The outlook for philanthropy in China in 2019: a new force and a new era

  • Home
  • >
  • News
  • >
  • The outlook for philanthropy in China in 2019: a new force and a new era

Editor’s note

This is an abridged and adapted translation of an article written by Li Yulin; you can see the original here.


From 2008 to 2018, the charity cause of China has gone through rapid and prosperous growth. This period of ten years has been called a “Golden Age” for grassroots charity by some academics.

Since we stepped into the year of 2019, everyone has seen the changes in politics and economy in China, as well as the rising concerns for China’s philanthropy. More and more people from other fields have participated in philanthropy, and they are not happy about the status quo. For example, Jack Ma urged the secretary of the Mayun Charity Foundation to communicate or contact less with other charitable organisations and to explore the path of doing charity on their own. He criticised the fact that “many organisations in China have formed many bad habits, like being extremist and cynical” in a video that he demanded be publicly released.

It is widely recognised that the charity sector needs reform; however, we have to point out that before 2008, there were three vital forces in the charity sector, including overseas NGO, government-backed charitable organisations and grassroots charitable organisations.

In the last ten years, foreign NGOs have become less influential, government-backed charitable organisations have gone through a revival, and there has been a separations within the grassroots charitable organisations, some of which have been integrated into government-backed charity system. At the same time, a new force is rising. Private capital has taken part in philanthropy and made a significant impact within a few years.

In my view there are three main features of China’s charity sector over the last ten years:

First of all, there has been some progress, but compared to a growing economy and evolving society in China, growth has fallen behind.

Secondly, even though great efforts have been made, there is a lack of appealing new methods.

Thirdly, after adjustment, the charity sector still hasn’t positioned itself well within China’s political and economic environment.

Now the charity sector in China has come to a critical turning point, and if it fails to reform it will be in danger of being phased out. A new force has arrived, which is significantly enriching the charity sector. The most noticeable phenomenon is “business as force for good”.

I will give three examples:

1.CFPA Microfinance
The predecessor of CFPA Microfinance was the “Microfinance Project Department” of the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation. This is a public welfare project that is incubated from within an NGO.

Even though CFPA Microfinance has transformed into a private business entity, it never forgets its mission. By November 2018, 92% of its clients were rural households and 62% were female, people who find it hard to get loans from other agencies.

The success of CFPA Microfinance shows that during social improvement, action speaks louder than words. And the commercialised transformation of NGOs is becoming a trend.

As a young startup company that has been online since May 2016 and provided fundraising platforms for individuals (especially the relatives of a seriously ill patient), ShuiDiChou had over 160 million paid users and 550 million registered users by September 2018. In two years, the amount of money fundraised on the platform exceeded 8 billion Yuan, which is twice more than the total cash fundraised during the 99 Philanthropy day in four years. Can we trust private enterprises who are motivated by profits?  People have their judgement: a black plum is as sweet as a white.

3. Alibaba
In December 2017, Alibaba announced that it would invest 10 billion yuan for poverty alleviation in the five primary sectors of ecology, E-commerce, education, women’s rights and healthcare. This not only responds to the national poverty alleviation strategy but also creates a profound combination of charity and commerce.

However, we have to bear in mind that donations from giant entrepreneurs are not reliable, and are easily affected by their financial condition.

The author suggests that since 2019, the new economy, led by Internet enterprises, will gradually become the leading force in China’s charity sector, but how it will unfold remains highly uncertain. So those who have devoted and will devote themselves to the charity sector should walk out of their comfort zone, embrace the unknown, and find like-minded colleagues on the way to the future.