Bill Gates speaking via teleconference at the China Philanthropy Forum, November 2012. (Photo by Jenna Nicholas)

On Friday 30th November, an historic conference took place in Beijing at the China World Hotel: the China Philanthropy Forum. The forum was hosted by Caijing Magazine, a leading finance magazine in China. Key figures and visionaries were invited from around the globe in the field of philanthropy, impact investing, and social entrepreneurship. Tony Blair, Prince Max of Lichtenstein, Peter Buffet, and Peggy Dulany (David Rockefeller’s daughter) were among the distinguished speakers from the West. They met with their counterparts from China, including key government officials, CEOs of major Chinese companies, academics, and representatives from Chinese private and public foundations. The idea of the forum was to provide an opportunity to brainstorm ideas around development trends; discuss government involvement, practice, and policy breakthroughs; and examine family and corporate philanthropy in China. Elliott Donnelley and I, co-founders of the social enterprise Phoenix Global Impact, worked with Caijing magazine to help facilitate the forum. The members of the audience were as impressive as the speakers—all important players in the philanthropy and impact investing scene in China. The occasion heralded a great start for China’s first-ever major conference on philanthropy.

Tony Blair’s keynote address suggested that societies should be measured not only by what people do for themselves but what they do for others. “The best philanthropy is about changing the world,” Blair said. He shared the work of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which focuses on inter-faith work in communities around the world to address social, environmental, and health challenges such as malaria. He also talked about the African Governance Initiative (AGI), which helps support emerging democracies in Africa. (Read his recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article on AGI, “From Dependency to Self-Sufficiency,” here.) Blair appealed to the Chinese audience to participate in these activities.

Prince Max of Liechenstein shared the work of LGT Venture Philanthropy, a private banking and asset management company that supports organizations that have a positive social or environmental impact. One of the projects that LGT has supported in China is the China Foundation Center. This Center seeks to promote transparency in philanthropic organizations in China—a significant challenge in the social sector.

Bill Gates shared his support of the conference via teleconference, and a number of others from the Gates Foundation team attended in person. The Gates Foundation funds a lot of work in China, especially in healthcare and agriculture areas.

During the forum, there was a soft launch of the Chinese Impact Investing Working Group. Over the past year, Phoenix Global Impact has been supporting the emergence of this group, which provides a platform for emerging players in China’s impact investing sector. It provides a forum where they can engage with one another, and share thoughts on potential investees and best practices. At these early stages of impact investing development in China, a group like this can play an extremely influential role. (See Phoenix Global Impact’s previous engagements here.)

Several members of the Global Philanthropists Circle (GPC) also attended. The group’s visionary leader, Peggy Dulany, leads this group and both she and her father involve themselves in many philanthropic endeavors worldwide. The Global Philanthropists Circle is a network of leading philanthropic families from around the world that is dedicated to fighting global poverty and social justice. (Read more about the Global Philanthropists Circle here.)

Second-generation Chinese families are eager to learn from such a group. Many wish to set up their own family foundations; at the forum, they were eager to learn about best practices established in the West so that they adapt them to a Chinese context.

The final panel at the forum focused on values in philanthropy and was moderated by Zhang Xin, CEO of the Soho Company. She expressed concern about the second generation of Chinese elite families and their values. Many of this generation are brought up in a luxurious lifestyle—the Chinese term fuerdai literally means the “second generation of the rich” and is sometimes used in a derogatory way to refer to this group. Dulany and Peter Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, both reflected on how their families have infused the idea of financial gain with values.

There is great hope that with the leadership transition that took place in China in November 2012, support for the philanthropic and impact investing communities will increase. A recent Reuters report, “China’s New Leader: Harbinger of Reform or Another Conservative?” states that Xi Jinping needs to make sure that the changes his government makes are both big enough that many feel their effects and not so big as to risk instability.