Monday, June 16, 2014

New Era of Philanthopy in China

Published as "Philanthropy in China" on AFP e-wire June 11
by Melody Song MA, CFRE

In April this year, Jack Ma (a mainland Chinese native), founder of the Chinese B2B e-commerce website Alibaba, announced that he will set up a personal foundation (in addition to the Alibaba Charitable Foundation) funded by 1 percent of his stock options in the company.

Alibaba is set to go public in North America with an estimated market cap of US$100 - $200 billion. The minimum worth of his gift would have been around US$70 million. His co-founder Joseph Tsai (Taiwanese educated in Yale) also announced that he would match Mr. Ma’s gift. Media around the world have hailed the gesture as the milestone of a new era in Chinese philanthropy.

Being a native Chinese mainlander and an avid fundraiser, I have been following the philanthropic scene in China for many years. See my blog for past related articles: Philanthropy in China and Chen Guangbiao – China’s Philanthropist Without a Cause.
In these blogs, I have identified barriers to the “emerging civil sectors” in China:
  • all China’s NGOs have to be approved by the government, which presents the issue of censorship
  • government-controlled media only publishes what they want people to hear
  • a general lack of transparency and trust in NGOs in mainland China
I also discussed that the emerging Chinese business community is the only voice that could potentially challenge government authority and government-endorsed values, as the private sector is granted (relatively) more freedom due to their contribution to the economy. Hence, business could be a driving force to further a real civil sector in China.

In looking at the case of Chen Guangbiao, a high-profile philanthropist who prefers giving out cash on the street and posing in front of a “money wall,” I concluded that ideological suppression paired with the lack of sophistication of China’s "nouveau riche" (“new rich”) had given birth to philanthropists without a cause. I was more than skeptical of soliciting gifts from China. However, things have changed.
Jack Ma’s recent commitment to philanthropy and improved diplomatic and trade relationship between China and Canada has resulted in new opportunity for Canadian fundraisers. We must ask how we can get closer to Chinese philanthropists of the new era like Jack Ma. Here are several observations learned while fundraising in the Chinese community.

Canada is a popular immigration and education destination for China’s new rich.
Clean air, a stable economy, good higher education institutions and successful multicultural integration has made Canada a very desirable country to live in. Canada also has favorable and easier immigration policies (comparing to the U.S.) and is closer than Australia and New Zealand (which are other popular immigration destinations for Chinese). Many of China’s new rich have been sending their children to Canada to study as well as immigrating to Canada themselves. This trend will continue, further influencing the demographics of our future donors.

At a recent speaking engagement, Canadian Ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacque remarked that there has been a 17 percent increase in secondary education students from China to Canada in 2013. Additionally, a new immigration category is needed to replace the investment immigration category that was revoked earlier this year. It is becoming crucial for nonprofits in Canada to invest in an international advancement strategy targeted at the Asian market (specifically China).

Leveraging government support is beneficial for developing relationships with Chinese prospects.
Since the $15 billion takeover of Nexen last year by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), Alberta is experiencing what Asia Pacific Foundation calls “the Asian Century.” All three Chinese national oil companies are active in the resource market in Canada together with many other individual investors. Despite hesitation on the Nexen-CNOOC deal, there is a strong eagerness on both sides to continue to develop this mutually beneficial relationship.

A really good start for a fundraiser who is trying to expand relationships in the Chinese community is to leverage the support from government agencies, including the Chinese Embassy and Chinese Consulates as well as Canadian government agencies facilitating the relationship. Attending events hosted by Chinese consulates and maintaining a good relationship with Chinese diplomats will open doors for connecting with Chinese State Owned Enterprises and Chinese immigrants, as well as immigrants from Hong Kong and other Asian countries.

Use the business community to develop volunteers and make a presence in China.
As I mentioned before, the business community will be a driving force behind China’s reform in the civil sector and promoting the culture of philanthropy. Sino-Canada trade associations are a great resource for introducing your nonprofit organization to the business community in China. A few key associations are:
  • Canada China Business Council (representing large Canadian businesses in China);
  • Hong Kong Canada Business Association (representing Canadian businesses in Hong Kong) and
  • Canada China Chamber of Commerce (representing large Chinese State Owned Enterprises in Canada).
These associations are happy to help nonprofits establish a presence in China using their resources and events. Another benefit of involvement with these associations is that you can easily identify and connect with Canadian businesses who are interested in doing business in China. A nonprofit charitable project related to China could be a great platform to connect Chinese and Canadian businesses as partners.

Speak Mandarin and understand the Chinese culture.
It is ideal to hire fundraisers who speak Mandarin, the official language that is prominent in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and other South East Asian countries dominated by Chinese decedents. That said, professional fundraisers with a Chinese background are difficult to find. In Canada, we are lucky to have a more diverse workforce compared to any other country. Therefore, it is possible to develop more talent who can master the language. I have seen very successful fundraisers who don’t speak Mandarin. However, I believe mastery of the language will help you connect with the Asian community much faster.
Chinese culture is very different from Western culture. Fundraisers are in the business of relationship building. It is essential to understand the cultural nuances and differences in building a relationship with potential Chinese prospects. Unlike multicultural Canada, China is dominated by the Han-culture. We shouldn’t expect Chinese prospects to be as adaptable as Canadians. 
The perception of philanthropy and philanthropists is also very different and strategies will have to be modified accordingly. If you do not have a Chinese background but would like to engage the Chinese and Asian communities, you could start by taking a workshop or course in “doing business with Chinese” (available from organization like the CCBC) or developing a volunteer network of Chinese natives.
Facing a new era of philanthropy in China, and in consideration of China’s special relationship with our country, Canada's nonprofit sector should consider market specific strategy for fundraising success to engage Chinese philanthropists in China and at home.

As a Senior Development Officer with the Calgary Zoo, Melody Song is responsible for identifying, cultivating and soliciting major gifts from and stewarding relationships with prospects of the Asian/Chinese community in Canada and overseas. She also manages prospect research and prospect management of the Calgary Zoo's current $50 million capital campaign. Contact her at

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