“If I Ran Philanthropy:” Dawning Philanthropy in China Poses Interesting Question for U.S.

April 30, 2012; Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Sometimes the biggest questions come in small packages. So it was with this tidbit from the “Jobbing” blog of Philadelphia Inquirer business writer Jane M. Von Bergen, who recently spoke about philanthropy in China with Richard Gelles, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Policy and Practice. Von Bergen reports that Gelles considers China something of a “clean palette,” noting that the nation’s economy is still new to experiencing individuals with enough wealth to participate in philanthropy. “So China now has the opportunity to create its own philanthropic structure,” Von Bergen writes, “perhaps modeled after the United State’s structure, which has been successful, and perhaps not.”

How a system and culture of philanthropy might develop in China is intriguing enough on its own, but Gelles goes on to ask whether, if the U.S. had that same “clean palette,” it would build the same infrastructure of philanthropy that it has today. “If we look at the American experiment, would we build it in 2012?” Gelles asks. It’s a great question. If the whole concept and possibility of philanthropy were just dawning in the U.S., what would you want to see done differently? What should China look to adopt—or eschew—as it looks at other nations’ approach to philanthropy? We’d love to hear your thoughts below. –Mike Keefe-Feldman

  • Benjamin Tipton

    Philanthropy in China does not have a “clean palette,” but rather a long history of philanthropy and an unpredictable future. China has a history of philanthropy based in Confucian teachings, and today, a growing interest in philanthropic pursuits. However, trust in civil society is decaying, which has greatly impacted donations across the country.

    Chinese philanthropy, as it stands, is very different from western philanthropy. Unlike giving that occurs in western countries, the majority of donations go to government departments, state-led organizations (Chinese Red Cross, China Charity Federation) and public foundations (combined, 61.22% of total donations made in 2009 were received by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, China Red Cross, China Charity Federation and public foundations). During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake the proportion was even higher – 94% of public donations went to the government, the Red Cross Society of China, and charity federations.

    The single largest obstacle to the growth of philanthropy in China is trust of civil society. Public sentiment has shifted against giving and civil society due to repeated publicized scandals and concerns about transparency. The year 2011 has typified the publicʼs skepticism about the collection, use and dispersement of resources by civil society organizations. Total donations have decreased by 50% from 2010 levels and down 67% from 2008 levels.

    Although China does not have a “clean palette,” it does have many opportunities to learn from the mistakes of others. It is encouraging that the University of Pennsylvania, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and Beijing Normal are working together to build an effective and trusted civil society in China.

  • Lisam919

    This is such an interesting question. We were fortunate enough to host an exchange student from China. As is part of our family culture, we brought him along to volunteer to different organizations with us. He was absolutely bewildered that we would work for free to help someone out. He eventually enjoyed this type of work but I am not sure it became a part of him as it is a part of us. On the other hand, his father greatly urged him to help another exchange student when she got into a little bit of trouble (she lost her debit card). Money is new to many families in China. It will take a great deal of education to help them understand philanthropy but clearly the generosity of spirit is greatly with the Chinese people already.