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Anla Cheng

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"Education is fundamental to a better future."

Almost a decade ago, Anla Cheng stated in the New York Times that there was little tradition of philanthropy among Chinese in America and that most were focused on helping family members or simply saving. She also noted that these trends were beginning to change. Today Ms. Cheng considers herself and others among the fortunate to have benefited from China’s rise as well as recent economic booms. At the same time, she cites the adage that “to those whom much is given, much is required.” Ms. Cheng and her husband, Mark Kingdon, successful hedge fund investors, now direct the Mark and Anla Cheng Kingdon Foundation, based in New York City. Since 1998, the foundation has focused on higher education, arts and culture, and social services. Ms. Cheng and Mr. Kingdon have made substantial contributions to Columbia University, of which Mr. Kingdon was Vice Chair/Trustee, and China Institute, of which Ms. Cheng is Vice Chair/Trustee.

Anla Cheng’s philanthropy has been distinguished by addressing social challenges and perceptions of Chinese in America, in addition to her involvement with established cultural and educational institutions. The roots of her charitable impulse extend much further back into her history. Ms. Cheng recounts her mother’s upbringing in Shanghai. Her mother, while from a privileged and wealthy family, held great sympathy for those in need and encouraged her children to help others when possible. A second motivating factor is her admiration of the giving tradition of her husband’s culture and the Jewish community. Ms. Cheng notes how remarkable it is that other communities harness their collective resources not only for survival but to help others around them.

Perhaps what compels Ms. Cheng’s philanthropy the most is her belief in education. “Education is fundamental to a better future,” says Ms. Cheng. Reflecting on their signature gifts, Ms. Cheng notes that they have endowed professorships at Columbia University and have launched and sustained Facing History and Ourselves, an innovative educational project to increase tolerance and develop critical thinking among young people. The couple has also supported educational programs that instill tolerance and understanding through museums, think tanks, and multimedia venues.

One additional factor that motivates Ms. Cheng’s giving is a grand desire, perhaps even a looming caution, to build positive international relations and to avert historical tragedies. Stemming from her father, a diplomat for Chiang Kai Shek, the vital significance of ensuring positive China–U.S. relations was instilled into Ms. Cheng. “For me, anything that supports U.S.–China relations is at the core of my passion,” says Ms. Cheng. Her work today with the Facing History and Ourselves project also includes instructional components on the Nanjing Massacre to help students consider the fragility of relations between China and Japan, the devastation of war, and profound questions, such as “How can something like that have happened?”

Ms. Cheng believes deeply in better understanding the experiences of Chinese in America. A part of the Facing History and Ourselves project included a television series hosted by Bill Moyers. Ms. Cheng was a founding member of the Public Broadcasting System series Becoming American: The Chinese Experience. The series explores how Chinese immigrants have sought balance between their heritage and the adopted country and made tradeoffs in forming new self-identities. Another effort funded by Ms. Cheng is the work of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). In recalling her introduction to the project, Ms. Cheng described how Maya Lin, the famed architect, called her to encourage her to join MOCA. Ms. Cheng observed, “Chinese are everywhere...but there wasn’t a place for us to say, ‘We are one Chinese!’” Both thought that MOCA could be such a place for Chinese Americans to tell their story. Ms. Cheng continues to pursue projects to advance the understanding of Chinese in America and supports curriculum, textbook, and educational projects that increase understanding among students domestically as well as abroad.

Ms. Cheng’s grant to the Facing History and Ourselves project stands out to her as perhaps the most significant. The project has reached more than 3 million students worldwide over the last six years and has increased awareness and tolerance. Using historical moments such as the Jewish Holocaust, Rwanda, and Nanjing, teachers teach students how to be “upstanders” instead of “bystanders,” or how to stand up and disagree to avoid these catastrophes. The project has provided workshops for 394 educators in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong and has brought 39 of them to project headquarters in the United States for in-depth seminars. One educator stated, “The Facing History journey makes teaching history not just about the history—it’s about teaching us how to be human.”

Being systematic about planning and measuring impact is an aspiration for Ms. Cheng and her foundation. Given the size of the foundation, it is more of a challenge to develop measurement systems and conduct analyses; however, she looks forward to the possibilities. “We’re not organized, yet!” says Ms. Cheng. The foundation intends to be strategic in its giving and simply cannot ful ll every grant request. She acknowledges that there are other philanthropic entities that do an excellent job of developing strategies aligned with their missions, vetting grant applications, and allocating funds. Serving as a trustee of the New York Community Trust has been incredibly educational for her, and she hopes to apply best practices and models of strategic planning in her future giving.

Ms. Cheng’s best advice to those entering philanthropy is to remember that “you can’t bring it to the grave!” Ms. Cheng sees those with wealth as not only blessed but also duty bound and responsible, even obligated, to help society and to reduce inequality. Today there is a notable gap between the wealthy and the less fortunate, and this gap is detrimental; wars and revolutions start because of these kinds of disparities. Ms. Cheng ultimately hopes that philanthropists will see their role in building a middle class and ensuring a harmonious and happy society.

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