In The News

Rise of Social Media Transforms Philanthropy in China

April 30, 2014

In 2011, renowned investigative journalist Deng Fei went on a reporting trip to Guizhou province, a remote area in southwestern China, where he visited rural schools and spoke with students and teachers. He came away shocked that many schools did not provide lunch, and that most students came from homes too poor to afford breakfast.

The trip inspired him to launch an online campaign asking followers of his microblog on Sina Weibo to make small donations to provide free lunches for rural schoolchildren. Within the first eight months, he had raised nearly $4 million from some 900,000 individual donors. Such a campaign would have been highly unlikely in China even five years ago. However, Deng Fei’s Free Lunch Project is among the wave of new charitable initiatives popping up that highlight the power of social media and online giving in transforming philanthropy in China.

China social media users

According to the China Internet Network Information Center, between 2008 and 2013, the number of social media users more than doubled from 298 million users to over 617 million. Photo/Flickr user Jens Schott Knudsen

Though Chinese culture has historically encouraged charity, it was superseded in recent decades by an extensive state welfare system. With the onset of reforms, the dismantling of state welfare safety nets, and the rise of new social challenges, the need for citizen action has increased dramatically. This was vividly illustrated in the wake of the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, when an unprecedented number of donors and volunteers helped aid government efforts in the face of immense devastation. For the first time, individual donations surpassed corporate donations – the traditional source of charity funding in China.

Though the earthquake reawakened an interest in philanthropy among the Chinese public, it quickly became apparent that general awareness about charity organizations and the avenues for giving remained limited. China’s restrictive fundraising regulations only allowed a handful of government-backed foundations to publicly solicit donations. Yet there was little oversight into where donations would end up, and a backlash occurred when it was later reported that some post-quake recovery funds had been embezzled or misappropriated. The state-backed Chinese Red Cross, which received $650 million in donations, also found itself in the public’s crosshairs regarding misuse of funds and opaque operations. Public disillusionment was compounded by prevailing attitudes that small, individual contributions have little impact. By 2011, giving had plummeted, and many worried that public apathy toward giving would threaten the development of China’s nascent philanthropic sector.

Around this time, China was also witnessing a rise in social media and increased public discussion on social issues, particularly around the plight of average citizens. According to the China Internet Network Information Center, between 2008 and 2013, the number of social media users more than doubled from 298 million users to over 617 million (nearly twice the U.S. population). Through sites such as Sina Weibo (a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook), which Deng Fei launched his campaign on, and Tencent’s Wechat (a mobile messaging app), stories on everything from factory pollution to the plight of “left-behind” children trickled into the mainstream. Recognizing the power of such platforms, philanthropy leaders urged social media companies to support China’s nonprofit sector by developing philanthropy-related platforms and expanding online-giving tools. By doing so, for the first time in China social media effectively linked news and information with fast and efficient ways for individuals to address social challenges, creating the potential to dramatically alter the landscape for charitable giving.

The rapid rise of social media and the advent of online giving have empowered new donors and grantees alike. By being able to donate online easily while gaming, shopping, or socializing, ordinary citizens are able to respond instantly to issues they care about through sites such as Tencent Online Donation Platform, Sina Micro-Philanthropy Platform, and Alipay E-Philanthropy Platform. Donations are often no more than a few dollars, but these can quickly add up. According to the China Online Donations Report, total online donations through third-party social network donation platforms surpassed $83 million in 2013.

Online giving has also broadened the space for local charity groups like actor Jet Li’s well-regarded One Foundation, known for its disaster relief work, to conduct online fundraising. Meanwhile, through sites like Sina Micro-Philanthropy, smaller nonprofits operating under the auspices of fundraising-approved foundations are able to not only raise money for their local programs but also gain critical public recognition. For example, in less than two years of operation, Sina Micro-Philanthropy has had more than 2 million independent users donate through its platform to more than 9,500 programs. Other online platforms have followed suit, providing donors with more options to fund organizations and programs throughout the country.

Public trust in nonprofits in China is also growing, according to an annual survey by public relations firm Edelman. While these indications are promising, the long-term sustainability of online giving remains untested since the government does not currently regulate donations given through social media platforms. In addition, though online platforms can increase transparency by giving prospective donors greater access to information, they do not provide sufficient oversight over donations so face difficulty in ensuring accountability.

Yet despite these potential pitfalls, social media platforms have already shown potential to become game changers for China’s nonprofit sector by encouraging average citizens to participate in philanthropy, and by providing these prospective donors with greater choice, information, and access.

This was highlighted during the Lushan Earthquake in April 2013, when many donors turned to online platforms for their giving. Through online donation sites, more than $48 million was raised in just 10 days, of which close to $12.8 million came from individual donations, according to the China Online Donations Report. With government restrictions recently eased, donors could now choose from different foundations, including non-state-backed organizations. Given greater choices, individual donors – particularly those using online giving – tended to favor groups with more autonomy and transparency. Jet Li’s One Foundation, known for its high standards and openness, received more than $49 million in relief donations, surpassing the combined donations to the China Red Cross and the China Charity Federation. It marked the first time a privately operated charity received more donations than government-backed organizations during a major disaster.

More notable than the impressive amount of donations raised was where the money came from – 48 percent came from individual donors. Of the nearly three million contributors, two million used a social media platform to donate. Those numbers hint at the huge role that social media and online giving may come to play in fostering a culture of giving and empowering individuals to address challenges facing their communities in China.

Emily Weaver served as program advisor for The Asia Foundation in China from September 2012 through March 2014. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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