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Inaugural XIN Philanthropy Conference an Inspiration

July 13, 2016

By S. Timothy Kochis

Jack Ma and the Alibaba Foundation – the charitable arm of Alibaba Group – hosted a first-of-its-kind philanthropy conference in Hangzhou, China, this past week: the Xin Philanthropy Conference. Their goal? To establish credibility as major advocates for the deeper development of a culture of private philanthropy in China.

Alibaba HQ

Alibaba hosted the first-ever global conference on philanthropy at its headquarters in Hangzhou. Photo/Flickr user Soory

I am a financial planner and investment advisor, and my wife, Penelope Wong, and I attended as guests of the sponsor. Representatives from Chinese nonprofits, NGOs, academic institutions, companies, and young social entrepreneurs gathered to discuss how to inspire a new generation of philanthropic giving in China. Penelope and I sensed a genuine desire to urge everyone to think in broader terms of generosity to the larger community as a matter of individual responsibility, irrespective of any fame or even acknowledgement.

Held in Alibaba’s headquarters city, Hangzhou (host of the next G20 meeting in early September), this inaugural conference was intended to showcase the opportunity – and the need – for developing an indigenous Chinese infrastructure for charity. Hangzhou, a lovely city with the beautiful West Lake area and landscaped, tree-lined streets throughout, is home to about 8 million people, but doesn’t feel like it; it has a very small-scale, manageable feel. I’m told that it is beloved throughout China. A Chinese saying goes that Hangzhou is the “nearest thing to paradise.” I think that the conference location was intended to be symbolic, much more than a corporate convenience.

The event was entitled XIN (approximately pronounced “sheen”) a newly created word/character conveying a notion something like a “family heart” that encompasses the whole human community. The stated conference goal was “For a Better Future.” Alibaba Group founder, Jack Ma, commented: “The purpose of the XIN philanthropy conference is to inspire the young generation to give back and to support the development of philanthropy in China. It’s not enough to have good will; we also need the talent, the planning and the execution to make a sustainable impact in China and in the world.” Almost all of the 800+ attendees were Chinese; a few were foreign, mostly Americans, including several members of the Committee of 100, as well as colleagues of mine from the 1990 Institute board, including our CEO, Monica Lee, and Board Chair, Sandra Pan. A large number of the total were Chinese media (that was the essential point: to begin to get this message out). All of the proceedings were simultaneously translated into both English and Chinese, but most of the speakers (in person: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, former UK PM Gordon Brown, and Kahn Academy founder Salman Kahn; by video: Bill Gates, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg) spoke in English. Zuckerberg, famously a student of Mandarin, said an initial sentence or two in the language of his audience (to their great approval).

There was plenty of Chinese star power, too. In addition to Jack Ma, great cultural icons, Jet Li and Yao Ming, also spoke (in Chinese) of their own substantial charitable efforts, the obstacles they have faced, and the great deal of work still to be done. The two, each occupying the pinnacle of fame in film and sports, respectively, were very articulate and spoke extensively without notes or teleprompter.

The still very new Charity Law of the PRC (to go into effect on Sept. 1, 2016) was cited as an important initial step in facilitating both a culture and infrastructure of Chinese philanthropy but there was little comment on details, beyond some criticism of the percentage cap on administrative costs as being a burden to new small charitable endeavors.

The notion of needing to foster innovation and the intense use of technology and social media came through in repeated comments from many sources. A key takeaway was that infrastructure to support effective charitable giving remains underdeveloped in China. While China’s recent economic growth has created hundreds of billionaires and more than a million millionaires, total charitable giving in China is estimated at 4 percent of the level in the U.S. or Europe. But there was a strong sense that through conferences like this one – once introduced to the notion and able to learn from the trials and errors of others – China is thoroughly capable of world class mastery in philanthropy. Notwithstanding all the American exemplars of altruism and innovation on stage (and even Gordon Brown’s citing of Andrew Carnegie’s great philanthropy in single-handedly building a public library system for the U.S.), it was almost as if, at this point, China saw itself as pioneering the desire and as creating the wherewithal to make “a better future” for us all. As a world citizen, one can only hope that they succeed.

I’m told that there is a plan to hold future such conferences every two years. Next time, they expect even more attendees, not 800, but “at least 10,000.” Why not? China is a huge country and it’s a good show. I expect that there will be refinements in future renditions, but this first effort was well-designed. A first morning general session with Olympian exhortations, followed by an afternoon of “breakout” sessions to pursue more granular detail of the opportunities and implementation hurdles (environment, disaster relief, children’s services, medical advancement, and the use of technology), concluding with a final morning of music, fun, and youthful inspiration. A few words about those two last segments:

I attended the disaster relief breakout session with great interest, as I serve on the board of The Asia Foundation, which helps to provide technical training, foster public private partnership, and promote preparedness at the community level. Jet Li’s foundation, One Foundation, also does a lot of work in this area and he spoke at length in this session. Attesting to his personal charisma, about a third of the audience walked out with him once he finished his remarks. I was impressed by the number of actual disaster relief workers present in that audience, easy to pick out since they wore their colorful uniforms with patches on the chest and arms and back.

The final morning’s program began with a concert by two-time Grammy award winning composer/musician Dana Leong who has developed a philanthropy around the healing powers of art and music. This was followed by 20-something Jessica Beinecke, known in China as Bei Jie, who uses social media to teach Chinese and Americans each other’s everyday slang. They both reflected the power of contemporary communication technology to achieve worthy goals, on a global basis, at huge scale, almost overnight. The conference concluded with a panel of four impressive young (age 16 to about 28) entrepreneurial philanthropists, all but one having no starting financial advantages (no family wealth, no venture backers). Instead, they had a desire to make some specific improvement (internet access for the blind, for example) in people’s welfare and they possessed familiarity with how social media can vastly expand the impact, or itself be the solution.

I came away impressed by the effort and sophistication that went into this event and hope to be invited again in the future. More importantly, I came away convinced that there are many influential people who expect China to play an important leadership role in global philanthropy. I say “Hurrah!”

Tim Kochis is CEO of Kochis Global and former CEO/chairman of Aspiriant. Kochis has 43 years of experience in personal financial and investment planning. He has been active throughout his career to set standards for the profession and currently serves as trustee of the Charles Schwab Investment Management ETF and Mutual Funds Board and The Asia Foundation. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: China
Related programs: Development and Aid Effectiveness
Related topics: Disaster Management, Philanthropy

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