The three trends of China’s charity ecology: expansion, fragmentation and localization

  • Home
  • >
  • Analysis
  • >
  • The three trends of China’s charity ecology: expansion, fragmentation and localization

Editor’s Note

This is CDB’s translation of an interview with Lü Quanbin, Secretary General of the China Foundation Forum (CFF). The original was written by 马广志 and published on the 18th of November 2019 by the Shanda Network. You can find the original here. The CFF is a national platform established in 2008 by the China Society for the Promotion of Social Organizations and seven foundations. Every year, it organises a series of events and activities to enhance communication and collaboration between Chinese foundations.


All things on earth exist within their own ecologies. This is true for the charity sector as much as it is for nature and society. A robust ecology can allow different organizations to strengthen their relationships and communication. It can also lead to them supporting each other and living in symbiosis, which promotes the healthy development of the entire ecosystem.

Since its establishment in 2008, the China Foundation Forum (CFF) has been dedicated to advancing the ecosystem of the charity sector and, over the past two years, has made this the strategy for its future development. We believe that non-governmental charity can develop soundly and sustainably only if we improve its ecosystem.

This is an interview with Lü Quanbin, the Secretary General of CFF, which Shanda Net conducted at the eve of the 2019 Annual Symposium of the China Foundation Forum. Lü Quanbin believes that China’s charity ecology is currently in a state of expansion, fragmentation and localization. Localization, in particular, will require special attention from the charity sector in the future. Lü Quanbin also believes that, while the public welfare ecology at first consisted mainly of interactions between foundations, NGOs and third-party service providers, it is now significantly larger and can no longer be ignored.

Lü Quanbin speaks at CFF’s 2019 Annual Symposium


People are at the core of the “Fujian Model”


Ma Guangzhi: I heard that a report called “Catalyzing Local Philanthropy in Fujian: The Potential and Role of Foundations” will be released at the 2019 Annual Symposium of the China Foundation Forum. Why this report?

Lü Quanbin: This report will be released at a parallel forum in the morning of the 23rd of November. Taking as example the charity ecology of Fujian Province, it explores the role and value of foundations in advancing charity ecologies. To that end the report analyses the relationship between the basic components and elements that make up Fujian’s charity ecology, as well as the reasons why an ecology takes form.

We had several reasons for publishing this report. First of all, because foundations in Fujian Province have surged dramatically in recent years. Two prominent examples are the Linwenjing Foundation (林文镜慈善基金会) and the Highsun Foundation (恒申慈善基金会等), which are very active and influential in the sector. When I went on a business trip to Fujian, I had the opportunity to get in touch with secretary generals Zhou Hong and You Mai. Their efforts and enthusiasm for Fujian’s charity sector deeply impressed me, and especially the training programmes they have jointly developed, such as the Fujian Charity Salon, the Shuxiu Programme and the Vanilla Plan, which have greatly enhanced the reputation of the local charity sector. We wanted to delve into what happened behind the scenes that enabled this to take off.

Secondly, as the environment in which the charity sector operates has evolved over recent years, the development of charity ecologies across China has been astonishing. Take Hunan, Shandong, or Chengdu in Sichuan, where philanthropy has become ever more widespread. We really wanted to understand how this came about, but when we searched for material to try and study this phenomenon, we realized there hardly was any.

The 2019 Annual Symposium of the China Foundation Forum will be held in Fuzhou this year, so we wanted to take this opportunity to take stock of and conduct research on the state of Fujian’s charity ecology. To give you some background: we put forth our proposal in March, launched it in April and had a first draft ready at the beginning of September. Now the report is mostly finalized.


I remember that, at one event, you proposed the term “Fujian Model”. But developing an ecosystem is a gradual, incremental and ongoing process. Is it too early to talk about a “Fujian Model”? Or will modeling other charity ecologies on the experience of one place have adverse effects?

The term “Fujian Model” was officially presented to the charity sector at the “First Secretary General’s Speech 2019”, an event organized by the China Foundation Forum on 26 April this year, where I did not speak. However, I had noted in previous internal meetings that Fujian’s charity ecology has developed so fast that it may well be worth thinking about whether such a thing as a “Fujian Model” might exist. Subsequently we invited Secretary General You Mai from Fujian’s Highsun Foundation, Deputy Secretary General Sun Chunmiao from Zhejiang’s Dunhe Foundation, Deputy Secretary General Liu Youping from the China Charity Alliance, and Lu Yanjing, Director of the Beijing Seven Delights Social Welfare Service Center, to discuss how feasible our project was. When you launch a project, you always need to give it a name, so we referred to it internally as the “Fujian Model”. You Mai later also gave a presentation on this term at the event in April.

As to whether we brought the term into play too early, or whether there will be adverse effects, I didn’t think too much about it at the time. But first of all it seems that, relative to other provinces and cities, Fujian’s charity ecology has developed rapidly indeed over recent years and this needs to be studied. Secondly, the development of local charity ecologies needs to be informed by the local policies, economy, society and culture. So it is likely that there will also be a Shandong Model, a Chengdu Model, and so on. Thirdly, if charity ecosystems are based on local conditions and development practices, they can reveal universally relevant principles for advancing a charity ecology, which can serve as a reference to other regions. This should be valuable.

But I have to add that, because time was tight, there will certainly be aspects of this report which will need to be improved. I hope that the respective experts can offer their assistance in correcting them.


So what do you think lies at the heart of the “Fujian Model”?

The rapid development of a local charity ecology is always the result of the right people coming together at the right place and in the right time. In terms of initiative, people are certainly the most crucial element, and often these are the core people at key institutions. They know the sector and are able to deploy resources. They bring their own personal backgrounds and their vision to their work. In Fujian’s charity ecology, Zhou Hong to a certain extent plays this role. When he arrived in Fujian, he brought his work experience and work ethic with him. Add to that the support and collaboration of young, local secretary generals such as You Mai, and you know why the ecosystem has changed within the space of a few years.

Developing a charity ecology is not just a matter of charity. Charity ecologies need to be fully integrated with the local social, cultural, political and economic environments. For example, Fujian Province famously has a rich overseas Chinese culture, and it is normal for entrepreneurs to donate. There also is the traditional culture of Mazu (a sea goddess worshipped in Fujian): the public is willing to offer volunteering services and participate in charitable activities. In short, it is important to look at charity ecologies from the perspective of modern philanthropy and ask oneself whether they are sustainable, public, and organized.


What is the biggest problem facing the “Fujian Model”? Is this something to which we should also pay attention?

The “Fujian Model” is of course not perfect. We have also specifically pointed out the weaknesses of the “Fujian Model” after studying it. Zhou Hong is, after all, a “foreign monk who is good at chanting sutras” (外来的和尚好念经). It is of supreme importance that this “sutra” ultimately becomes localized. Then there are other factors which will greatly influence the future development of the “Fujian Model”, such as support through external policies and the modernization of traditional philanthropy. Of course, we currently see that the charity ecology of Fujian has a strong foundation, and the influence of particular factors is gradually decreasing. Still, we must be awake to the risks and challenges.


The expansion, fragmentation and localization of China’s charity ecology


From the perspective of the charity sector, what do you think of the current state of the charity ecology?

“Charity ecology” is a very fashionable term today, certainly compared to a few years ago. It seems like everyone is talking about it. But most of the people using it are like the blind touching an elephant – unable to see the big picture. They think about how they can help build or influence the charity ecology while remaining within their own niche. They lack a perspective for the sector as a whole. Having said that, the more people join in, the more complete the picture of the elephant will ultimately be.

As far as my own observations go, the current state of China’s charity ecology is experiencing three major changes: the first is expansion. More and more members of society are joining charitable causes. In the 1980s, it was mainly the state system which ran charity programs. Project Hope and the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, for example, were run by the government itself, mainly to compensate for its public deficiencies. In the 1990s, intellectual elites were the ones doing charity. The founders of Global Village and Friends of Nature all came from the upper echelons of society. After the “Regulation on Foundation Administration” came into effect in 2004, entrepreneurs and other wealthy people began to participate in charity work. Following the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, the middle class also began to pay attention to philanthropy and started to take action. Then, with the launch of the “99 Charity Day” and the introduction of the Charity Law, more and more ordinary people became a force that the charity sector could no longer ignore. Some donated, others volunteered – charity became a kind of fashion.

The second is fragmentation. As Teacher Qin Hui said, “the development of China’s third sector is at a premature stage”. What he meant was that, during the process of reform, the development of the government and enterprises in the modern sense is not finished, and the third sector is gradually emerging. Charity and social civility complement each other: civility promotes the development of charity, and charity will shape a new civility. Over the past few years, people and organizations in the charity sector had fundamentally the same goals and they shared essentially the same understanding of charity. Everyone was the same. But now? There are discussions about the marketization of charity and debates over online fundraising campaigns such as the “Luo Er Incident”. “#MeToo” has also had an impact on the charity sector. Ever more diverse concepts and practices have led to the fragmentation of charity.

Of course, although it cannot be denied that the charity ecology is in a state of fragmentation, there also is a lot of innovation, especially technological. Think of the rise of internet charity, which has greatly advanced China’s charity cause.

The third change is localization. This is similar to the early days of reform and opening up. At the time, foreign companies were invited to come to China and bring with them advanced technology, capital and management experience. This accelerated the state-owned enterprise reform, the rise of private enterprises and the development of national brands. At the same time, the economic development model evolved from a small agricultural economy to a market economy. The same is true for the charity sector. At first, foreign charities set up branches in China; then, gradually, domestic organizations became stronger. They are familiar with the particular conditions in China and have their own ideas and methods.


The modernization of the Chinese charity sector requires assistance from its foreign counterparts, due to the historical conditions of contemporary Chinese society. Nonetheless, these foreign charities need to adapt to local conditions and cannot apply their models rigidly.

China used a few decades to walk the path that took Western countries one to two hundred years, hence Chinese charities have been profoundly impacted as well. However, localization should become the main guiding principle behind the importation of Western ideals of charity and the definition of Chinese charities. Localization is also a trend to which future sectors need to pay specific attention. In the past years, our discussions have focused on what things “should” be, for instance what should be learned from American foundations, and what we should become. Now, it is time to return to how things concretely “are” in reality. In other words, charity organizations at different stages need to reflect on their different challenges, and they must solve these social issues to the best of their capabilities before collectively constructing the ecosystem of charity organizations in China. In the end, there needs to be a system for the development of social organizations with features that are unique to China, for instance the Communist Party’s leadership should serve as a guiding structure, traditional culture should form the basis, public welfare should be at the core, practical experience should be the source, technological progress should provide the attraction, and a loving society should be the wish.


But it can be seen that it is difficult for charity to be “pure” during the present times. It is increasingly influenced by policies and technology.

This is true. Charity used to be a small ecosystem, consisting mainly of relations between central actors like foundations and NGOs. Now, following the society’s development, we must discuss a wider ecosystem. Whether it is the development of charities intermingled with the internet, or the cooperation with the government’s policies to alleviate poverty, it is impossible for the charity sector to remain circumscribed.

Nevertheless, there is a need to be careful when collaborating with external actors. Charities cannot follow capital just because capital is available, they need to hold on to their original missions. Social organizations need to realize the value of charity. As Peter Drucker said, “non-profits are organizations for the transformation of humanity”, doing charity is a moral endeavour, it is not quite the same as what corporations or governments do.


In your opinion, what should this wider charity ecosystem be like? How can such an ecosystem be constructed?

I have limited knowledge in this area. Based on my observations and studies, I have created a “1, 2, 3” scheme for the charity ecosystem.

One goal. Within the same ecosystem, the diverging actors share a common goal, which is aiming to create a value in collaboration. Due to the aforementioned reason of fragmentation, I do not think that people perceive themselves to be located in the same ecosystem at the moment.

Two logics. On the one hand, the charity ecosystem is evolving, dynamic, and cannot be understood from a static outlook. The current ecosystem is an extension of past developments. On the other hand, it must be realized that the development of charity work itself follows a set of permanent patterns, that cannot be contradicted.

Three stages. Let’s look at the position of the ecosystem, the relations within the ecosystem, and then at the mechanisms of the ecosystem. After years of development, there is a notable abundance of specific positions within the ecosystem, including grant-making foundations, regional hubs, networks for discussions on specific topics, professional third-party service providers and all sorts of manifestations. Relations within the ecosystem refers to cooperation, like financing, purchasing and coordination. It is a network of dynamic interactions. The mechanism of the ecosystem refers to shared norms, such as standards to promote the healthy development of the ecosystem. Currently, there seem to be some deficiencies in this aspect. In the future, a significant amount of time needs to be spent on its construction.

Within this, organizations providing pivotal platforms – like the foundation forum – are crucial, just like joints in the human body. If an increasing number of pivotal platforms can connect downwards to local grassroots organizations for execution, associate upwards to foundations for resource provision and communicate horizontally with other platforms, it would be like a healthy body which coordinates all of its joints. This would bring the ecosystem to life.


“You have to reflect on things from the perspective of the ecosystem”


We have just discussed the ecosystem of the sector. What is it like in the specific ecosystem for charitable foundations?

After much research and study, we have formed our own framework to observe the ecosystem for foundations. It is divided into three concentric layers. In the center is the foundations’ business patterns. Foundations are the basic units of the sector’s ecosystem, and the quality of individual foundations’ development constitutes the basis of the sector.

In between is the sector’s ecosystem. Foundations are its core. Alongside other organizations of a similar nature, they create a status of organic interactions and reciprocal influence. It includes: the business model of foundations, and the health of the model; the ecosystem of the sector, and the health of the ecosystem (the coordination of organizations on specific discussion topics, the comprehensiveness of the regional ecosystems, the healthy growth of organizations within the ecosystem, such as professional service organizations); and the sector’s self-discipline and standards, in order to have a complete mechanism for ecosystem development.

The outer layer is the social environment for development. The sector exists in and connects to a wider social environment; the social environment is an essential part of the sector’s development. A positive social environment can effectively stimulate advancements in the sectors. This includes: complete legal policies, sustained inputs of external resources (capital, human resources), and a positive atmosphere for charity.


So let’s have a better look at the external environment for the sector’s development, as our previous reflections may have been circumscribed to the two inner circles.

Yes. In recent years we have been discussing crossing the boundaries between sectors, but it is mainly others that come to us. While we are consciously inviting outsiders to follow charity projects, we are not sufficiently active in influencing policies and attracting more high net-worth people to join these projects. Charitable behavior between strangers also requires our active promotion, but it will take time to foster.

By outlining these three concentric layers, my aim is not to hastily reach a consensus, but to encourage further reflection from everyone by employing an ecosystem perspective, and to cooperate in the process of promotion.


More specifically, what are some particularities of the foundation ecosystem?

Firstly, the growth rate in the number of foundations is significantly faster than it is for social groups and citizen-run non-enterprise units, and the volume is also increasing. This is the most prominent attribute. Secondly, compared to non-public fundraising foundations, the public fundraising foundations have a larger impact and molding effect on China’s charity ecosystem. This is mainly due to their capacity to use their public status and channels to attract NGOs to collectively raise funds. Thirdly, the majority of foundations are doing overlapping relief projects, and there is noticeable waste due to overlapping resources. We believe that foundations are “money” with a prospective value system, and they represent an outstanding ability to reflect and produce. Foundations are experimental labs to solve social problems, and the engine to boost social innovation. They also possess advantages in terms of resources and authoritativeness, and can advance social equality and justice. Nonetheless, there are not many foundations that can actually bear this honorable mission.


Indeed, out of the current 7000 foundations in China, only a small proportion provides financial support.

Actually, in the current situation, I do not think all foundations are suitable for providing financial support. A healthy ecosystem needs to be suited to the contemporary environment. In the current stage, diversity and innovation put into practice should be encouraged. Returning to how Chinese foundations “should be” in the present, the foundations need to first defend their vision, and resolve the social issue they focus on. Then, if they have remaining capacity, they should organize social resources for collaboration, train social organizations and engage more people through promotion. Choosing to become foundations that provide financial support goes in the direction that we have constantly urged. However, it requires the foundation to possess sufficient resources, effective management, and keen insight into their field.


What role should the China Foundation Forum play in this?

When the China Foundation Forum was founded in 2008, it aimed for excellence and defined itself as an informal online platform voluntarily established by sectoral development foundations. It also hopes to become a platform which can communicate with other social departments. After the secretarial officially registered the organization under the name of “Beijing Foundational Evergreen Social Organization Service Center” in 2017, it took “constructing the ecosystem for the foundation sector” as its mission.

Over the last two years, apart from its annual conferences, the China Foundation Forum has also organized city summits and international sharing sessions, exploring the construction of an ecosystem for the foundation sector in a variety of ways. After the 2018 annual conference, after going through much study, research and interviews, we basically established a future work model. This includes the construction of an archive for Chinese foundations, initiating the “China Foundation Day”, researching “Good Chinese Foundations” and more, all of which is within our framework. I will share this with everyone during the annual conference on the 23rd.


One highlight of the city summit, much acclaimed within the field, is that it has promoted the development of a regional charity ecosystem.

The initial goal of organizing the city summit was to encourage the development of a regional charity ecosystem by serving a connective and communicative function. The China Foundation Forum’s agenda, invitation of guests and media publicity are all executed by local partners to suit their own demands.

In future, we want to attain several goals through the forum. The first is for local “hub” organizations to provide services for local foundations. The second is to share the experience of the China Foundation Forum to engender local models of foundation forums, while coordinating with us to develop a set of localized work mechanism, enhancing the development of local charity ecosystems.

In Brief

CDB’s translation of an interview with Lü Quanbin, Secretary General of the China Foundation Forum (CFF), about the status and prospects of Chinese foundations and the wider ecosystem of charitable organizations in China today.
Table of Contents