John D. Rockefeller III’s fascination with Japan led to his founding of the Asia Society. In July 1942, Rockefeller joined the navy, where he worked on a task force that planned post-war policy for Japan. Although he was mustered out in 1945, after the war, he was appointed as a cultural consultant to then ambassador-at-large John Foster Dulles during the Japan peace treaty negotiations.
As Rockefeller fostered improved U.S.- Japan relations, he came to love the country and its people. He and his wife Blanchette began collecting Asian art. It didn’t take long for more war to wrack the continent. In an attempt to promote greater understanding and closer ties between Asia and the United States, Rockefeller founded the Asia Society in 1956. It was just two years after the French had been beaten in Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh’s army and three years after the end of the Korean War.
That's a pretty glamorous backstory, but how's the Asia Society doing six decades later? How has its mission evolved? And, most importantly—for our purposes, anyway—how's it doing on the funding front?
As part of our ongoing series on nonprofit development operations, Inside Philanthropy spoke with Christine Davies, Asia Society’s vice president of global partnerships and development, about how the organization funds its annual budget of more than $35 million by tapping individuals, governments, corporations, and foundations.
“The reason I was brought on board was because there was a desire for a transition or transformation of Asia Society to no longer be about just Asia-U.S. relations, but to really make Asia Society about Asia’s role in the world,” Davies said. “The business and economic picture couldn’t be clearer. Some of the best opportunities for growth these days are in Asia, and so whether you are a consumer products company or are a financial service company or an industrial company, or you’re a general service company, consulting and the like, Asia is a large region you can’t afford to ignore. So the real opportunity for us is to be a trusted partner that helps to signal the value of commitment to Asia.”
Today, Asia Society is headquartered in New York, in a gorgeous building on Park Avenue, but has centers in Hong Kong and Houston, as well as offices in Los Angeles, Manila, Mumbai, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney, Washington, D.C. and Zurich
That's a pretty extensive—and, we imagine, expensive—infrastructure for carrying out Asia Society's mission of promoting "mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders and institutions of Asia and the United States in a global context" through an array of channels, including the "arts, business, culture, education, and policy."
So where does all the money come from?
“In priority order from largest to smallest support, we get 40 percent [of our funding] from individuals, 40 percent from companies, foundations and then governments,” Davies said. She adds: “Our educational program has gotten the most government and institutional support.”
Davies credits the society’s emphasis on problem solving for its government and institutional backing. “It’s not just about drawing a list of grievances for someone else to tackle. We have a real focus on metrics and results. Without naming names, we do have significant seven-figure backers within the individual and corporate space, and then on the foundation side, it’s several backers in six-figures.”
Over the last couple of years, Asia Society’s significant foundation supporters have included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, MetLife Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Houston Endowment, the Monteforte Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and, as would be expected, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Like most other nonprofits, Asia Society finds unrestricted support hard to come by. So its development team spends a lot of time hustling for project support—aided by a strong portfolio of activities that includes its policy institute, its center on Asian arts and culture, its global competency education, and much more.
Davies says that the development folks at Asia Society are always looking to bundle things by "applying for a number of multiple-year grants that can support several projects or a number of activities that are being conducted, as opposed to going through that rhythm piece by piece for all the different things that we are doing."
Of course, that's a familiar strategy of nonprofits with a lot going on. Maybe you can't land that big two-year general support grant from X foundation, but the next best thing is a commitment that stitches multiple project grants together into something that looks similar.
One major shift in Asia Society's funding strategy, which Davies was brought onboard to orchestrate, has been "to develop a bit more of a partnership mindset when it comes to how we fundraise." This has involved reducing staff in the organization's external affairs department and redirecting these resources to cultivate "foundation, institutional, and government relations, because our goal there is to grow those partnerships, hopefully multi-year partnerships, by a significant percentage over the next several years."
Making a point that will be familiar to many veteran development officers, Davies said that the "investment needed to establish and grow these partnerships takes a great deal of time." Putting them front and center, she said, has "really been an effort that we’ve been focused on at least during the majority of my tenure so that we can have even more and larger numbers of those partnerships supporting all aspects what Asia Society does."
It's not that Asia Society has sworn off galas. “We still see events as a very important way to steward folks who are giving unrestricted support and (who) like those types of events," Davies said. "But we are spending more dollars with special event firms to help us deliver those events, as opposed to strictly doing them in-house."
Asia Society's biggest event is the Asian Game Changer awards dinner, held at the United Nations headquarters in New York, now in its third year. The event honors people and organizations that are making a huge impact on Asia. The inaugural game changer was Jack Ma, the 51-year-old founder of the Chinese ecommerce site Alibaba who, according to Forbes, is worth $23 billion.
But there are other key Asia Society events, including ones connected to Art Basel in Hong Kong, and Asia Week in New York. Meanwhile, the Tiger Ball, pulled together by the Asia Society's Texas arm, has become a highlight of the Houston social calendar. In March of 2016, the Tiger Ball raised more than $1 million.
What advice does Davies offer for other nonprofits? “Stay really focused on keeping your members and supporters well served and stewarded," she said. "Make the experience one of real delight and of consequence for them. That puts you in on a pathway where trying to get renewals and continued support isn’t that hard." Davies added:
Be externally focused to be aware of what else is going on in the marketplace by similar organizations and how they are positioning themselves. Be willing to look at how you might tweak or position your organization and value proposition as a result, because those are critical pieces to keep that differentiation in some way. So if, at the end of the day, someone has got to make a decision between spending their time and treasure among organizations, hopefully they will choose yours.