Yet as the potential for charitable giving among China’s multimillionaires continues to grow, the question arises of whether a more widespread culture of philanthropy will develop among the population. Interestingly, the rapid growth of millionaires has generally taken place among a younger generation. Today, the average age of a wealthy Chinese person is 39 years old, around 15 years younger than their counterparts abroad. Thus, while 88 year-old Yu Pengnian’s large donation marks a major step in China, whether or not charitable giving will increase in the long run will depend on how the younger generation views philanthropy.
In the West, growing concern has also emerged about tomorrow’s philanthropists. A Wall Street Journal article titled “Not Your Parent’s Philanthropy” says that charities are “watching the next generation of wealthy donors direct their money to causes and charities that differ from those of their parents and grandparents.” However, while Western concerns focus around changes to the types of causes being supported, in China the whole concept of philanthropy is still in its developing stages. For the past two generations, the legacy of giving has been stilted in China, and only recently has the idea of charity been acknowledged and revived.
Yet philanthropy is not a new concept in China. In the past, religious teachings and philosophers spoke often of helping others in society, with a particular emphasis on one’s own family. In the past fifty years, the focus shifted almost exclusively to helping one’s own family. Now the ball is in the court of China’s youth who must revive, renew, and revise the legacy of philanthropy. Fortunately, there are signs that China’s increasingly influential, cosmopolitan young adults are advocating for philanthropy and are making their voices heard. Jeff Han, a Senior Accounting Manager at a multinational in Shanghai, explains their perspective, “I think most young people are really embracing the idea of doing charity and helping people who are in need; however, the percentage they donate from their disposable income is very small. In another sense, it could be concluded that people will help on the condition that it won't affect their personal lifestyles."
During the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the outpouring of aid among ordinary people demonstrated how the idea of doing charity is in fact being embraced. Yet the disaster triggered what is often characterized as a spate of emotional giving, with individuals suddenly giving in droves and donations rising to an all time high. It remains to be seen whether charitable giving will develop into an ongoing expectation among people and a more established part of one’s social responsibility.
So far there have been positive signs that philanthropy is gaining steam among younger people. Interestingly, it seems that China may be loosely following the path of Western philanthropy. Bronfman and Solomon, co-authors of The Art of Giving, chart American giving in this way:
Traditionally philanthropists were emotionally driven. During the dot-com era, donors began to view giving in a more businesslike manner, as a kind of venture-capital investment. [Bronfman and Solomon] foresee a third wave that blends the two approaches.
In addition to the wave of emotional giving as a result of the Sichuan earthquake, netizens are also using their voice on the web to encourage philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. Volunteerism, particularly amongst high school and college students, has been increasing in cities, while concepts such as social entrepreneurship have received growing interest with a number of U.S.-based programs seeing a dramatic increase in interested applicants.
Among the wealthy, there has been a rise in the number of private foundations being established. The trend highlights how philanthropy is being taken more seriously with big donors showing an increasing desire to directly control programs and better manage their donations (for more information click here). Yet public skepticism has also surrounded such foundations, as people are distrustful of the motives of the wealthy and are wary that charitable giving is simply a means of building public relations and evading taxes.
While philanthropists like Yu Pengnian are helping to set positive examples of giving back to society, developing a culture of philanthropy will need to extend beyond a few wealthy individuals and reach a younger generation of Chinese society. Although the concept of philanthropy amongst the younger set is still in its infancy, the potential for small scale/socially responsible efforts to connect and become Bronfman and Soloman’s “third wave” is possible. If China’s young adults become passionate about investing time, energy, and education into worthy causes, they will set a precedent and expectation for philanthropy and social responsibility that could eventually bring about dramatic change to charity in China.
--Chris & Georgia