28th May 2024 – (Hong Kong) From the glittering ballrooms of Hong Kong’s charity galas to the star-studded stages of televised fundraisers, the world of philanthropy has become increasingly intertwined with the allure of celebrity and the promise of public recognition. Events like the annual Tung Wah Charity Gala and the Pok Oi Charity Show have become staples of the city’s social calendar, offering the wealthy and influential a chance to showcase their generosity while basking in the glow of public adulation.

Yet amidst this spectacle of philanthropy, a troubling trend has emerged: the rise of the egocentric donor, for whom charitable giving has become less about making a difference and more about making a name. From sprawling university buildings to glittering museum wings, the cityscape of Hong Kong and beyond is increasingly dotted with monuments to the vanity of the mega-rich, their names etched in stone as a testament to their supposed benevolence.

This obsession with recognition has not gone unnoticed. As The New York Times reported, philanthropists like Ronald O. Perelman and Stephen A. Schwarzman have pledged staggering sums to institutions that now bear their names, from the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Business Innovation at Columbia University to the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at the New York Public Library. While these gifts are undoubtedly generous, they raise uncomfortable questions about the motivations behind such high-profile philanthropy.

In sharp contrast to this trend stands the example of Louis Koo, the Hong Kong actor, singer, and film producer whose low-profile philanthropy has earned him a reputation as one of the city’s most humble and impactful donors. Despite his celebrity status, Koo has consistently shunned the spotlight when it comes to his charitable work, preferring to let his actions speak louder than his name.

In 2012, Chinese microblogs caught wind of Koo’s extensive contributions to education in rural China, where he had quietly helped build dozens of elementary schools in remote and underprivileged areas. Without any fanfare or publicity, Koo had set up the Grace Charity Foundation in the wake of the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008, channeling his wealth and influence into projects that would directly benefit those most in need.

As more and more people began to uncover the extent of Koo’s philanthropy, a picture emerged of a man deeply committed to the principle of anonymous giving. From elementary schools to clinics and water supply projects, Koo’s foundation had touched the lives of countless individuals in rural China, all without the need for public recognition or praise.

Koo’s example powerfully illustrates the true purpose of philanthropy: making a positive difference in the world rather than boosting one’s ego. The medieval Jewish sage Maimonides emphasised that the highest form of charity is given anonymously, preserving the dignity of both giver and the receiver. This view aligns with the teachings of Jesus, who advised against publicising charitable deeds and encouraged giving in secret.

Of course, the desire for recognition is a deeply human one, and there is no denying the role that public philanthropy can play in inspiring others to give. As Patricia Illingworth, editor of “Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy,” notes, “public giving is more desirable in many ways, because it really creates this culture of giving.” The high-profile pledges of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, for instance, have undoubtedly spurred other wealthy individuals to follow suit.

Yet the true measure of a philanthropist lies not in the size of their name on a building, but in the depth of their commitment to the causes they support. By giving quietly and consistently, without the need for public acclaim, donors like Louis Koo embody the very essence of what it means to be charitable: to give not for the sake of oneself, but for the sake of others.

In an age of widening inequality and ostentatious wealth, the need for humility in philanthropy has never been greater. As the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow, there is a risk that charitable giving will become just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way for the mega-rich to flaunt their status and assuage their guilt without truly making a difference.

To combat this trend, we must cultivate a culture of principled, anonymous giving, one that values impact over recognition and substance over spectacle. This means encouraging donors to give not just with their wallets, but with their hearts, to seek out causes that truly resonate with their values and to support them with the kind of quiet dedication exemplified by Louis Koo.

It also means recognising that true philanthropy is about more than just writing a check. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner notes, “The goal of all religion is to help you outwit your ego, shoot the sucker between the eyes, get it out of the way.” By giving of ourselves – our time, our energy, our passion – we can transcend the narrow confines of self-interest and tap into something far greater: the universal human impulse to help others and make the world a better place.

In the end, the choice between recognition and anonymity in philanthropy is a deeply personal one, shaped by each individual’s values, circumstances, and beliefs. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to charitable giving, and it would be wrong to suggest that all public philanthropy is inherently egocentric or misguided.