Converting China’s Rich into Philanthropists. Attainable Goal or Fool’s Gold?

With the recent success of signing 40 billionaires to the Giving Pledge, it should not be any surprise that the recent news of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet coming to China would create headlines, and rumors that they were coming to convert.  It is an event, set for late September,  that was on the front page of many of the world’s leading financial mediums, and has remained there when the “story” broke that there were some who were “unwilling” or “scared” to attend the event. Through all this though, I am left to wonder what the real goals are, what they should be, and is it too early to expect much from this event.  In essence, I am wondering whether or not China (and its wealthy) are ready a “Giving Pledge” pitch.  Even if that is not the stated goal of this trip.

It is a question I ask as I think back to last November when the UN Foundation and CAF held a dinner in Beijing for similar purposes, only this dinner was led by Former Secretary General Koofi Annan, UN Foundation founding donor Ted Turner, and key noted by One Foundation’s Jet Li.  Event organizers were clear in their goal of planting the philanthropic seeds, and much of the conversation surrounded when “China would be ready”.  The 5.12 earthquake, and more specifically the numbers of donations, were fresh in the minds, and the mood was engaging.  Yet, at the end of the event, everyone returned to the parking lot without having made any pledges

Which leads me back to the event that will be hosted on the 29th of September, and what should be expected.

With the list apparently sourced from the Forbes Richest People list, which is itself guaranteed to have a lower turnout than had a core group of friends been enlisted to bring in their friends (Bill and Warren apparently need a refresher on the role of relationships in China) the event being on September 29 only adds to the difficultly as the day after is the last day before a 10 day holiday. Logistical hurdles which could have been better planned, but not themselves event killers

However there are a few reasons why I do not think China is ready for the “Giving PLedge” and the message coming from this event needs to be managed better (releasing a letter after the fact shows they are trying to correct this)

  1. As the vast majority of China’s rich represent the first generation of wealth, it is too soon in China to expect anything at that level.  That these business men and women are still focused on ensuring the future (i.e. amassing sufficient wealth and assets) of their family (parents and children) and business(s), and asking any of these people to commit to any gifts of significance is failing to understand the deep rooted cultural and historical drivers of this generation.
  2. While I have no doubt that both gentlemen are respected locally, I do doubt their ability to convert many (in the short term) as they do not understand the drivers of philanthropy in China.  That, while there was most certainly a spike in philanthropy following the 5.12 earthquake, there was a near equally drop off in donations since.  While there have been a significant number of new foundations opening (a typical sign of philanthropy), many of those foundations are tied to the quasi—government GONGOs (Government Organized Non-Government Organizations), and that philanthropy has taken on an era of coolness in China, but has sparked an equal amount of discussion over the lacking transparency of many funds (Zhang Ziyi and Jackie Chan included)
  3. Were Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to have a massive turnout, I would suspect it would be for reasons beyond altruism or their ability to connect.  That they themselves would be the draw, and those in attendance would be looking to look aligned to the cause more than be willing to engage in the cause.

All the above aside, were Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to focus on building a more intimate circle of friends (Like Warren’s investment recipients) who would form a core for future expansion, then the message would begin to filter out.

Although, once the gates are opened, that does lead to the next problem.  given all the issues in China of trust, and a lacking process for donating large sums to more than a handful of causes, just figuring out what to do with all the money is going to be interesting.

So what do you think? Are China’s wealthy ready to sign onto the “Giving Pledge”? Are they they next big pool of philanthropists?

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