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  1. Impact Philanthropy
January 22, 2024

Impact Award winner James Chen on taking ‘big bets’ in philanthropy

Spear's Awards 2024 winner: James Chen of the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation took home the Impact Award

By Edwin Smith

It wasn’t until James Chen had a driving test that he realised his vision was so poor it should be addressed. ‘I fell through the cracks,’ he tells Spear’s when we meet in a bustling Mayfair cafe. But if the son of a successful entrepreneur from Qidong in China could go so long without being able to see as well as he might, what about those who couldn’t access the eye tests and glasses those in the rich world take for granted?

[See also: James Chen: Why I am a ‘catalytic’ philanthropist]

Improving the vision of billions

Chen would go on to discover that some 2.2 billion people around the world struggle with uncorrected poor vision. It prompted him to take the first of what he calls his ‘big bets’: a major philanthropic project with the ambitious goal of providing cheap, adjustable glasses to the more than one million people in Rwanda who needed them.

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A UK-based charity, Vision for a Nation, was set up in 2011 and within five years had helped to train 2,700 nurses to deliver the necessary test and eyewear through 502 health centres, making the service available to the entire population of Rwanda.

[Click here to register for updates on the Spear’s Awards 2024]

Good vision can be instrumental in economic development. However, Chen says, when the 17 UN sustainable development goals were revealed in 2015, the importance of sight was not among them.

After years of campaigning and evidence-gathering, he eventually succeeded in securing a United Nations resolution in 2021 that committed the UN to the goal of affordable eyecare for everyone.

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Driving change

James Chen wants to encourage UHNWs to treat philanthropic capital as one would treat a traditional investment portfolio / Image: Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation

In the past year or so, Chen has launched eight additional trials, with the aim of further establishing the impact that clear vision can have on education, wellbeing and productivity. But he also has another aim: to extol the virtues of this kind of ‘moonshot philanthropy’ to other UHNWs who have the means to power it. More people are realising that, he says, ‘if you want to drive real change, risk capital is very important’.

[See also: Who won at the Spear’s Awards 2023? The complete list of winners revealed]

It’s not straightforward to get a moonshot project going, as some signatories of the Giving Pledge have discovered. Part of the reason, Chen believes, is that there’s so much uncertainty in the outcomes that will be achieved by philanthropy. And to have at least a good chance of one’s investment being effective requires domain expertise that is difficult and time-consuming to acquire.

Chen, whose day-job is overseeing the investment strategy of his family office, has invested ‘north of $10 million’ in each of his two ‘big bets’ to date, and has seen the success that can be achieved. Now he hopes to encourage some of his peers to contribute to similar ‘moonshot’ projects.

He advocates treating philanthropic capital as one would treat a traditional investment portfolio – with at least a small proportion allocated to high-risk investments with the potential to generate outsize returns. ‘It may not work,’ he says. ‘But it’s [the kind of investment] that is able to push the boundaries of understanding and progress.’

Click here to register for updates on the Spear’s Awards 2024

This feature is published in Spear’s Magazine Issue 90. Click here to subscribe

Cover: Cat Sims

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