one-stop-shop to philanthropy”, helping clients to develop their vision and mission; provide structure in the form of foundations and trusts; donate through various platforms, including the UBS Optimus Foundation; carry out due diligence of projects; and to continuously build up their knowledge through education events and studies.

These services are offered exclusively, and generally free, to UBS Wealth Management clients, with Marconi putting emphasis on its ‘more important clients’, presumably the big spenders.

Rising demand

When asked whether demand for these services is growing, Marconi was quick to respond: “Short answer: demand is growing. Around the world.” He gave two reasons why: 

One was that investors realise the complexity of philanthropy and the need for professionalism: “It’s not about how much they spend, which is what I call the ‘feel good’, but it’s about the ‘do good’ - ie, I want to make sure that I have an impact and that the money is well spent.”

The second reason is the emergent feeling for the need to give back. Marconi said: “We see a lot of successful entrepreneurs who get to a point and say, ‘OK, now what is my contribution back to society?’ ”  This is particularly prevalent in Asia with escalating riches and increasing awareness of social issues, including the unequal distribution of this growing wealth, said Marconi.

The future

Making comparisons to more developed economies, Marconi said: “In Europe there is (what I call) a lot of restructuring taking place at the moment, and because of people acknowledging the complexity, I think that they are rethinking their approach (to philanthropic giving/ values-based investing).”

 While typically we might associate philanthropic best practices with countries like the US, being home to names such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates and Skoll, Marconi said that in terms of giving back to the local community, “Philanthropy in Asia is extremely well established, it’s a tradition.”

However, he predicts that the region will spend the next five years or so learning from Western approaches while it is in the process of “building its infrastructure”, before becoming the lead innovator in the field of social giving and investment.

So what’s on the agenda for Marconi and his team of thirty, three of whom are based in Asia? “We are very optimistic about Asia bringing new innovative approaches to philanthropy. Asia is one of the key platforms in the wealth management business, and philanthropy is one of the key components of that business. Asia will lead in shaping philanthropic activities, so with time we will also be expanding,” he said.

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