Reflections on Public Welfare Events in 2016

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Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in 慈善公益报 (Charity and Philantrophy Report). It is a reflection on some of the main events that shook the world of Chinese charity in 2016, including the Luo Er incident, and what they mean for the industry. Below is our translation.

Today the benefits brought to charity by the Internet are not limited to online appeals for help, online donations and the spreading of information. Like a magnifying glass, the Internet can not only increase publicity for public welfare events, but also intensify public scrutiny on any incidents that occur in this field. Looking back at the major events of 2016 in the field of charity, what kind of reflections did these events bring about in the media and in public welfare organizations and platforms?

According to the statistics for all the articles on charity that appeared in the Today’s Headlines (今日头条) newspaper, from January 1 to December 14 a total of 169,000 charity-related articles were published, and they were read a total of 437 million times. In particular, articles released in October got the highest reading rates, having been read over 69.1 million times.

Looking at the level of interest for different thematic areas, education ranks first, followed by children’s issues, poverty alleviation, aid to the disabled, disaster relief, medical assistance, environmental protection and women’s issues.

Huang Yingnan, the chief editor of Today’s Headlines, revealed the statistics on the most read news articles during the 2016 Internet Charity New Media Forum. The piece on the “Zhongguancun Second Primary School (Bullying) Incident” received the most hits, followed by the “Chen Guangbiao Incident”, the “Luo Er Fundraising Incident” and the “Implementation of the Charity Law”.

Some insiders commented that the Zhongguancun Second Primary School Bullying incident is related to issues of policy, and it is rather hard to draw a conclusion at this point. The “Luo Er Incident” on the other hand is interesting, as it has provoked professionals working in charity to reflect on a question: what is the role of communication in charity and how should we go about conducting it.

A reflection on persuasion and communication

“Persuasion focuses on ‘persuading’, emphasizing the content delivered by the subject; while communication aims at spreading information and encouraging the public to participate. The charity industry is at its best time right now, so we should take up the big challenges facing this era”, says Zhou Jian, chairman of the Beijing Gangen Charity Foundation.

Zhou takes the issue of cleaning up after your dogs as an example. What slogans do social organizations usually come up with to persuade the public in this regard? “Raise Civilized Dogs; Raise Dogs Civilly; Be a Good Citizen of the Community”. However, after much deliberation, the organizations agreed that it is better to reduce the preaching and instead instil a sense of participation to encourage people who care for and love dogs to participate in picking up dog droppings and reward them with little gifts. By so doing the problem is solved through the participation of community members. This illustrates the difference between persuasion and communication.

When it comes to the “Luo Er Incident”, it is unavoidable not to mention the Charity Law, which only took effect three months prior to the incident. The Luo Er incident again brought to the forefront the controversial matter of individual appeals for help in the Charity Law.

The deputy director of domestic affairs and the chief reporter of China Youth Daily, Wang Yijun, thinks that appealing for help is an individual’s basic civil right, which falls outside of the regulatory scope of the Charity Law. The legislative purpose and essence of the Charity Law is to encourage the public to carry out charitable acts, such as charitable fundraising and donations, through legally formed charitable organizations.

A reflection on improving the rules

The “Luo Er Incident” on the other hand illustrates the predicaments faced by citizens when they seek help for themselves in practice. The need to seek for help is commonplace. When a good platform meets a well-behaved public, it can maximize the benefits.

When explaining the question of “the foundational principles in guiding appeals for help online”, the CEO of the China Foundation Center Tao Ze says: “we have to establish basic rules to overcome the difficulties in appealing for help. When carrying out public fundraising individually, we should first of all avoid fraudulent fundraising; secondly, excessive and cross-platform fundraising should be avoided; and thirdly, funds should not be squandered. Charitable organizations need to play the role of establishing and adhering to rules on all of these three points. Only by doing so, the difficulties encountered by those appealing for help may be overcome in the future, and the cooperation between platforms and the public will become smoother.

Specifically speaking, it is hard for instance for an aid organization in Beijing to determine the veracity of the information contained in a call for help from a remote village in Jiangxi Province. In order to avoid fraudulent fundraising third parties and more charitable organizations should be brought in, and information should be shared among the platforms. Due to the proliferation of online platforms, individuals may be raising money on various platforms including Weibo Charity or Tencent Public Welfare. If information can be shared among platforms, excessive and cross-platform fundraising can be avoided. Similarly, information sharing should be established among foundations, as the individual seeking for help may turn to various foundations for help.

Tao Ze believes that charitable organizations should be introduced in order to solve such a dilemma, and appropriate mechanisms should be established at different junctures to ensure aid is extended to people in need while the public’s trust is not abused.

A reflection on public organizations

Cui Lanxin, the secretary-general of the Beijing Chunmiao Children’s Aid Foundation, thinks that all of these high-profile public welfare incidents that occurred in 2016 left us with two main impressions. The first one is that the speed and the amount of assistance that the individual appeal for help can garner warrants special attention; the second one is that the potential risks brought about by public opinion are beyond our expectation. As Cui explains, “the difficulties in determining the veracity of the ever-increasing fundraising appeals may slowly lead to insensitivity and indifference among the public, and at times even lead to questions about fairness and justice. In this light, the media platforms and charitable organizations need to jointly explore ways to better guide the public.

In the public debate on the “Luo Er Incident”, some may say that “a naive kindness is better than a savvy indifference”. Cui Lanxin refutes this idea by asserting that the public needs “guidance” instead of “education”, and they need to acquire better ideas and methods of seeking for help. “I’d rather make my kindness savvier”, says Cui.

With the rapid development of the Internet, the value of new media is increasingly recognized by society. However the yet to be answered question is what can the new media do in the area of charity? Yuzhe, Associate Director of Sina Micro-charity, says that “new media, whether it is Weibo or Headlines Today, should shoulder its responsibilities as a platform. Such responsibilities include both monitoring at the initial stage and coordination at the later stage.” Yu also stressed that while new media empowers charity organizations for fundraising purposes, the focus should not be limited to fundraising but should also include how to provide follow-up services to fundraisers, and providing prompt feedback is also important.