Dr. Lui Che-woo shares his personal story of how the traditional Chinese value of harmony guides his approach to giving.
The paramount cultural value in China is harmony — an often misunderstood value that has its roots in Confucianism.
Harmony, in the Confucian sense, does not mean everyone is the same with identical or even similar ideas, backgrounds, and goals. Rather, it is described as “harmony but not sameness,” meaning that all partners, with diverse ideas and ideals, flourish within a partnership.
The pursuit of harmony, as understood by Confucius, guides my philanthropic approach and may help guide other philanthropists as they endeavor to spread good and reduce suffering in the world. Harmony is a powerful and effective guiding principle for social investors for two key reasons.
First, a focus on harmony encourages us to consider multiple points of leverage. How many of us, when we assess our portfolio of giving, see all the same type of organizations working from the same perspective? How likely are we to increase harmony if we are approaching a problem from a single perspective and leverage point again and again?
Consider instead the likelihood of increasing harmony and achieving scaled impact if we approach the problem from two or even three angles.
For example, the winner of the 2019 LUI Che Woo Sustainability Prize was The Nature Conservancy, a global conservation NGO that brings together individuals, local communities, government departments, and private businesses to collectively tackle the world’s biggest and most important challenges such as climate change, water scarcity, and food shortages. Its strategy — to build a coalition that could effect change in country after country and issue after issue — has been extremely successful precisely because the Conservancy has been able to harness the power of strength in numbers while maintaining harmony among its stakeholders.
How would the organization’s impact change if it instead worked alone in its silo trying to force change? Not only would it likely be less impactful, it would likely sow discord.
This brings me to the second insight we gain by looking through the Confucian lens of harmony — it presupposes the existence of a system. Of course, if we are working to increase harmony, we are working to attain a balance within a system of institutions and people that is more productive and acceptable to our stated beneficiaries and the other people and institutions within that system. And it is by focusing on this system that we can achieve our greatest impact.
Consider a cause particularly close to my heart: education. To approach philanthropy with a strategy of increasing harmony, we must ask what part of the education system is out of balance?
Are employers telling us that they cannot identify qualified candidates? Are teachers telling us that their classrooms are empty with students dropping out of school at a young age, just as I was forced to leave my education?
To increase harmony, we must ask these questions and follow the answers upstream, to work alongside the different stakeholders in the system to achieve a more balanced education system. This solution will be more flexible, durable, and scalable than the simple Band-Aid approach you might arrive at without attention to harmony.
The superior person is in harmony, but does not follow the crowd. The lesser person follows the crowd, but is not in harmony.
In 2018, the LUI Che Woo Prize was awarded to Pratham for its work in improving literacy. Pratham acts on three levels: 1) directly helping one million children attain basic literacy and numeracy; 2) collaborating with governments to improve systemic effectiveness by training teachers in evidence-based methods; and 3) impacting national and international policy through a unique annual, citizen-led national education survey report.
Through such an approach, all stakeholders in the system are engaged and moving in the same direction to achieve harmony and progress. Moreover, with such an approach we can achieve durable impact — with national government policies and programs serving to magnify, replicate, and institutionalize the impact.
An ancient Chinese proverb says, “the highest goodness is like water, for water is excellent in benefiting all things, and yet it remains humble.” My goal is to engage in philanthropy that is like water — powerful enough to split rocks or create a verdant pasture where there had been only desert, yet humbly focused on working through an array of partners to achieve and nurture harmony at a systems level.
I believe if mutual understanding is achieved, just as rivers join to become an ocean, we can all nourish one another, and create a civilized, peaceful, and harmonious world.