Can Corporations Help Chinese Nonprofits Overcome Funding Barriers?

Can Corporations Help Chinese Nonprofits Overcome Funding Barriers?

One of the major barriers to the growth of civil society in China is the lack of funding to support a wide diversity of organizations and projects. There are no Chinese foundations to which groups can apply for grants, there is no established culture of public or corporate philanthropy, and there are no tax incentives to encourage donations. This means that most Chinese non-profits are forced to seek funding from foundations and governments outside the country, a process that often requires international philanthropy savvy and language skills that not all groups have.

The China Corporate Social Responsibility Forum is trying to overcome these obstacles by helping corporations build sustainable ties with local groups. The Forum recently launched a series of talks in Beijing on CSR-related topics to promote dialogue and partnerships between companies and civil society. "Conferences are a great opportunity to bring together thought leaders and government leaders, and also to educate executives on best practices impacting global business," says China CSR publisher Danny Levinson.

The first dialogue, held on August 21 at the upscale Crowne Plaza Hotel in Beijing's popular Wangfujing area, brought together dozens of companies and organizations to hear perspectives on CSR from speakers Erika Helms of the Jane Goodall Institute in China and Martin Benson of the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA). The event itself was an exercise in the nascent CSR approach in China, with a donated venue and sponsorship from the European Chamber of Commerce and from BDL Media Ltd., China CSR's parent company.

Participants at the event discussed both the barriers and opportunities for developing CSR in the Chinese context. Helms outlined the many barriers that she and other NGO leaders face when trying to access corporate sponsorship. Besides difficulties with basic registration and legal standing of nonprofits in China, she explained, groups also face specific challenges working with corporations. "Each company is unique and has its own unique approach and priorities for CSR, which makes it difficult for a small NGO with limited resources to research, understand, and access available funds."

Helms encouraged corporations with CSR initiatives to make this information more readably available to NGOs. She noted that unlike foundations, which generally have a clear application process and contact information, it is often unclear whom in China to approach for CSR initiatives. "It is difficult to fundraise when we don't know who the decision-maker for CSR is," she said.

Beyond pure access and information barriers, Helms discussed the difficulties her organization has experienced with corporations they have successfully engaged. "Another issue we face is the time constraints of corporate volunteers," she noted While the Jane Goodall Institute has many willing volunteers, many of them have inflexible, limited time available that does not always work with the organization's project timelines or needs, Helms explained. “It is sometimes hard to give corporate volunteers a meaningful role.” In addition, the Institute has received many pro bono services from corporations in China, which are sometimes less professional than paid services, Helms observed. She urged companies to “treat your pro bono clients the same as your paid clients.”

But the most important barrier for CSR development in China, according to Helms, is the fact that corporations are often unwilling to make long-term commitments for sponsorship. This issue is particularly important for environmental work, which can be slow moving and involved. “We are working on projects that have long-term goals and objectives, but we can’t get that kind of commitment from corporate sponsors,” Helms explained, noting that most of her Institute’s programs last three to five years. “This makes it extremely difficult to leverage corporate funding to make a long-term impact.”

Despite these many barriers, the Jane Goodall Institute has found avenues for corporate engagement that are meaningful to both sides. In addition to corporate pro bono services and public relations work, the organization has received crucial donations of office equipment and even rent-free office space. It also offers sponsorship packages for corporations to contribute to founder Jane Goodall’s annual tour of China. “In exchange for the sponsorship, companies get their logo placed on the backdrop and the senior management gets to meet Jane,” Helms explained. This has proven an effective and rewarding way for companies such as Chevron, Volkswagen, and Bayer to support the Institute in a mutually beneficial way. Other recent initiatives, such as the Dragon Recycling Program, have received direct corporate sponsorship, including from Hewlett Packard, Helms said.

A growing handful of companies are finding other meaningful ways to engage in CSR initiatives in China. Martin Benson, director of Strategic Business Development at the NBA, spoke about the importance of building on a company’s strengths, finding local partners, and having a “permanent commitment” to CSR initiatives. With China home to an estimated 300 million basketball players, and with the NBA achieving 97 percent brand recognition nationwide, the company has targeted China in its global CSR program, NBA Cares.

The initiative unites players and coaches with multinational and Chinese companies to “use excitement about basketball to leverage social causes,” according to Benson. Focusing on the areas of health, education, youth, and family development, NBA Cares works with UNICEF and the China Charity Association, among others. Projects include the Special Olympics, HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns starring Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming, the NBA Fit Camp, and Live, Learn, and Play Centers for migrant children. The NBA has also leveraged other corporate sponsorship for various initiatives, such as donations from Le Novo computers for their learning centers.

“For us, CSR is about connecting with people in China in a meaningful and creative way,” Benson said. He pointed out that building partnerships with Chinese groups makes their initiatives more meaningful and also makes the NBA a more valuable company. “We are working to go beyond simple PR programs and to really develop meaningful socially responsible programs with these groups. In this way, we are able to address the most urgent societal issues we face, not just in the U.S., but globally.”

But while many international corporations are going the extra mile to engage with and support Chinese organizations, CSR has yet to catch on in domestic corporate circles. Given the lack of policies and tax infrastructure to support donations to nonprofits, that is unlikely to change in the short term. But as Erika Helms points out, this is changing, however slowly. She notes that there are a handful of organizations that help connect organizations to corporate sponsors, and a smaller group of Chinese charities that can receive government-approved tax-deductible donations. If the China CSR Forum achieves its goals, there will also be an increasing number of companies ready to take advantage of these opportunities.

Lila Buckley is assistant executive director of the Global Environmental Institute, a Worldwatch affiliate based in Beijing. China Watch is a joint initiative of the Worldwatch Institute and Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute (GEI) and is supported by the blue moon fund. This article originally appeared in Worldwatch's China Watch website..