Family Philanthropy Burgeons in China

By the RBF Southern China program team

As the story of China’s stunning economic success continues to unfold, some business leaders are writing another chapter. These individuals, often from humble beginnings, are directing significant amounts of their wealth to philanthropy. While giving is an integral part of Chinese culture—central to both Confucianism and Buddhism—these new philanthropists are looking at family foundations as the means to direct their resources to social welfare gaps and other concerns.

This fall, financial services company UBS and French business school INSEAD released a study on family philanthropy in Asia, based on more than 200 surveys and 100 interviews. Forty-two percent said that the number one reason to engage in philanthropy was to “ensure the continuity of family values or create a lasting legacy.”

In China, the ability to accumulate private wealth has only been possible in the past three decades. But despite philanthropy’s youth, the number of private foundations has more than tripled from 436 in 2007 to 1,332 as of December 2011. The rapidity with which philanthropy in China is growing sets up the perfect opportunity for dialogue about the often complex issues around effective philanthropy.

At The Pocantico Center in November, four Chinese families participated in a discussion with Rockefeller Brothers Fund board members and staff  to take a closer look at the legacy and current practice of philanthropy by the Rockefeller family and other American family foundations. The Chinese and American participants shared a strong desire to improve the societies they live in and to engage multiple generations of their families in philanthropy. The key takeaways, highlighted below, helped open the avenues for an exchange of views.

  • “How do we decide which issue to tackle first?” The problems in front of us are clear, one Chinese participant observed: as in the United States, they include poverty, access to quality education and health care, and pollution. The advice from one American practitioner was to choose the issues that engage your interest and passion, and to find ways to attack root causes of problems as well as meet immediate needs.
  • “How do we nurture a culture of philanthropy?” Actions matter as much as mission statements. Leaders instill the vision and values of their foundations by serving as models in their families and businesses, as well as in their philanthropic endeavors. Newer philanthropists can seek mentors and advisors, at home or abroad, who “have traveled this road longer,” in the words of one Chinese participant.
  • “It’s more important to share wisdom than money.” Chinese philanthropists can expand their network of peers by looking beyond their own national borders. Partnering with foundations from other countries, on projects inside or even outside China, can deliver practical experience in managing a foundation, defining standards, and applying guidelines.
  • “Philanthropy becomes a common purpose that helps to keep the family together.” There are now 260 living descendants of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., with diverse professional and personal interests. Yet more than 70 years after the death of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., philanthropy binds them together in a cherished family tradition. The four Chinese families are traveling their own courses but also will find, in the words of a Rockefeller family member, that “building family traditions of philanthropic giving is both a great opportunity and a fundamental responsibility.”

The conference, “Models of Excellence in Family Philanthropy: A U.S.-China Dialogue,” was convened by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and two of its grantees, the Beijing Normal University One Foundation Philanthropy Research Institute (BNU1) and the Center on Philanthropy at Sun Yat-sen University.