Lawyer and philanthropist Michelle Chow has been sharing her love for the harp with underprivileged children since 2008. We find out why she decided to start her charity aimed at empowering the young.
When my friend introduced me to the harp 13 years ago, it wasn’t a popular instrument,” says Michelle Chow. “Only affluent families could afford lessons for their children. However, I fell in love with it immediately and started to learn it.”
The harp appears in many Disney cartoons, says Chow, and it’s a dream of many young girls to learn this elegant instrument. She says she feels extremely fortunate that she was at a stage in her life when she had the time and resources to learn how to play it.
“It’s a beautiful instrument,” she says, “and I love the music it makes. It makes me happy that I can bring the harp to schools, hospitals, elderly homes, churches and into the community – music connects everyone.” As she could already play the piano, which in many ways is similar to the harp, it wasn’t difficult for her to grasp the concept and learn the instrument, which she insists is quite versatile in spite of its soothing quality. “I particularly like the plucking and different effects one can do with the harp – you can even play jazz and rock music!”
Since her introduction to the harp, Chow wants the instrument to be available to all, irrespective of their economic background. “Music education, like all education,” she says, “should be available to everybody.” With a few friends, she founded Friends of the Harp (FOTH) to correct perceptions that the instrument is only be available for the wealthy; over the years the charity has empowered many students. “They not only learn how to play the harp, but also how to learn, which is a skill that’s transferrable to other studies,” says Chow.
Her work as a full-time trust and charity lawyer has come in particularly handy, as she’s been able to navigate her way through the legal, tax and governance issues needed to set up and run FOTH efficiently. Chow is also the governor of two public hospitals (the Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital and Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethershole Hospital), a trustee of the Hong Kong Children’s Hospital Charitable Foundation, a council member of her alma mater St Paul’s Co-educational College and its primary school, and a steering- committee member of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service Wisegiving. Her lawyer father, Roland Chow, was also heavily involved in philanthropy. “He’s my role model,” she says, “so I’m just taking after him. It gives me great pleasure to contribute to society with my legal expertise.”
Many of Chow’s clients run their own charitable family foundations or are in the process of setting one up. “My experience in charity operation and governance helps me to better understand the issues they may face,” she says. “Charities must do everything to match their own objectives and be in the public interest. I can share my experience in dealing with the Inland Revenue and other government departments, which my clients really appreciate.” Fortunately, her public duties nicely complement her day job, and she enjoys the full support of her law firm, Withers Worldwide. “My colleagues never complain when I’m absent from the office due to my charity work. I love both my profession as a lawyer as well as my role as a philanthropist.”
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, many charities have been faced with reduced fund-raising opportunities, due to the cancellation of charity balls and similar events. “We’ve also seen reduced corporate and individual donations,” says Chow. Although it’s difficult for charities to budget without a stable income, Chow says that good governance is key: “It’s as important for charities as it is for commercial businesses – but for charities it’s even more pertinent because they exist to do good.” Charities with a solid governance, a good and responsible board, a clear mission and passionate staff are more likely to weather such storms than those without.
Many charities also suffer, she says, as people don’t appreciate the fact that they necessarily incur administration costs. “Charities need to hire the right people – such as an accountant and an executive – to run smoothly,” she says. Many donors are reluctant to see their money go towards covering administration costs; they’d rather it were spent at the frontline, because that’s where they want to see the work done. But, counters Chow, “Do you think a charity – with a capital not much smaller than that of a listed company – can be operated by volunteers? While you do see adverse news about charity workers taking a big cut, these are very isolated cases. Generally, charity workers are paid less than with a commercial company, but their careers may be more rewarding, particularly if they have a passion for serving the community.”
Chow cites an occasion a few years ago when FOTH sponsored a harp outreach event at the Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital for physically disabled students at the nearby SAHK Jockey Club Elaine Field School. “It was such a meaningful event for both parties – the students could use their new-found skills as a gesture of thanks to the medical staff at the hospital, and their parents were so proud of them.” Chow was deeply moved that such a seemingly small and simple event could bring the community together. “The young students gained confidence, knowing that they had the ability to give back and perform, and the hospital atrium was filled with music, laughter, loud applause, love and tears that afternoon. I’ll never forget that.”
As for young, budding philanthropists, Chow says that she sees many second- and third-generation scions following in their family footsteps to contribute to society. “They have many creative ways to make a bigger impact with their dollars,” she says. “Philanthropy can bind the family together and create a common topic at the dinner table. It can even provide training for youngsters to have a taste of running a business, as charity is about balance sheets and deliverables too.”
Lastly, for those looking to start learning how to play the harp, Chow has one piece of advice: “Don’t hesitate,” she says. “If you like something, you’ll do it well. Be patient – practise makes perfect! I often say that I practise like a devil to play like an angel.