Group's quest to find the gems amid murky waters of mainland charities

As corruption scandals hit donations, a team of young philanthropists has set up a programme teaching the skills behind 'intelligent giving'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 July, 2014, 3:14am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 July, 2014, 3:14am

The image of non-government organisations on the mainland has been taking a battering lately.

Corruption, misuse of funds and opacity have led the number of donors to dwindle to drastically low levels.

Wacky billionaire Chen Guangbiao's recent "charity show" in the United States, where he offered 1,000 poor Americans free lunch but infuriated many by failing to give them US$300 in cash each, as promised, did not give the scandal-bound industry a big boost either.

But a team of young entrepreneurs has decided to wade into the murky waters and try to uncover some gems.

They have set up non-profit organisation Philanthropy in Motion (PIM) to offer university students opportunities to learn about how to evaluate charities and identify NGOs on the mainland that are worth donating to.

"The charity industry on the mainland is very different from that in the US," says co-founder Jasmine Lau Ching-yu, a Yale economics graduate who worked for a mainland-based fund-granting organisation, the Narada Foundation, for more than a year.

This year, the two-month programme, in cooperation with the University of Hong Kong, has raised HK$150,000 from online donations for 24 students from universities on the mainland, Hong Kong and the United States.

Lau cites statistics from studies in both countries, which show that individuals accounted for 73 per cent of the sources of giving in the US in 2011, but only 32 per cent of givers.

In China in the same year, only 32 per cent were individuals, while corporations, which accounted for only 5 per cent of givers in the US, gave 57 per cent in China.

"In China, people know very little about NGOs," says the 24-year-old. "They tend to donate during major disasters but there is a lack of long-term, society-wide donation.

"Maybe they feel that an individual doesn't have the power to do anything."

A series of scandals surrounding the mainland's charities has also dampened people's interest in donating, as they feel unable to find a trustworthy organisation, she says.

One of those scandals was in 2011, when Guo Meimei, a young woman who claimed to work for the Chinese Red Cross, was found flaunting her luxurious lifestyle on social media.

As legal restrictions on mainland NGOs are relaxed, the number of registered organisations has grown to over 500,000 and it is estimated that there are still 1.5 million more unregistered.

But in many places government foundations are still the only organisations able to raise funds publicly.

Lau says this has prevented resources from being channelled to the right places, and many grassroots charities suffer as a result.

This is why PIM's programme focuses on small- and medium-sized NGOs with little or no budget for media exposure or other forms of promotion, she says.

So far, the 24 students have conducted interviews, site visits and other research on eight non-government applicants - seven on the mainland and one in Hong Kong - for the fund, investigating their operations and evaluating their social impact and sustainability.

Today , they will make a final decision on how to distribute the funds.

The programme is based on a popular Yale course in intelligent giving, Lau said.

PIM co-founder Connie Leong says her team wants to spread the message that young people can practise philanthropy without being super rich.

With the programme being held regularly and more organisations adopting the model, she hopes it can gradually change Chinese people's traditional, Chen Guangbiao-style idea about "gaining face" through philanthropy.

"We also emphasise charity values during the programme," says Leong, 24.

"The students not only discuss intelligent giving, but also the right motivations behind the giving. If your heart is there, you will want to do something with social impact."