One thing that fascinates me is how universal fundraising is. At times it seems as though fundraising is one of the tools that lets us reach out beyond our world and speak a common language that crosses cultural boundaries.
I recently traveled to China. Once word got out that I was on my way to the other side of the world I was approached with questions about how to gain traction for fundraising in China. A leader of a multinational nonprofit with headquarters in both the States and in China wanted to know how they could get people engaged with their cause. The leader was overwhelmed by the task of shifting the values of a 3,000 year old culture to embrace philanthropy. Another founder of an organization working in China reported that volunteerism was practically unheard of and is foreign to the culture. How could they gain traction on the mission if there were cultural barriers in place?
Indeed China holds fascination for nonprofits. The Ford Foundation and The Henry Luce Foundations have both recently partnered with Indiana University to run pilot programs to study individual and corporate fundraising in China. A handful of large international nonprofits are actively developing strategies to develop Chinese philanthropic funders.
With all this attention on the nonprofit sector in China, I wondered what I would encounter as I ranged from Beijing though Xi’An, Chengdu, Chongqing, LiJian, Wuhan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other cities.
- Would fundraising really cross a seemingly insurmountable cultural divide?
- Would there be a culture of philanthropy?
- What would the conditions for fundraising be like?
- Would it be so different that the ‘western’ approach to fundraising wouldn’t gain any traction?
My own personal barriers to communicating in China are pretty steep. I don’t speak the language, I am unfamiliar with the culture and the subtleties and subtext of communications would go completely over my head. With the environment being so foreign to me I wondered if I would even recognize fundraising in China if it hit me in the face. So, curious to see what I would encounter, I packed my bags and headed to the other side of the world.
Fundraising is Everywhere!
Once I got my bearings I found many instances of familiar fundraising activities. I encountered many donation collection boxes in Taoist and Buddhist temples. A child protection organization had an agreement with a hotel chain to have a small fundraising “booth” featured in the lobby where, in exchange for your donation, you received a stuffed animal along with the well-produced case statement brochure. I found donors recognized with naming opportunities at art galleries in museums. An entire village, in an effort to preserve and share its cultural heritage, had a sales and donation approach with a museum-store like complex where you could learn about the local language and culture, view historical artifacts and meet with an elder who demonstrated traditional calligraphy.
At the Giant Panda Research Center in Chengdu you could (for a certain donation amount) have a personal one-on-one experience with a baby panda bear. The event is captured on video and the donor is provided with a slew of photographs and other memorabilia for sharing. Pandas were available for “adoption” and the star-studded list of “panda parents” was effectively displayed to inspire others to support.
But the people whom I met who were actively fundraising had amazing stories to share. Some of them weren’t even aware they were engaged in fundraising.
How to Ask While Saying Nothing
I was in the old town maze of shops and buildings in LiJian when I felt a tap on my shoulder. A man with a tiny clip board held it out to me with an inquiring expression. While the marketplaces are teeming with people, I hadn’t encountered anyone taking surveys or handing out flyers. I picked up the clipboard and saw that it was all in Chinese and with a shake of my head and a shrug of my shoulders I indicated I couldn’t read it and returned it to the man. His face lit up as he took the clipboard back, shuffled to some later pages and handed it back to me – this time with translations into several languages. He pointed to an introduction, his name, and then following my eyes, he pointed to his mission statement – he was deaf and fundraising to help other deaf individuals integrate. He pointed to his ask statement inviting me to become a gold supporter. Solicited with no words!
Sherwin Hits the Streets for Save the Children
In Hong Kong at a busy pedestrian intersection I encountered Sherwin, standing earnestly with his clipboard and engaging passersby in conversation. It turned out Sherwin was NOT conducting media surveys or canvassing for poll signatures, but he was working for a marketing company. His company had been hired by Save the Children and he was working on the street recruiting people to the monthly giving program. Sherwin spoke about the opportunities this assignment was providing and how much he enjoyed doing something that at the end of the day he could feel was helping improve lives and make the world a better place.
Mr. Wu volunteers with the Nature Conservancy
Mr. Wu was our local guide in LiJian. An enterprising gentleman with a passion for collecting clichés I had the opportunity to inquire after his Nature Conservancy cap. It turns out Mr. Wu has volunteered for many years with the Nature Conservancy. He got started with the organization to teach his young son his values surrounding community, caring for our world and helping each other. I asked him if he thought volunteering was unusual. He replied that he felt many people no longer volunteered because within the last 50 years or so the projects that people would volunteer together to work on would be dismantled or replaced. While he felt there was lingering uncertainty towards volunteering he wanted to lead by example. He’s enjoys seeing how his son applies the things he learns when they volunteer together and Mr. Wu’s activities with the Nature Conservancy offer several topics for conversations and learning in his family.
Jeff Supports a Village
Jeff was born to a family of several in a rural village just before the One Child Policy was put into effect. As the youngest in the family he shared some stories about the responsibilities the small children had in the village to mind the herd of buffalo for the benefit of all. That early conditioning made a big impression for Jeff. He found a way to attend university and then with the guidance and support of a mentor, turned his university education into a career in the tourism industry. Throughout his education and the decades of his career he kept as a top priority regular journeys home to his remote village to share what he’s learned and to bring resources back to the town. Now on his visits home he leads everything from civic projects to small classes for the very young. Jeff said he felt so grateful for all that had been done to support him as he grew that he was happy and humbled to be able to give back.
The Long History of Fundraising in China
Perhaps the most illuminating moment for me in discovering China’s cultural history of philanthropy was when I came across two donor walls thousands of miles apart. The first wall stood well over 10 feet by 15 feet and displayed in tight neat rows the family names of donors who had worked to restore, preserve, and continue to expand more than 400 sculptures carved into the side of a mountain. The donor wall, a rock carving itself, was more than 200 years old!
Along the Yangtze River we visited a pagoda with a long history as a landmark. As you climb the levels toward heaven, there is a wall honoring the families and patrons who were dedicated to the upkeep of the pagoda. The donors on this wall, which is carved into the rock of the mountainside that makes up the back wall of the pagoda, were honored more than 300 years ago.
From more than 300 years ago to the present day, naming opportunities are prevalent in China. What fun it was to compare a 300 year old donor wall to the names on the galleries in a contemporary museum.
A Universal Language
Despite my personal barriers to communicating in China I found not only did I recognize all the tell-tale signs that described a long history of fundraising in China, I could participate. Fundraising is alive and active. Organizations both local and foreign are actively testing new techniques and sharing their stories. They are finding creative ways to cross language and cultural divides. There is a culture of philanthropy that has been around for hundreds of years. I actually conducted some fundraising myself while travelling in China, but that is a story for another day.
After all is said and done, the cultural barriers are swept aside, the different histories that developed each culture, philanthropy employs a universal language. Despite language barriers, different cultural cues, and the economic and governmental circumstances that shape our behavior, the drive to assist others is a fundamental one that we all share.