Sunday, March 6, 2011

    Chat with Dr. John Fung

    Chat with Dr. John Fung

    A money saving smartphone application, an Asia Pacific nonprofit umbrella organization and a nonprofit internet service provider in Hong Kong, were all topics covered in my conversation with Dr. Fung.

    The world knows Dr. Fung as the head of the Hong Kong Council of Social Services, but to me he is uncle John, my father’s elementary school friend who graciously takes time out of his busy schedule to meet with me every time I am in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Council of Social Services a nonprofit umbrella organization that represents X number of nonprofits operating in Hong Kong. The council works with both corporations and non profits. The last time I sat in Dr. Fung’s office, I heard of some fascinating social media projects that the council was working on. In my most recent visit, Dr. Fung seemed to have upped the ante, revealing an even more ambitious set of projects.

    Dr. Fung shared three stories:

    Combatting Inflation with Smartphone applications

    In response to Hong Kong facing a wave of inflation, some estimate to be as high as ten percent, Dr. Fung has been in discussion with the Hong Kong Consumer Council to develop a smart phone application that would allow consumers to compare prices of groceries across stores. The application would pull publicly available pricing information from the websites of the supermarket chains, giving the consumer the most up to date grocery prices on their smartphone. Dr. Fung believed that this application has the potential to help struggling Hong Kong families fight rising grocery bills by allowing them to easily find the cheapest groceries.

    When I heard about this application, I thought it was a great idea as well as I am all for money saving applications. After a little thought, however, I realized that the people who would be most hurt by inflation are the ones who could not afford a smart phone. The people who stand to benefit most from such an application are the ones need it the least. Perhaps such an application should best be developed by a private corporation as such an application has money making potential written all over it.

    Techsoup, an Asia Pacific umbrella organization and a Global NGO Directory

    A week after our meeting, Dr. Fung flew to California to attend a conference hosted by Techsoup. Starting as a nonprofit directory, Techsoup boomed in both size and scope when it found its niche by acting as a middleman between charitable corporations and needy nonprofits. Techsoup solves the last mile problem in philanthropy, by connecting corporate donors with organizations that can distribute the donations to those in need.

    As one of the most successful partners in the Asia pacific region, the Hong Kong Council of Services was asked to create an Asia Pacific umbrella organization with their Australian counterpart, to better coordinate and distribute resources. It is exciting to see Hong Kong playing such a large role in the region.

    Due to his expertise regarding NGOs in China, Dr. Fung has been enlisted in helping Techsoup accomplish its larger goal, the creation of a global NGO directory. However, the way I see it; this goal, while noble, is impossible in China where many NGOs are registered as corporations and many more are not registered at all due to the near impossible nature of getting nonprofit status. Any effort to document NGOs in China would be futile without a complete overhaul of existing Chinese regulations, an overhaul that would have to come from the very top of the government.

    Founding a social ISP

    The last story that Dr. Fung told me was the most exciting and dare I say feasible? It was also the first time I had heard of a social internet service provider, an idea that I could see being exported to other countries. The Hong Kong government and Hong Kong Council of Services were working together to create a social internet service provider that would serve the “problem” customers that other service providers had. These problem customers are the low income customers who often times would not pay their bills on time, forcing ISPs to defer to collection agencies, who use questionably ethical means of extracting payment. The use of a third party to collect payments, cuts into the already razor thin margins of the industry.

    Enter the social ISP, backed by the Hong Kong government and council of social services. The goal of the social ISP is to take these problem customers off the hands of Hong Kong’s 200 ISPs. Renting fiber from the traditional ISPs at a discounted rate, the social ISP would deliver these savings to the problem customers. The competitive advantage of the social ISP would be its close connection with NGOs working in these disadvantaged communities. A trusted presence in these communities would theoretically allow the social ISP to have lower collection costs than its traditional counterparts; this is where the social ISP would earn its margin. In the end it is a win-win situation for the traditional ISP and its problem customers; the traditional ISP would gain a higher margin due to reduced customer service and collection costs, while the problem customer gains access cheaper internet from a more trusted source through the social ISP.

    In order to boost the distance learning initiative of the Hong Kong government, the social ISP would sell low cost computers in addition to internet service. Combine this is with the government’s plan to issue cash vouchers for computers to the low income and a solid NGO network in the community, the social ISP could become the leading retailer of computers for the low income, providing another revenue stream. Affordable computers and internet access to those most in need of education could be the keys to the successful adoption of distance learning in Hong Kong.

    There are of course still many devils in the details, such as how the social ISP is going to get these problem customers out of their existing contracts, but overall the idea of a social ISP sounds achievable. If this idea succeeds it will be quite the disruptive force in social services and telecommunications in Hong Kong.

    Closing thoughts

    Conversations with Dr. Fung are always an interesting mental exercise, because I dissect the many stories that he throws at me, trying to find holes in everything, but what I value the most about all these stories is how they reveal the many possibilities nonprofit work. With the projects that Dr. Fung has in store, I can surely say that the nonprofit world is just as exciting and challenging as the corporate one.

    No comments:

    Post a Comment