Building the future you want to see: What role for community foundations in China?

“Are there community foundations in China?” Over the last few years, as China’s home-grown philanthropy sector has grown dramatically, I have heard a variety of answers to this question. They have ranged from a simple “No”, to “one” to “at least 30”.

Community foundation “head-counts” are obviously helpful when it comes to mapping the growth of the global field. But what is perhaps more interesting is to look beyond the numbers and explore what role local philanthropic foundations might be able to play in China in fostering community initiatives, promoting cross-sectoral collaborations and mobilizing local resources and assets, particularly at a time when China’s rapid urbanisation means that the state is struggling to provide everything for its citizens and when it is also apparently beginning to realise that there may be a role for NGOs (long-suspected by the state), at least in the delivery of social services.

These were some of the questions that were on the table at the first “Local Community Foundations Development Forum” held in Guangzhou on May 29th 2014, and organized by the Guandong Harmony (Community) Foundation (GHF) and Sun Yat-Sen University School of Philanthropy. There was standing-room only at the day-long meeting, which was the first of its kind, and which brought together the leaders of various government charitable federations, independent and community foundations as well as government representatives and students from the university’s civil society and philanthropy departments. En route to the meeting, via Singapore and Beijing, I had been reliably informed a number of times that Guangzhou – which is the centre of China’s huge industrial heartland – has long held a reputation for independent thinking and liberal ideas, “a cradle for reforms and revolutions”. So it was perhaps no surprise that this forum – which provided a first opportunity for foundation leaders and board members to discuss some of the “nuts and bolts” of philanthropic practice such as grantmaking etc., – also touched on global philanthropic trends, namely community foundations and how this flexible form had been adapted and adopted in other parts of the world.

Since 2004, when new regulations on foundations were introduced, Chinese philanthropy has certainly seen a rapid growth. In 2013, the China Foundation Center recorded that were 3,608 foundations in China, with total giving amounting to RMB 29 billion (about US $4.6 billion). When you look at the numbers more closely, however, the picture becomes more complex and perhaps less rosy. There are only 1,400 independent foundations (the rest are so-called “GONGOs” or government-operated non-governmental organizations). And of these 1,400, 400 were established by companies and another 900 by celebrities and academics. This means that although, according to the Economist, China had 358 billionaires at the end of 2013, very few of these rich individuals and their families are setting up foundations. In fact, in terms of charitable giving, China ranks among the world’s worst. According to the World Giving Index 2013, an annual survey by the Charities Aid FoundationChina ranked 115 among 135 countries for donating money and last for volunteering.

So what are some of the barriers to building a culture of philanthropy in China? In a recent interview with Alliance magazine, He Daofeng, executive president of the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (a GONGO, turned independent foundation), Chair of the China Foundation Center and winner of this year’s Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize for Emerging Markets Philanthropy, shared his views. These included, “selfishness and ideology, driven by market economic mechanisms”, “lack of religious faith and shared values”, the bad reputation of GONGOs and a lack of trusted and independent NGOs.

The legal framework for philanthropy in China has also made fundraising from the public (and therefore fostering a culture of community philanthropy) very difficult. Although groups might be allowed to receive public donations, few are allowed to engage in actual public fundraising without going through a GONGO. And while China has over half a million registered NGOs, according to the Economist, many of these are “quasi-official or mere shell entities attempting to get government money.” Furthermore, although another 1.5 million NGOs are estimated to exist, these are all unregistered, moving them off the radar of most local donors.

My task at the meeting in Guangzhou was to provide a snapshot of how the global community philanthropy field has evolved, from the Cleveland Foundation, and its founder, Frederick Gough, and his bold vision to pool the charitable resources of Cleveland’s philanthropists, living and dead, into a single permanent endowment for the betterment of the city (now valued at US $1.8 billion), to Russia, to Brazil, to Zimbabwe. The Russian experience of community foundation development was of particular interest. Although the two countries have taken different routes in terms of economic and political liberalization, a number of parallels can be drawn when it comes to the development of civil society / philanthropic sector, low levels of public trust and the need to tread sensitively around a suspicious state. While the US is often taken as a main reference point for many things in China, when it comes to community foundation development Russia would seem to be a more relevant comparison at present. Not only are there now over 50 community foundations and community foundation-like organizations in Russia, but the role of bridge-building philanthropy support organizations and membership associations such as CAF Russia, the various community foundation networks and the Russia Donors Forum, in contributing to the growth of the philanthropic sector is clear. In China, such organizations are still thin on the ground.

Jiangang Zhu (centre) with philanthropy colleagues, at Sun-Yat-sen University

Looking forward – fostering an ecosystem for philanthropy

In his comments, one of the meeting hosts, the dynamic, visionary and multi-talented Jiangang Zhu, professor of the School of Sociology and Anthropology at Sun Yat-sen University, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy, director of the Institute for Civil Society and a board member of the Guangdong Harmony Foundation, observed that the community foundation concept represented a “higher level task” for Chinese philanthropy because, unlike private foundations, its multi-stakeholder governance structure required that different “forces” or groups needed to overcome their differences and come together. This in itself has the potential to be quite transformational in China. In addition, he said, it would be important to foster broader networks and support structures for philanthropy so that an “ecosystem” could begin to develop.


Guandong Harmony (Community) Foundation: very much a dot on the community foundation map

A “village within the city”, where many migrant workers liveThe day after the conference, a smaller group of us had the opportunity to visit some of the migrant worker groups supported by GHF, which is one of the very few grantmaking foundations in China, making it a “precious” resource, according to one of its board members.  GHF personnel are the first to admit that there is work to be done in terms of strengthening staff capacity, ensuring more community participation in the governance structures and expanding the funding base. But meeting grantees of the foundation, local groups run by migrant workers providing childcare and advice on rights etc, and hearing about how the foundation had provided not just grants but also technical support and advice, had linked them to other groups and brought their issues to the attention of local authorities (all potentially tricky stuff in China), I had no doubt that this is a foundation that aspires to be for the community and of the community in its very essence, which in the end is what community philanthropy is all about.

It will be interesting to see whether emerging organization in the community philanthropy field (the Yangjing Community Foundation in Shanghai is another interesting example) will be able to thrive in the space currently given to them by the authorities and to what extent that space is allowed to expand if government authorities can come to regard community foundations as more of a benefit than of a threat.

Jenny Hodgson

Executive Director, GFCF

Leave a Reply

Notify of