Bill Bensley, the godfather of modern maximalism, on what philanthropy means to him.
I grew up in a burgeoning middle America, with two new pairs of pants on the first day of school that would last me the whole year. I thought myself lucky and I was. Charity was taught to me as something that starts at home. We took care of family members long before anyone else.
When I moved to Southeast Asia, I met another family who changed my lens on the world. The first time I saw real poverty was on the outskirts of a small village in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in the 1990s. A friend brought me to meet a mum and her six children, the little ones with stomachs distended from malnutrition. The two-year-old stole my heart with his wicked sense of humour. It was that instant that the reality of poverty kicked me in the gut and I promised myself I would help these folks. We got together the resources for a small house with a vegetable patch, pigs and chickens, a sewing machine so mum could learn a trade, and new bikes to make sure the little ones got to school; it was a hand-up, not a hand-out and, surprise surprise, their dad came home.
Not long after, I met my dear friend Sokoun Chanpreda, founder of Shinta Mani Hotels. It was with him that I truly fell into philanthropy, learning to offer a hand-up, never a hand-out. We started by creating a free hospitality school, by sheer necessity, as so few people at Siem Reap at that time had even seen a hotel. It taught hospitality to young adults, including stipends to support their family while they studied, and included food and board. Today, that little hotel school is all grown up, with over 270 graduates. I never miss a graduation day.
Over the years our little guesthouse morphed into an almost famous hospitality entity, one that supports our philanthropic work: a farm for the distribution of better plants to eat and grow using age-old practices of seed selection and crop rotation; providing clean water to villages and schools with 1,453 water filters and more than 1,500 wells; more than 9,000 check-ups via our free dental and medical care for adults and children; and loans to support students, or adults, hoping to start their own business, with every repayment becoming a loan for the next entrepreneur. We have been able to empower the local community in more ways than I ever thought possible, with just 5 percent of revenue and donations from guests.
My dad was right: charity starts at home. But it can also grow from your business and it doesn’t have to be all that complicated. Five percent is all it takes; that and a desire to help. Doing what I do, I am often asked what luxury means to me and there is no doubt in my mind that real luxury is the ability, the luxury, to help others.
Bill Bensley is a Southeast Asia-based architect of some 150 hotels worldwide, and a dedicated philanthropist.
This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Legacy Issue, March 2020. To subscribe contact