James Chen: “Philanthropists have to act as catalysts to increase the rate of change”

Words: Florence Robson

Philanthropist James Chen has dedicated over fifteen years to tackling the global crisis of vision, through his roles as Chair of the Chen Yet Sen Family Foundation and the founder of Adlens, Vision for a Nation and the global Clearly campaign. We spoke to James about taking inspiration from his father, favouring innovation over bureaucracy, and why risk is the secret ingredient in genuinely impactful philanthropy.

You come from a legacy of entrepreneurship and philanthropic giving. What did you learn from your father about balancing business goals with social impact?

My late father was the most inspirational person. He grew up in a very poor town and even experienced a famine as a child. It left a deep impression and so when he succeeded in his career, he put a lot of effort into giving back. His approach wasn’t just about writing cheques; it was about spending time in the community, engaging people and understanding the best way to help. I approach giving in the same way – we use the term ‘catalytic philanthropy’.

What drove you to focus your philanthropic efforts on poor vision?

From the moment I was told I first needed glasses – it was when I failed my driving test at fifteen years old – I started seeing the world differently. I was instantly aware of the stark contrast between my own upbringing in parts of developing Asia and Africa where I was conscious glasses were not as readily available

The more I looked into it the more I discovered there were huge gaps in people’s access to eyecare and that poor vision is a thread that runs throughout education, productivity, equality and more. By addressing this first, we can go a long way to addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

What are the goals of the Clearly campaign?

Clearly was launched as a global campaign to raise awareness of poor vision as a global issue. Our goal is that everyone who needs them should have access to a pair of glasses. In 2019, the World Health Organisation found that 2.2 billion people worldwide have poor vision. For one billion people this could be solved with a pair of glasses – a solution which we’ve had for over 700 years. It became my mission to make sure no one suffers in life because of lack of access to this simple solution.

Our approach is to communicate this objective, research around the issue and raise awareness of its importance amongst policy makers and government officials. Whether you want to improve livelihoods, educational outcomes or gender equality – none of that will be possible if a third of the world’s population can’t see clearly.

Most recently, Clearly launched our ‘Glasses in Classes campaign’ to address poor vision in school children. In 2020, over 310 million children are short sighted, with the number projected to rise to 480 million by 2050. ‘Glasses in Classes’ is a global campaign to get sight tests, affordable glasses and other treatments into every school in the world in order to give every child the best start in life.

What technology are you most excited about in the area of vision?

There are lots of technological developments in this area to be excited about but I think the one that’s going to drive the biggest change is actually smartphones and the IT revolution, as it allows you to screen people for vision issues as cheaply as possible. Technology is brilliant for driving down the cost of access.

You’ve spoken about the need for innovation over bureaucracy when it comes to solving global issues. Can you share more about how this approach led to results with your work in Rwanda?

I founded Vision for a Nation (VFAN) to help develop a strategy for countries where people were struggling to get access to affordable eyecare. I was able to provide the risk capital needed to fund the research into the best solutions through VFAN. We could then take this research to the Ministry of Health so they could implement these solutions and develop a sustainable system.

By learning and researching the issue, I was able to develop domain expertise in the area of poor vision so that I could see my investments were based on well-evidenced and data-backed proof points, ensuring maximum impact and success.

We could see that for many they didn’t need specialist eye doctors; the first step was to enable access to eye tests. 2,700 nurses were trained and over 2.5 million Rwandans received a vision screening either at their local health centre or as part of an outreach programme that reached all 15,000 villages nationwide.

In 2012, only 15% of the population had access to local eye care services. Fast forward to today and every single person in Rwanda can benefit from local, affordable vision correction and treatment and since 2018, VFAN has been working to do the same in Ghana. When you want to have real impact and scale programmes, you have to work with the government and gain their support.

Why do you think that risk is so essential in philanthropy?

Charities and governments are hugely accountable so do not have the loss-absorbing capital or the ability to take early stage risks that philanthropists possess. Like incubating any business venture, true philanthropy involves deploying loss-absorbing capital, domain expertise and perseverance to bring about long-term change. It is about investing time, drawing on expertise and aligning your investment with your values while expecting no financial gain in return.

Philanthropists have to act as catalysts to increase the rate of change. In a recent study, Bridgespan found that 66% of world-changing social impact initiatives in the past century featured donors making one or more philanthropic ‘big bets’, a ‘big bet’ being US$10M or more of capital risk.

Private citizens are behind some of the greatest inventions and ideas in the world, including some that we all take for granted. Street lights, municipal sewer systems, 911 emergency services, telephone lines, and white lines defining the edge of the road for drivers are all essential, and all relied at some point on the generosity and energy of private citizens.

By using their risk capital, philanthropists are able to privatise failure and socialise success.

What do you see as the role of philanthropy in a post-COVID-19 era?

We need a philanthropist to take the long-term look at COVID-19, as Bill Gates has done with Malaria, to ensure we do not have a pandemic like this in the future. The immediate priority for philanthropy must be to roll out testing and find a vaccine, but we also need to think about how we build a recovery after COVID-19 has passed. Collaboration allows philanthropists to build up domain expertise, with intense knowledge and experience of the sector and issue, and a keen awareness of how best to address it.

Countries like Rwanda, working with charities like Vision for a Nation, have led the way in building primary eye care systems from scratch in just a few years and we need to encourage this collaboration on multiple issues going forward.

Learn more about James’ work here.