Until recently, philanthropy wasn’t widely discussed in China, but the country is now the home to 64 of the world’s wealthiest people according to Forbes and some are tentatively considering ways they might make a social impact. What’s more, Premier Wen Jiabao—in China’s 12th Five Year Plan—focused on “inclusiveness” and “improving people’s livelihoods” by way of the “promotion of happiness, sustainability, addressing economic disparity, and the promotion of a harmonious society.”

As I arrived in Beijing a month ago to start research for an honors thesis on philanthropy and civil society in China, little did I know that my visit would coincide with a Global Philanthropists Circle (GPC) meeting. GPC is a network of leading philanthropic families from across the world that addresses global poverty and social injustice. About ten members came to Beijing in May to meet with high-level leaders from all sectors of society. Their aim was to learn more about the cultural, philosophical, and historical factors that shape China’s emerging philanthropic efforts.

Peggy Rockefeller, founder of GPC, gave a fantastic presentation about the role that individual change can play in impacting societal change. She discussed the differences between charity and philanthropy: Charity provides money to assist others in dire situations whereas, according to David Rockefeller, “philanthropy should always aim to transform society, rather than maintain the status quo.” She suggested that philanthropy is not just about giving money; it is about actively engaging one’s heart, social capital, and humility to address the needs of a community and enable a solution to evolve. She described philanthropy as a process of giving and receiving that we engage in to become truly human. She argued that business people should not remove their business hat when they engage in philanthropy, as their business skills can be incredibly useful in the social sector. She also argued that there was great benefit in getting to know oneself before engaging in philanthropy. Another speaker, Mark Chen, co-founder of New Philanthropy Partners, similarly spoke about the role that suffering can play in one’s progress and how one needs to remain clear minded to pursue philanthropic work.

Elliott Donnelley, managing partner of White Sand Investor Group, LP, suggested the importance of achieving a balance both within oneself and within society. He discussed the importance of each person reflecting on the assets that they could bring to any situation—and not necessarily just financial ones. In many ways, he argued, the US system is burdened with bad structures and thinking. He suggested that the first generation of entrepreneurs in China have the skill set to be able to address social issues for themselves. China is just at the beginning of the process of setting laws regarding philanthropy and therefore has a great opportunity. The starting point of philanthropy, he said, should not be one’s public face but rather one’s heart. Elliot specifically defined philanthropy as the leveraging of one’s resources for the best possible outcome.

Xu Yongguang, the chairman, trustee, and main founding member of the Narada Foundation, a private foundation that supplies funds and resources in the public welfare industry chain. Xu Yongguang reflected on the growth that has taken place in philanthropy in China over the past few years, culminating in the establishment of approximately 400,000 registered nonprofit organizations. However, he suggested that China still has a small number of philanthropic organizations in comparison to other countries. He argued that although China has the second ranking gross domestic product (GDP) in the world, it currently lags behind in terms of philanthropy. However, this is a new field and the prospects are looking good.

The need for innovation in the sector was discussed. We reflected on a quotation from Einstein about not using the same solutions to solve problems that were used to create the problems in the first place. It was suggested that a new infrastructure had to be created around this changed mindset. The importance of taking responsibility was discussed. The famous line of Lao Tzu, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime” was modified to “Teach a man to fish responsibly and you have fed the whole community.”

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