Modern philanthropy: James Chen's moonshot journey
James Chen believes today’s philanthropists are in a unique position to take risks, and to use their capital to achieve real social change.
James Chen is passionate about driving real change. A leading example of a modern philanthropist, his approach is one of engagement and impact, strategically mobilising resources around a core goal.
This 'moonshot' approach requires the development of specialist knowledge and expertise, and a commitment of both time and resources not always seen in philanthropy. It aims to address the root causes of an issue, while at the same time galvanising key players to see and do things differently.
"I have spent the last 17 years on a moonshot journey to ensure that everyone, everywhere has access to vision correction and glasses," Chen explains.
The essence of moonshot philanthropy is to leverage wealth as the unique superpower of the high-net worth community to fund high-risk, out-of-the-box ideas in the search for scalable solutions.
In Chen's case, this means not just giving funds, but also setting up an NGO, campaigning and sharing research, all around the one issue that has become his focus and his passion: poor vision.
Addressing an age-old problem
The Chen family has been involved in philanthropy for three generations. Chen's own approach was inspired by that of his father, who also went beyond traditional philanthropic models of giving to a deeper level of engagement, dedicating significant time and effort to his philanthropic endeavours.
Chen's decision to focus his philanthropy on vision came from his own experience with poor vision. He says that the glasses he wears every day remind him that this issue can be solved.
"All I knew was that I had blurry vision, but when I got up in the morning and I put my glasses on, I could see clearly. It helped to give me that compass: if it can work for me, why shouldn't it work for anybody in the world who needs glasses?"
His natural curiosity also played a part. Growing up in Africa and visiting developing countries in Asia, Chen was struck that very few people wore glasses. He wondered why those in the developing world were not benefiting from an invention that has existed for 700 years.
This personal experience has informed his passion, which has sustained him even when encountering setbacks.
Tackling the problem from all sides
Although his goal was clear, achieving it has not always been straightforward. Early frustration came from development experts and eye-care professionals who told him mass vision correction was impossible in low-resource countries. Undeterred, he set up his own NGO, Vision for a Nation, and partnered with the Rwandan Ministry of Health to provide access to vision correction and glasses to the people of Rwanda. Showing that his approach worked in Rwanda allowed him to demonstrate that change was possible in the developing world.
His frustration turned to determination, and he moved from delivery to influencing, creating another NGO, Clearly, to campaign for governments and policymakers to act, and establishing a Friends of Vision group at the UN. He used research to drive his advocacy – for example, showing how correcting poor vision increases the productivity of tea pickers by 22 per cent – providing the evidence that world leaders and policymakers can use to prioritise the issue in their countries.
Big ambitions, big changes
Chen is eager to share what he has learned about philanthropy, because "we have the opportunity to solve the great problems of the world today."
He wants his moonshot model to inspire others to step out of their philanthropic comfort zones and use their wealth to achieve their own goals and achieve sustainable change.
The term 'moonshot' has its roots in President John F Kennedy's 1961 speech1, which set out the ambition for the moon landing: that America "should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth". It has come to mean an ambitious, expensive project that, while difficult, will result in exceptional social gains.
Its audacity inspires commitment and motivation in ways that incremental change does not. Recent examples include a project to advance cancer therapies and the Million Girls Moonshot, a funder collaboration seeking to engage one million school-age girls in the US in STEM learning over the next five years.2
Building on success, learning from failure
Chen's advice to younger philanthropists is to start early and pursue a cause.
This gives you time to develop your domain expertise. The more of an expert you become on an issue, the more your chances of being able to fund things that will be successful.
Since effecting real social change requires perseverance, Chen says that the challenge is to sustain effort over this long-term commitment. An analysis of 15 world-changing initiatives by social impact consultancy The Bridgespan Group identified four factors needed for success: decades-long persistence, collaboration, engagement with government and significant levels of funding.3 These are all reflected in Chen's moonshot approach.
Reflecting on his achievements, Chen acknowledges that he is lucky to have had support from his family, who understand that philanthropy involves setbacks and takes time. In fact, Chen frequently cites his good fortune. However, his accomplishments are not just down to luck. Commitment and preparedness matter; the trick is to harvest the lucky breaks along your journey, and learn from the unlucky ones, he says.
Imparting values for future generations
When it comes to his own children, Chen does not intend to impose philanthropy upon them. Instead, he and his wife act as role models, in the same way that his father's engaged approach inspired him. They seek to impart important values, including that it's their duty to give back. The spirit of the saying, 'To whom much is given, much is expected' is something they try to instil in their children.
Alongside serving as a role model within his own family, Chen is inspiring the next generation of philanthropists – those who are keen to be engaged and to learn, and who approach their giving as problems to be solved rather than institutions to be supported.4
But he is not about to stop his own philanthropic journey. Vison for a Nation, which started in Rwanda, has now expanded to Ghana, and there are plans to enter additional countries. In 2021, Clearly will be merging with the eye-sector coordinating body, the International Association for the Prevention of Blindness, so their joint forces achieve a deeper impact.
This modern philanthropist has his sights on the world's 2.2 billion people who have poor vision. With his focus and commitment, it seems a reasonable bet that he has the ability to realise his moonshot ambition to help them all.
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About James Chen
James Chen is chairman of the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation, a foundation formed by his father and focused on improving early childhood literacy, and chairman of Wahum Group Holdings, a third-generation family-owned manufacturing business. He is also the founder of his family office, Legacy Advisors Ltd.
In 2011, Chen founded Vision for a Nation, an award-winning charity supporting emerging nations in providing affordable glasses and primary eye care to their citizens, and has since launched the Clearly campaign and charity to promote awareness of the global vision issue.
Read more about his philanthropic projects at www.jameschen.vision.
1Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, history.nasa.gov ↩
3Audacious Philanthropy: Lessons from 15 world-changing initiatives, Harvard Business Review, 2017 ↩
4Next Gen Donors Shaping the Future of Philanthropy, GrantCraft.org ↩