Richard Brubaker wears a lot of hats. As founder and managing director of China Strategic Development Partners, he uses his 15 years of experience in Asia to help his clients navigate the Chinese marketplace and develop successful business strategies in China. And that is just the beginning. Brubaker has also started, founded, and/or co-founded Hands On Shanghai, Chengdu, and Beijing which organizes volunteers and donations for local charities; Cleaner Greener China, a web-based platform bringing forward environmental issues and solutions; and Crossroads, which includes a CSR website, events, and strategic consulting. Oh and he also has 4 Twitter accounts to keep everyone up-to-date. We were fortunate enough to get an interview from Richard on all things China and CSR.
Q. What brought you to China? How long have you been here?
A. Coming to China was an easy decision really. I have had a love for Asia for a long time, and following my year abroad in Japan 15 years ago, it was always my goal to return to Asia. I had only planned on being here a month to study the language and then head home to find work (I had just graduated from MBA), but I’ve ended up staying for more than 7.5 years now.
Q. Where did the idea for Hands On come from?
A. Hands on is actually a global organization with 250 branches, one of which I volunteered with in San Francisco. Deciding to open the Shanghai group is a result of trying to find something productive to do in Shanghai, and not getting very far. Knowing Shanghai had a lot of young professionals, and that Shanghai (like any big city) had issues volunteers could assist with, I rallied a few friends together to visit the Cerecare Wellness center.
As we grew in Shanghai from a few friends into a platform, I then began to see Hands On as a wider component of the community and decided to make a real effort to develop it. We have always looked to develop long term programs that have a lasting and deepening impact first and foremost, and as we have done this, we have continually looked to then introduce, train, and manage a larger group of volunteers who will then engage through the platform.
Q. Do you work more with foreigners or Chinese? What has been your experience of working with very different cultures on CSR in China?
A. I work with both, but my goal is to develop Chinese capacity through all the platforms. It is not a matter for me of if I communicate in English or Chinese within the office, or within my immediate network, but the message from there must reach the local population. I love working with different cultures, particularly those within China, however given the work we do I believe that a lot of cultural differences are quickly cut through when we all work for a common goal. The passion (once tapped) is insatiable.
Q. In your opinion, what is the current state of Corporate Social Responsibility in China? How far has it come and where do you think it is going?
A. Still immature in many areas, but improving. I do not view any of the barriers as cultural, but rooted in education and the systemic differences that exist in China. If you are speaking to philanthropy and volunteerism, it is important to remember that it was only until very recently that the State took care of everyone and everything. That NGOs were, in the western sense, not needed as state institutions took care of citizens. However, that has changed recently, and as some NGOs begin to mature, awareness is rising on the role of NGOs within civil society. At the same time, with various events occurring over the last 2 years (earthquake, Wuxi, Melamin, etc), citizens are beginning to see that they have a role to play, that they are also responsible for maintaining civil society, and as various tools/ events avail themselves, they are growing their sense of empowerment.
From the corporate standpoint things are also changing. Corporations can no longer deny they have a responsibility to support the communities they are working in/ benefiting from. That it now takes more than a check and a handshake to capture employee and customer buy-in, and this is driving firms to begin reaching out.
One last point is that media and legal professionals have also seen huge changes in the last 18 months, and as they grow in strength and assume their roles/ responsibilities, things for NGOs will change for the better. NGOs were historically the recorders, reporters, and the solution providers, which put them in a politically sensitive position. As the media fulfills their responsibilities, and as legal professionals fulfill theirs, the pressure on NGOs is greatly reduced, which will further propel all 3 forward.
Q. How have you seen a spirit of volunteerism develop during your time in China? (If not, why not?)
A. Yes and no. I have always argued that China has a strong sense of community, and volunteerism. The problem was that interested parties had very limited options, and as many NGOs were not focused on the proper training and management of NGOs, the volunteer experience proved unsatisfactory. Also, volunteering was traditionally based on one off events (Olympics, Expos, trade shows, etc), but little existed to engage volunteers longer term. Through Hands On though, we are changing that, and are seeing a lot of interest from local participants. Through the training and management we are achieving a turnover rate that is comparable to those in the US (we are always looking for ways to reduce turnover).