Why You Need to Pay Attention to Weibo Philanthropy

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August 22, 2012; Source: Washington Post

The nonprofit operating environment is quite different in China from what exists in the U.S. China’s nonprofit sector is relatively new, small, and heavily regulated. All nonprofits there must have a government partner, and only a select number are allowed to conduct independent fundraising. Yet there are similarities in underlying context: widespread distrust of government, concerns about the nonprofit sector’s transparency, and broad-based use of social media. In China, these trends are leading to the use of Twitter-like microblogs called Weibo to solicit individual donations to charitable causes.

These Weibo solicitations are coming from needy individuals all the way up to national-scale grassroots initiatives. Weibo philanthropy is thought to be still quite small, but growing rapidly; so far, there’s no way to actually track its results, because Weibo philanthropy is technically illegal. The most successful documented Weibo campaign, Free Lunch for Children, generated over $6 million for poor students in rural schools, sparking a pledge for $2.5 billion for new school lunch funding from the China’s national government.

The Washington Post describes how a low-wage working mother used Weibo to raise $16,000, which funded her baby’s successful leukemia treatment. Based on such cases, advocates of Weibo philanthropy cite its responsiveness and efficiency as transformative. On the other hand, critics note that scamming is easy, transparency is hard to verify, and more “attractive” people and their causes may unfairly draw more support. Furthermore, critics note that many key social issues don’t lend themselves to being sustainably addressed on a case-by-case popularity contest among sometimes-fickle citizens. Nevertheless, nonprofits in China are responding by integrating the Weibo model into existing legal fundraising mechanisms.

The experience of nations such as China offers alternate scenarios about how people communicate, how businesses organize, how politics unfold and how philanthropy evolves. In an era of rapid technology change, these nations can surpass more developed places by adopting new technology more quickly, making emerging trends such as Weibo worth watching for those in the nonprofit sector. In the U.S., there are already many examples of crowd-sourced investment and donations for nonprofit causes. But given the underlying context for why this is growing in China, might we see a further explosion of interest here that could bypass traditional philanthropy, public investment channels or even formal nonprofit organizations? How might imagining this future scenario as a plausible alternative affect how you approach your work today? –Kathi Jaworski

  • Thomas Bastianel

    Great article. New trends, useful insights and different views.
    It is absolutely a topic to deepen.
    Many thanks

  • JCobb1978

    My ultimate problem with this article is that it hardly touches the fact that Weibo is only used because the media is completely censored in China, and Weibo services are controlled by the Chinese government. Witness how Twitter and Facebook have influenced fundraising and now we have a real discussion.
    If we want to talk about how Social Media and groups like ChipIn, Crowdrise, or even an individual’s ability to throw up a blog and a PayPal account for fundraising will influence fundraising in the next several years, fine, but I have no interest in learning how to be a fundraiser in a Communist society, nor do I feel like I should take note of it and potentially be ok with it.
    As fundraisers, we need to be more focused on ensuring the ability of our donors to donate to whatever they want, whenever they want, and for our nonprofits to be created and organized with the freedom that the U.S. allows.
    We are the model for charitable giving, not them.

  • David

    To think that the U.S. is the only counry that offers freedom for non-profits is limiting your sight to your own closet. And then again it is a sector that is highly regulated as far as the internal revenue service is concerned. True the Internet has allowed anyone with any excuse to open a PayPal account to gather funds from charitable contributors but it is up to the individual who manages such account to insure the funds are used for is intended need.
    The article clearly states that a model called Weibo is available for those in China, a regulated commerce entity with vast amounts of cash, that is generating wellness. The goal of any non-profit should be to provide economic and other releif in areas where governmental administration is lacking. This is what gives the non-profit the ability to function as an extension of governmental assistance on areas it can’t reach.
    You’d think that communist or socialist systems of government wouldn’t need non-profits to assist in the wellness of its citizenry. Clearly the article shows that indeed there are needs in these systems that actually become beacons to areas where the current system is failing. Thus the immediate release of social funds to cover hunger issues in rural China. That is exactly what should be occuring in the U.S. where more and more children go to bed hungry and yet the current political system is finding ways of cutting these services instead of increasing them. Not only should the federal agencies remedy the situation at hand immediately they should focus on finding the source and placate childhood hunger once and for all.
    Finally, it is necessary to begin to see the world and this planet as one home that is shared by humans. Non-profits who are international entities of aid, such as the Red Cross/Crescent, know this and work dilligently to bring aid to all those humas who need it regardless of country, creed or color. Charity should be blind to external ideology.