Former banker is building a contemporary philanthropy structure

Christopher Wilson's foundation reaches out to UNHW families and younger people to fund projects that create a social impact across Southeast Asia

Christopher Wilson
Christopher Wilson

Christopher Wilson, co-founder of the Water and Healthcare Foundation, is building a reputation as a go-to expert in establishing philanthropic ventures in the region. His current role, which frequently sees him out in the field, is a far cry from his former high-flying career in wealth management.

Yet he is probably busier and working more hours each day than he did while building the foundations for a family-owned Swiss private bank to enter Asia.

However, Wilson still utilizes attributes from those days like a driven personality aligned with strong negotiation and fine-tuned diplomacy skills to make life-changing social impact in Southeast Asia. 

As this article goes to press, Wilson and his team would have just given the gift of sight back to 300 people in rural Cambodia who will receive simple cataract surgery.

The roots of the latest venture came from a fund-raising dinner in Singapore hosted by Wilson, which raised enough for his foundation to put together a leading eye specialist team and put them into action. For many, the procedure will be transformative giving them and their families a renewed purpose, improved family relationships, and for some, the chance to gain employment.

Trudging around the Cambodian countryside is a far cry from Wilson’s previous work environment walking to business meetings through the steel and glass tower valleys of Asia’s leading wealth hubs.

Wilson joined asset manager GT Management in 1987 in London before moving to Singapore in 1990 to set up the firm’s Southeast Asian office. Once established in the region, he was headhunted by Edgar de Picciotto, the founder and chairman of Geneva-based Union Bancaire Privee, to run and expand the bank’s Asian operations.

He relocated to Hong Kong to manage the business in Asia, got the Swiss bank a fund management operation and built teams in the region. He was the bank’s head of private banking in Asia from early 1993 to 1995. Towards the end of 1995, he moved to British bank Coutts, known as The Queen’s Bank, where he held senior roles in both Hong Kong and Singapore.

The early nineties were heady times for bankers in Asia and Hong Kong in particular. Philanthropy and social investing were not on the radar unless you were a property tycoon building a hospital or school emblazoned with your name.

Yet something was stirring inside for Wilson. A long career path with leading financial institutions was being mapped out for him, but he desired a more spiritual form of profit.  

A decade earlier, as an officer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, Wilson had seen active duty on the brutal streets of Northern Ireland. Stuck in the middle of the deep and bitter sectarian war, he witnessed man’s inhumanity to man on an almost hourly basis. That experience and a spell of active duty in The Sultanate of Oman gave him a perspective on life few of his banking peers could comprehend.

So when the time came to walk the talk on establishing a philanthropic foundation with a purpose, Wilson, by then a Singaporean citizen, was ready.

It has been a decade since he launched his foundation during which time he has steadily calibrated operations.

He admits mistakes were made in the early days, which he terms a learning process, but the structure is now robust and he feels contemporary almost to the point of disruption.  He firmly believes the traditional model of donating money and walking away is an outdated platform now, something he also shared at a recent event involving UHNW families and younger people.

“Yes, totally outdated, and in fact you look at the statistics of [the ration] of money that actually gets to where it should go, and in some cases it's just 20 percent,” says Wilson.

“I think the mentality has changed. The new model is, yes, I'm going to put money in but I want to know everything about the cause, some even want to visit the end recipients,” he adds.

He also believes that having a modern philanthropic purpose is good for families, citing his own as a prime example. Wilson is married to Tan Su Shan a well-known figure in Asian wealth management in her own right and currently group head of institutional banking at DBS Bank. She along with their teenage children regularly join Wilson in Cambodia on foundation work, an experience he says tightens family bonds.

According to Wilson, wealthy families in Asia have to decide what they want to do with their wealth.

While some rich families grasp the concept of doing good early, others think it is not for them.

“Where we have got to today with families is where a grandfather dies and even if children and family members have millions in the bank, they want more. I mean, you've got to bring families together and explain the benefits of doing some good, not just continually pursuing greed and power,” Wilson says.

To broaden his influence on how philanthropy should adapt to changing demographics and shifting cultural patterns, Wilson recently joined a Singapore-based multi-family office, Golden Equator Wealth, as philanthropy ambassador.

Among his mandates in his new consulting role is the mission to educate and mentor wealthy families on how to deliver a contemporary philanthropy vehicle.

Throughout Asia, family patriarchs and business owners are in the process of passing on their empires to the next generation. This transfer of wealth is becoming a more intricate procedure as traditional Asian values face challenges. 

With many of those now inheriting vast amounts of wealth educated overseas and developing markedly different values to the generations that built the family fortunes, the process needs to be handled with empathy and careful consideration.

Whereas their grandparents or parents may have generously written a cheque to support their chosen cause, the coming generations have a different outlook.

There is substantial support for impact investing among the next generation in Asia. They are more focused on society, doing good, and the environment, and see their investments as a tool to make impactful changes.

Wilson is impressed by the growing ranks of young Asians who are tackling head-on environmental, social and corporate governance issues. “The young generation are absolutely amazing now. I mean, I'm working with young people in their 20s and 30s and they're outstanding. They are just so driven by wanting to do good,” says Wilson.

And with the next and millennial generations seen as instruments of change, Wilson has tapped into social media to garner more attention for his causes.

Using YouTube influencers, he has brought his foundation to the attention of millions. “We had a brilliant influencer called Carli Bybel join us in Cambodia. She raised US$135,000 for a three-year scholarship for 32 girls to go to a local college in Kampong Chhnang. She designed and sold bracelets online to her followers, who number more than 6 million.

She's a celebrity in the States and she was great with the young people. She was hugging everyone, taught them a little makeup lesson, and gave them bracelets,” he adds.

He hopes to continue with his disruption of the antiquated philanthropic models of the past and you would not bet against him making more waves. 

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