Why China’s Culture of Philanthropy Has Yet to Take Hold

The 5.12.08 Sichuan earthquake that left 90,000+ Chinese dead was seen by many as a turning point in philanthropy.  It was an event that brought the country together in a way that I have not seen at any other time in my 12+ years here, and it was a time when the best of China showed through as the seeds for a culture of philanthropy were planted.

Part of this experience (for me), was defined by the outpouring of support that spontaneously erupted.  150,000 volunteers flooding the highways, minutes of silence where everyone and everything stopped across the country, and firms making strong commitments of support to the long term development of the region.  It was something special.

It was a period I personally say the average donor in China mentally moved to “engaged” philanthropy, but operationally the problem was that it was also a process that was put through a system simply not ready for the level of transparency that came with the transition… and continues to take a toll to this day:

Postquake Fundraising Flop Exposes Credibility Failure at China’s Red Cross

In the 24 hours after the earthquake, normally prime time for fundraising, the RCSC raised a paltry $23,000, small change compared with the $3 million raised by the One Foundation, a charity founded by movie star Jet Li. The problem was not that the Chinese public did not want to give money — the problem was that they did not want to give money to the RCSC. On the RCSC’s official account on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, the organization’s post requesting donations solicited pages and pages of scornful responses.

The disastrous fundraising campaign is the latest embarrassment in a long-festering public relations crisis for the RCSC

A sobering assessment of RCSC in China.  A sobering assessment of China

What we are finding is that individuals simply are not interested in giving (at this time) for this cause, and for good reasons.

  1. Many believe that the government should be responsible for managing this crisis (a feeling cemented by the fact that RCSC gives the money to the government.
  2. The media is not actively calling for a movement of any kind to support those affected, and the online activity that once set fires underneath brands for bring cheap, has been largely quiet this time around
  3. Many are tired of the old system of philanthropy where they are forced/ pressured to give, and as a result are rejecting pretty much any organization that once was part of this process.  They are seeking out groups that align with their interests, and they feel are deserving of their donation

Under the previous model, where donations where quid-pro-qua or driven through peer pressure, few cared what actually happened to the money.  Few thought about the impact, or efficiency, of their donation.  The interest was really upfront, with firms seeking out relationships and media hits, and individuals running from being called the cheapest donor.  Both powerful forces, but neither required NGOs (or the wider system) to be efficient, transparent, or particularly service oriented

All issues that for me explain why China has yet to recover from the peak of that period, and explain why a couple of scandals that should have been contained to a single organization have brought the entire sector down.

But, that is not to say all hope is lost.  In fact, there is a silver cloud to be found, which is the fact that while these issues have impeded donations from many, they have also engaged others to seek out issues and organizations that they personally align with.  An engagement that is benefiting many of China’s smaller NGOs, at the expenses of larger organizations, and interestingly enough, has led many of the larger organizations to learn how to be more like their smaller counterparts.

It is a transition that is still very much a work in progress, but one that we (and our clients) are finding is leading to more (and better) opportunities.  It has taken some pain, and there will likely be more, but for those who are patient, are able to align their firm/ personal interests with an issue, and work to make investments in long term partnerships with strong programs and transparency, benefits in impact will be seen.

Gone are the days where individuals and firms are willing to spend without knowing the impact, and long term that change is in and of itself perhaps the most important lesson that can be solved before a true culture of philanthropy and engagement can take hold.

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