“My hope is that public health's move to center stage in the public's awareness will translate to a better funding environment for public health endeavors.”
The values of altruism and generosity were passed down to Gerald Chan and his brother, Ronnie, through their parents’ deeds. In a speech at the Harvard School of Public Health in 2014, Chan described how his mother, a registered nurse, vaccinated neighborhood children against cholera in the family kitchen in Hong Kong in the 1950s, and how his father helped pay for young Chinese students to go abroad for education.
Examples of selflessness abound in Chan’s own professional and philanthropic résumés as a scientist and businessman. In 1987, after completing doctoral and postdoctoral training at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, Chan cofounded the Morningside Group, a diversified investment group in private equity and property investments, with a strong commitment to social responsibility throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Chan also currently serves as a nonexecutive director of Hang Lung Group, a real estate development firm founded by his father in 1960 and now chaired by Ronnie Chan.
The Chan brothers also lead the Morningside Foundation, where they have focused donations on “enabling education, to support science and to fund medical research ” In 2014, the foundation made the single-largest donation at the time—USD 350 million (RMB 2.1 billion)—to the Harvard School of Public Health. The gift was unrestricted; the full amount went to the school’s endowment, whose proceeds are used at the discretion of the dean.
In honor of the gift, Harvard named the school after Chan’s late father; it’s now the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. As reported in Harvard magazine, Dean Julio French is directing the funds in several ways. First, the gift is being used to establish a student loan-forgiveness fund, which Chan described as “a fabulous way to encourage students to pursue careers that inure to the public good while taking care of their practical needs.” Second, the funds support junior faculty members’ research—a critical investment in the school’s development of intellectual capital. Third, they provide seed funding for innovative ideas, enabling the school to incubate work at the frontiers of research. Lastly, the funds are being used to refit classrooms with computational infrastructure for big-data projects.
While the gift to Harvard garnered the most media attention, since 1996 the foundation also has been actively funding projects primarily in the United States, Hong Kong, and China. These include the Morningside Professorship in Life Sciences, established in 2012 at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; the Morningside Professorship in Chemical Biology, established at Hong Kong University in 2007; the creation of the Morningside College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which enrolled its first students in 2010; and more than 500 scholarships annually to Chinese students at Fudan University, Peking University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Tongji University, and Tsinghua University.
In a speech at the unveiling of the portrait of his father at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in 2015, Chan shared a story about the importance of giving. Sitting in an airport lounge, he said, “There was before me a lavish display of glossy magazines hawking luxury goods—luxury vacations, luxury yachts, luxury properties, luxury wines, luxury this, and luxury that. I leafed through some of them and said to myself, ‘How much better to use our means to be of service to others than to pamper ourselves. How much better to focus on others than to live a self-centered life.’ It is indeed more blessed to give than to receive.” As Chan learned by his father’s example, “we are all being called to a life of service, for in it is true blessing.”
In his speech at the Harvard School of Public Health to commemorate Murningside’s gift, Chan described a conversation with a gentleman who wanted to congratulate him on the gift. “He proceeded to ask me what I plan to do to monitor the gift. I said, ‘Nothing.’ He kept pressing me. ‘Surely you will monitor how the money will be spent.’ My answer remained that it is the dean who runs the school, not me. Designated gifts can strengthen specific parts of the school; unrestricted gifts can strengthen the school as a whole. My intention with this gift is the latter.” Later Chan added, “My hope is that public health’s move to center stage in the public’s awareness will translate to a better funding environment for public health endeavors. I would also like to see public health capturing the imagination of more bright young people as they ponder their career choices.”
Chan has emphasized in all of his philanthropy that giving should come directly from the heart. In explaining why he and his brother chose to give an unrestricted gift, he said, “I worry that highly prescriptive donations can have the unintended consequence of balkanizing the university into a collection of special interests and result in the university’s resource allocation reflecting the interests of the donor base” rather than the needs of society or humanity at large.