“Without family, the rest doesn’t make sense,” says Jebsen, reflecting on his own experience. “Philanthropy can never be seen in isolation.”

Since 2000, Hans Michael Jebsen has been Chairman of the Jebsen Group, a family business more than six generations old. It’s one of Asia’s largest family enterprises.

He has been honored by the Danish, German and Hong Kong governments. He is a member of the Operations Review Committee of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the Chairman of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s corporate advisory board, and serves on the advisory board of the Hong Kong Red Cross. His badges of success are many.

But what is perhaps most impressive about Jebsen is the importance he places on his family and philanthropic endeavours. These span a range of issues, including conservation, education and the alleviation of poverty. And they are the concerns that drive him forward.

At the J.P. Morgan Philanthropy Forum in Hong Kong, Jebsen addressed a roomful of philanthropists, businessmen and changemakers, and explained his principles for running a successful enterprise and making a lasting philanthropic impact.

Jebsen still remembers the advice he received from a prominent Hindi businessman and philanthropist: “Before you build a business and embark on your philanthropic journey, make sure you build a healthy family.” It’s a message he’s taken to heart.

“Without family, the rest doesn’t make sense,” says Jebsen, reflecting on his own experience. “Philanthropy can never be seen in isolation.”

Understand that not everyone has the same passions. Not everyone is motivated by the same incentives. Jebsen, a father of five, knows first-hand that no two people are the same. And he knows that there are many ways to be a productive human being involved in worthwhile activities.

“Diversity is the bedrock on which humanity stands,” he says. “Families are diverse, and siblings are different. It is not kind to force people into a box which makes them uncomfortable.” Instead, he counsels, encourage people to live worthwhile lives and help others in the way that best fits their individual drives and ambitions.

Jebsen urges philanthropists to focus on the real problem. While the ramifications of some of the world’s most pressing issues may be plain to see, the underlying root causes often lie hidden. It is these drivers of problems that most need tackling. Yet, unfortunately, it is often the symptoms that get addressed, and often with just a bandage. There are reasons for this: the symptoms are more obvious, more glaring, and more susceptible to superficial fixes. But the real work of serious philanthropists goes much deeper.

“The best efforts in philanthropy do not dabble at the symptoms,” says Jebsen. “It is always about getting to the root cause.”

The objective of philanthropy is to make a difference. To Jebsen, philanthropy is not about showing off one’s wealth. It’s about making an impact.

Says Jebsen, “The issue at stake is: What is the impact we are creating? Whether it's running a company or pursuing philanthropy, it's essentially part and parcel of the same wish: to make a difference.”

Jebsen believes that large corporations can be both targets and organizational models. They are targets because of their power to influence change.

“When you look at the hundred biggest economies in the world, they are not only countries,” he says. “Big corporations account for more than half of them.”  Corporate leaders can make change if they so wish.”

Given their power, Jebsen believes that much of the work of philanthropy should be about changing the behavior of large organizations. He also notes that “it is not a sin” to try to run a philanthropic enterprise as a business. They can be quite efficient and effective, he says, especially when compared with governments. As such, they represent an organizational model worthy of study, if not outright imitation.

“Sometimes we have to ask ourselves some hard questions,” says Jebsen. “Is what we are doing relevant? How long will it be relevant? Is it worthwhile?”

Most organizations have a lifespan, determined by both internal and external circumstances. If the organization no longer has an effect on an ongoing issue, it’s probably time to examine what changes must be made to regain relevance. Big challenge can often be addressed and resolved.

Never stay too long at a party. Jebsen summarizes this principle as the Three G’s: “Get in, give, and get out.” In considering the selection of a Board of Directors, he notes that “it is an art to pick the right people” and that board membership should not be indefinite appointments. New blood is important to refresh philanthropic thinking from time to time.

It takes foresight to introduce governance that says, “You’ve had six years on the Board—thank you very much; you can take a three-year break now and come back if you’ve still got the passion.” It may not be easy but, in Jebsen’s view, it’s necessary.

“Wisdom, Work, and Wealth” are not just aspirational words. They’re the three attributes Jebsen considers critical for successful philanthropy. “You need to have at least two of them,” he says, “and if you have all three, then that’s great.”


Principle 9: And the “Three H’s”

“Humanity, Humility and Humor” are also vital. The need for these traits would seem obvious, but they bear repeating because of their importance in philanthropy and in life.

“When you lack any of these three you become a dangerous animal,” Jebsen says. “Philanthropy cannot be about egos.”

Principle 10: No one owns anything

Speaking philosophically, Jebsen expressed his commitment to “stewardship rather than ownership.”

“Ownership is a fantasy,” he says. “You are a steward and you have to manage your resources responsibly.”

It’s a vision of life Jebsen has fully internalized. Coming from a family that has spent four generations in Asia, and after spending most of his life in Hong Kong, he has seen the stewardship principle in action, practiced by the people around him, and he believes it is crucial to a healthy balance in life.

“We only own what we give away,” he says. “It is a virtue and a conviction.”

To learn more about discussions at the J.P. Morgan Philanthropy Forum, please contact your J.P. Morgan team.