What form does philanthropy take outside of the U.S.?  In upcoming “Country Profile” posts, I seek to illuminate a country’s history, current trends, and future questions surrounding international philanthropy.

History:  Like many countries, philanthropy in China has roots in the values espoused by native and imported religions.  From the Confusion and Buddhist traditions, charity in China has emphasized mutual help and personal relationships.   What makes this unique from the U.S. context, is that personal connections are of utmost importance and strangers are rarely the recipient of charitable acts.  These systems of connections, guanxi, extend to those sharing a common identity.

Other countries, like Japan, share a similar notion characterized by neighbourhood organizations which nd for centuries.  The idea behind these personal connections is that each person is responsible for themselves, their family, and their neighbourhood.  Philanthropy in this sense is not characterized by helping those less fortunate outside of your community, but just the opposite, ensuring there is a strong safety network for everyone inside of your community.  The sense that everyone’s (within your circle) wellbeing is part of your responsibility.  Charitable activities, based on these beliefs, have existed in China and much of Asia for centuries within communities, clans, and kinships.

Recent Past and Current Situation:  The rise of a strong central government, particularly under communism, allowed the Chinese population to rely on provided social (and economic) services for much of their life’s needs.  By no means has the system been perfect, but through the lens of philanthropy, there was not as great of a need for a separate social sector to emerge.  If communities were caring for their immediate members and the government providing services for the country, then philanthropy or charity was not going to have the all of the same elements as in the West.

However, as the social and economic climates have changed within China and as philanthropy (as a theory, sector, and application) has gained more exposure in the West, interest has increased in developing a social sector and creating a movement of charitable giving in China.  In the past, the Chinese government has been skeptical and has opposed to the operation of non-profits in China – while there is evidence that trends may be changing, there is still an element of control to how non-profits operate and exist.  Currently, the government seems to both welcome foreign philanthropy, while at the same time, discourage foreigners meddling in Chinese affairs.

Recent changes to taxation laws have made it easier for people with extra wealth to set up their own charitable funds or give it away to recognized non-profits.  In 2008, 27 donors each gave more than $100 million Yuan to charity and 100 philanthropists have given away ($12.9 billion Yuan) $1.8 billion (U.S.) since 2003 – with most money going to education, social welfare, and poverty reduction.  Additionally, New philanthropic efforts, inspired by the May 2008 earthquake relief, have increased – one example being the China Global Philanthropy Forum at the beginning of this month, which sought to bring together leaders for the development of global philanthropy.

What to watch:  Even with the increased interest in Western-style philanthropy, the charitable sector within China still has numerous hurdles.  The government is still very much in control of which non-profits are able to operate and for which causes.  It will also be important to see whether grassroots needs within China are being heard, or whether the donors will drive the agenda in terms of which charities and causes are supported.

As the West has learned (and continues to learn), there is a case to be made for oversight, but it is a delicate balance in determining when and how much.  Without a strong grass-roots, non-profit sector, it will be difficult to evaluate whether government or private donors have the best plans/intentions for what efforts should be addressed and how they will be implemented.  It is heartening to see the conversation of a global philanthropy, but there are cases where the West is just as poised to learn as to teach.

Questions to contemplate:  Learning from the current economic situation, what role should philanthropy take in China?  Are there differences to make to private or corporate philanthropy to make it more responsive/relevant?  How will the Chinese bridge the traditional notions of charity with the Western contexts, and what new philanthropy will emerge?  Would the West do well to re-learn the traditions of making sure the “inner” is cared for before addressing the “outer”?   Is the desire to be philanthropic a cultural trait – are some countries/populations more likely to be philanthropic?  How do newly understood philanthropic traditions help you to better understand your own – for better or worse?

I’m a fan of international philanthropy, but by no means an expert – feel free to comment on anything I’ve written.

Sources consulted for this post:
Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium. “Profile:  China.”
Asian Philanthropy Forum.
China Philanthropy News. “A conversation with Ellen Furnari,”Grantmakers Without Borders, Issue 018, September/October 2008.
Fan, Junmei. “Cooperation needed for developing global philanthropy,” China.org.cn. Guan, Xiaofeng.  “Tax policy on charity widened,” China Daily.com.cn (January 20, 2007).
Hurun Report.  ”2008  Hurun Philanthropy List.”
Mackey, Michael.  ”The new Chinese philanthropy,” Asia Times Online (May 14, 2005).
Tolentino, Rory.  ”Philanthropy and Social Investments in China,”  5th Congresso Gife Sobre Investimento Social Privado (April 4, 2008).
Wang, Ying.  “Top philanthropists donate $1.8b in 5 years,” China Daily.com.cn (April 3, 2008).

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