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NGOs in China

China’s charity apps – the gift that may not keep on giving

Donations through online platforms have skyrocketed in the last few years but researchers say reliance on e-payments for fundraising comes with a price

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 October, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 October, 2017, 9:03am

Jiang Ying and her team at a Beijing-based children’s charity joke that they work 362 days a year for three days in September.

That’s when donations flood in from across the country via e-commerce platforms as part of “9/9 Philanthropy Day”.

The digital cash injections account for the bulk of China Charities Aid Foundation for Children’s annual funding and are growing rapidly. This year the foundation took in 200 million yuan in e-contributions between September 7-9 – more than its budget for 2016.

Like other charities, the foundation is evermore reliant on e-payments to raise funds for their mission but researchers warn that the online approach might not be a gift that keeps on giving.

The days of volunteers standing on the streets with donation boxes have gone in China, replaced by smartphones with apps channelling funds to charities via payment platforms like Tencent’s WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s Alipay. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

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The apps’ ease of use has coincided with growing public awareness in China of the need to give back, resulting a surge of contributions to charitable institutions from people who might not have previously seen themselves as philanthropists.

Qiu Zhonghui, general secretary of Christian social development NGO The Amity Foundation, said electronic payment methods were redefining charitable giving in China.

“The convenience of e-payment really breaks the traditional thinking that only wealthy people can afford to help charities,” Qiu said.

“The apps help spread our work and calls for donations to different social circles. We also take as little as one yuan online.

“We are expecting this kind of donation method to expand further in the future.”

The Amity Foundation is one of the country’s biggest charities, receiving a record 235 million yuan (US$35 million) in public donations. About 55 per cent of those contributions came via e-commerce platforms.

At Jiang’s foundation donations via e-commerce platforms have grown from 6.5 million yuan in 2012 to 174 million yuan last year.

In all, 13 e-commerce companies have been authorised to handle charitable donations, and while there is no breakdown for just how much philanthropic funding goes through the system, e-payments in general have risen exponentially in the last few years.

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Charitable giving has also risen, with donations to Chinese charities totalling 134.6 billion yuan last year, an 11 per cent increase on 2015, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ “Blue Book of Philanthropy”.

E-contributions are also more than making up for a drop-off in funds to some charities from overseas donors.

Yang Tuan, a CASS researcher who co-edited the annual report on Chinese charities, said overseas aid largely scaled down in the late 2000s, as news about China’s high-flying economy made the country seem less needy.

That meant charities like Qiu’s 32-year-old foundation had to look inward.

“We had no way but to start focusing our promotion work at home,” he said.

Qiu said the Amity Foundation used to get 90 per cent of its money from foreign donors, mainly Christian organisations in the United States and Britain, but that share had declined and since 2013 more than half came in from domestic sources through mobile platforms.

Wang Ming, director of Tsinghua University’s NGO Research Centre, cautioned charities against depending on online donors for more than half of their funding.

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“It is very risky to rely on a huge number of online donors. Their motivation for donating, the amount they are donating and the commitment they have are all very volatile,” Wang said.

Jiang said e-commerce companies also limited the charity’s access to valuable donor information.

“We have a smaller databank of our donors compared to the past, because donors who paid through e-commerce platforms are registered with the companies but not us,” she said.

“Donors’ information is very precious to us because we need it to assess and understand how to improve our work, and maintain a connection with them.”

Qiu said he had asked the tech giants to give more information about donors but the real answer to the problem was to have more e-payment players enter the system, giving the charities a better chance to find a platform willing to share their data.

But “ultimately, philanthropy is something about the human touch”, he said. “If we rely completely on buttons on the screen we will have lost the essence of charity work,” Qiu said.