Nancy Yang W92 stood at a career crossroads. The year was 2007, and the Wharton alumna had just successfully sold a mobile gaming venture with her brother to Disney. Weighing a professional shift, Yang knew she wanted her next move to be in the world of nonprofits, but she wasn’t sure in what capacity. From that line of thinking emerged Asian Charity Services, a nonprofit itself that offers much-needed support to other charitable organizations in Hong Kong.
Wharton Magazine recently caught up with Yang, who also is a member of the School’s Executive Board for Asia, to talk about the essential work ACS is doing, the landscape for nonprofits in Hong Kong, and the most important relationships she formed at Penn.
Wharton Magazine: Can you tell me about your work with the mobile gaming company you sold to Disney and what you learned from the experience?
Nancy Yang: After working in finance and management consulting, I was lucky enough to join my brother, Norbert Chang, in a new adventure: starting a mobile gaming company in Beijing. We worked with companies like EA, Yahoo, and Nintendo to localize their games and distribute their content to mainland Chinese consumers. We could have never imagined the tremendous growth in demand for mobile lifestyle products that would result from China’s smartphone adoption and improved connectivity over time. Today, China is the largest mobile market in the world with 82% mobile penetration, equivalent to over 1.2 billion subscribers.
Looking back at that season in my life, every day was a sprint; we were barely building systems and network relationships fast enough to keep up with consumer demand. We learned to deal with and adapt to constant change in the market. As the market moved from hardware to content, our key strategic partnerships changed from handset manufacturers to platform partners like China Mobile and China Unicom. Working in a startup in an industry that was changing so rapidly and fundamentally taught me how to accept market complexity as the norm and, perhaps because there was no other choice, embrace constant disruption.
WM: What led you from that to Asian Charity Services?
NY: As we were in the process of negotiating the sale of the mobile gaming business to the Walt Disney Company, I went through a period of self-reflection, prayer, and seeking counsel from friends and family on my next steps. I knew I wanted to serve in the social sector but didn’t have a passion for one specific group of people or social cause. As I met more people in the nonprofit sector, I realized that nonprofits were experiencing ever-greater pressure to deliver needed solutions but, more often than not, weren’t adequately resourced to achieve their missions. In particular, the critical C-suite type functions of the business world—like CEO roles, operations, finance, and marketing—were considered unnecessary overhead functions in the nonprofit world. I had a vision to bridge this gap by developing a platform to enable business professionals like myself to serve local, high-impact NGOs with pro bono business consulting and training. That was when I founded Asian Charity Services as a nonprofit with a passion for “serving those who serve.”
In the first six months, ACS served five to six NGOs with pro bono strategic planning projects. Since 2007, we have had the privilege to serve over 700 incredible NGOs with pro bono support across various capacity-building areas such as strategic planning, fundraising, board governance, human-resource management, and marketing. ACS programming enables NGOs to operate more effectively and efficiently and, because of that, better serve their communities.
ACS now runs one of Asia’s largest pro bono volunteering platforms and supports NGO leaders who serve over a million beneficiaries among Hong Kong’s neediest. These NGOs serve a broad range of sectors, including arts, children and youths, education, the environment, health care, poverty, rehabilitation, social welfare, and justice.
WM: What are some of the major challenges facing nonprofits in Hong Kong today, and what vital services do they require?
NY: One of the most critical challenges is understanding how to navigate through the uncertainty and rapid societal change that surrounds them. Ongoing shifts in the economic, political, and social landscape result in new, emerging beneficiary groups and societal pain points. For example, economic growth and employment opportunities over the last 10 years have resulted in a 70% increase in Hong Kong’s ethnic minority population. Thus, in the last five to 10 years, Hong Kong has also seen a sharp rise in NGO programming focused on poverty alleviation and social inclusion of ethnic minority children. With limited frontline resources, NGOs often don’t have the skills or bandwidth to analyze current market trends, reflect on their own frontline work, and adapt their programming accordingly. In response, we see growing demand for ACS training programs on topics such as strategic planning, design thinking, and data analytics.
Hong Kong NGOs also often struggle with effectively engaging their key stakeholders: donors, volunteers, and even beneficiaries. Whether it’s NGOs focused on youths that want to engage their beneficiaries through social media platforms like WeChat or Instagram—rather than traditional phone-based hotlines—or grassroots NGOs learning how to drive online advocacy and fundraising campaigns for the first time, we’ve seen great appetite from local NGOs to attend ACS programs focused on areas that include video storytelling, crowdfunding, and social media marketing.
NGOs are also learning how to engage a broader range of volunteers with diverse skill sets and life experiences. When ACS first started 12 years ago, our typical pro bono volunteer had more than 15 years of experience with significant industry know-how at a multinational or major Chinese company. Today, we also have an equal number of purpose-driven ACS volunteers in their late 20s or early 30s who may offer valuable perspectives on digital media and experience with collaborative and agile team environments.
WM: What is the most important advice you would give to nonprofits that are just getting off the ground?
NY: Take the time to understand all the actors in the ecosystem who can impact the societal issue you are trying to address: academics who are doing relevant research, government departments that influence policy or fund programs, corporates whose business agendas may be aligned, philanthropists who are active in the sector, and other NGOs addressing similar issues or beneficiary groups. Since founding ACS, I’ve seen a dramatic shift at corporations in their commitment toward promoting sustainability and equitability through their business and community engagement. Only by understanding and working in partnership with others in a sector can you truly move forward in your mission and effect systemic change in your community.
Over time, ACS has personally developed community partnerships that have allowed us to serve with greater scale and impact. For example, in a three-year partnership with the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway, ACS helped to launch MTR’s Community Innovation Platform, which included a cross-sector summit of government, NGO, and business leaders, an online platform to promote dialogue on innovative solutions for youth employment, and the provision of skills-based volunteers to support MTR grantees. Over 100 local NGOs and social enterprises participated and benefited from this community partnership.
WM: Were there any specific classes, people, or moments from your days at Wharton that influenced where you are today?
NY: My days at Wharton and Penn were marked by my friendships, anchored by time with my roommates Jessica Amsterdam C92 and Mindy Basser C92, and a number of student clubs to which I devoted copious amounts of time, including the United Minorities Council and the group known today as Penn Cru.