Scholars based in China, the United States, the Netherlands, and Switzerland got together to discuss the development of NGOs across the world in a webinar titled “The Development, Opportunities, and Challenges of NGO Philanthropy.”

The webinar was hosted on September 1 by Intellisia Institute, supported by Academy of Media and Public Affairs, Communication University of China.

Professor Dingding Chen with the School of International Studies at Jinan University, who is also President of Intellisia Institute, gave an opening speech before moving on to moderate the first panel. The panel, titled, “Comparisons of Typical Cases of Philanthropic Activities in China and Abroad,” featured three speakers, Zhan Zhang, Ying Wang, and Jamie P. Horsley.

Zhan Zhang, a lecturer and Director of China Media Observatory at Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI) in Switzerland, talked about the NGO landscape in Geneva, where NGOs and charity receive much attention. The municipality has created their own NGO platform called “Geneva International,” where users can browse through all the NGOs in Geneva, but there is not a category for charitable foundations.

Zhang also introduced an app called “Twins” and platform Swiss Solidarity. Zhang highlighted newsletters as an important communication tool for NGOs in Geneva. Other social media platforms these organizations use include Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

The main challenge these organizations above are facing is user group maintenance, according to Zhang. Taking newsletter as an example, the organizations barely know who are reading the newsletter, which makes it even harder to create customized content for readers.

Zhang then gave a comparative analysis between the Swiss cases and Chinese platform Tencent Charity, which, with 15 years’ experience, has built a network involving 15,000 charitable organizations, and rendered support to over 110,000 projects.

According to Zhang, Tencent Charity’s rapid growth has a lot to do with the prevalence of Tencent’s super-app WeChat which boasts 1,000,000,000 active monthly users in China. The a nationwide social media platform has given a massive boost to the Tencent’s charity network. This is what makes the Chinese case so different from the Swiss cases, as the latter relying mostly on websites and newsletters, and social media is just used for posting promotion overviews.

Ying Wang, a first–year PhD student at Leiden University, talked about Chinese NGOs going global. More than 130 NGOs from China have international donation or projects in over 100 countries. It has developed significantly since the Covid–19 Pandemic.

Wang developed and launched the Chinese NGO Internationalization Database. She thinks Chinese NGOs are still in an early stage, though developing at a fast pace, and that the scale of their operations is still relatively small.

“Most NGOs that have international activities remain at the level of only making donations internationally. Usually, such donations are disaster relief for an earthquake or a tsunami, or for a big global crisis like the Covid–19 Pandemic,” said Wang.

Wang introduced the landscape of Chinese NGOs with international projects. Some of them are organized by the government, while others are more independent. Of all provinces, NGOs in southwestern Yunnan Province are the most active in conducting international projects, primarily in neighboring Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.

There are many factors that drive the development of Chinese NGOs, said Wang. The basic disaster relief provides opportunity for NGOs to grow, starting from 2005, to offer support for the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Then they started to see large international donations from Chinese society. The earthquake in Nepal in 2015 generated another round of international donations.

Wang then talked about the financials of Chinese NGOs. The funding comes from five major channels, including enterprises, the government, Chinese embassies in host countries, self–raised funds, as well as and international actors.

Chinese NGOs face multiple challenges, for example, the lack of financial and human resources and the lack of regulatory support overseas said Wang. The positioning and identity of Chinese NGOs abroad is more of a long–term challenge.

The third speaker, Jamie P. Horsley, a Senior Fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School and a Visiting Fellow of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, shared his personal experience with American NGOs.

“NGOs in the United States are very diverse. They go from very volunteer–based, small organizations and virtually no revenue to very huge, multi–billion-dollar foundations with highly professionalized staff,” said Horsley.

Horsley’s interest in NGOs has been quite global. His first NGO experience was to be an exchange student to India through an NGO called AFS Intercultural. This was in 1967 and Horsley was 17 years old. AFS was founded by ambulance drivers from World War One who were so appalled by the death and destruction of the war that they decided to move their humanitarian ambulance organization into an international exchange program focusing on young people. They thought understanding is the foundation of trust, thinking that through these individual experiences from a young age, hopefully they could build a brighter, peaceful world.

AFS is based in New York and has 50 independent organizations across the globe, said Horsley, including one in China. These organizations would raise funds both to send students from high schools overseas and raise funds to bring foreign students into their community to live in a host family. It was a two–way exchange from the beginning.

Horsley shared the story of him helping to start a teacher exchange program in China for AFS in the early 80s. He also introduced a two–year teaching program to send Yale University graduates to high schools in China. Horsley also shared a heartwarming story of the people–to–people exchange and mutual PPE donations between China and the US during the Covid–19 Pandemic.

After his presentation, Horsley went on to moderate the second panel titled “Opportunities and Challenges for Philanthropy in the Covid-19 Era.” The second session also featured three speakers, Hao Tang, Mark Sidel, Carolyn Hsu.

Hao Tang, who is Professor of Political Science at South China Normal University, Director of the China National Association for International Relations, and a Invited Professor at China Global Philanthropy Institute, shared his observations about Chinese NGOs.

Holding a different view than Ying Wang, Professor Tang thinks the significant increase of the number of Chinese social organizations happened years before the Covid–19 Pandemic.

Quoting statistics provided by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, according to which, Tang said there were 163,000 registered NGOs in China in 1998, and there was no data for the mid 1990s. By now, the number has hit 900,000 , and only 10,000 of them are philanthropies. Tang says he believes the real number is higher, and that philanthropy on the Internet will thrive in the future.

Mark Sidel, Doyle-Bascom Professor of Law and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, observed that the fund–raising activities and the range of social service and social welfare activities have never been stronger. At the same time, however, Sidel also observed the raising of barriers to cooperation and engagement with overseas support.

On the one hand, the barriers are coming down to Chinese engagement overseas. On the other hand, barriers are coming up as well, especially since the adoption of the overseas NGO law in 2017. As a consequence, full-service activities do not necessarily represent the best or the most innovative of what overseas experience has to share.

In Sidel’s opinion, the challenges are not limited to China. He observed similar tendencies through his work in India and Vietnam.

Carolyn Hsu, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology at Colgate University, first introduced the survey she had been working on for years, the Civic Participation in China Survey, which looks at volunteerism philanthropy, and the perceptions of citizenship, and the perceptions of the state and citizen engagement. Hsu and her colleague have collected three rounds of surveys and expect to do it once in every two years.

“We want to know what the impact of philanthropic activity on views of the state or understandings of citizenship is. So, if you donate, is your understanding about what it means to be a good citizen different? Does it make you view your expectations of the state and what it means differently?” said Hsu.

Hsu shared one of her biggest frustrations during her research, which was the fake narrative that there is no tradition of philanthropy in premodern China. Hsu finds it completely untrue.

“I think it’s just that philanthropy in China was different than philanthropy in the West. And Westerners were racist when they went to China and decided what was happening, that it didn’t count as charity even though it did in the Maoist era,” said Hsu.

Later, state controls became stricter “because the idea was that the state was going to take care of you.” The revival of charity later did come from the West, said Hsu. It is not a revival of Chinese forms of charity. It’s learning western forms of charity.

Hsu quoted their finding in the survey and said that people are donating more money over the years, and that people hold a positive view when asked if they think their donations make a difference.

Scholars discussed briefly after the presentations.