World’s Least Charitable Country: A 3-Point Plan to Get China Giving

China likes to top lists — world’s tallest observation deck; world’s fastest train; world’s largest population. In October, China topped another list — world’s least charitable country.

The World Giving Index, published by the Charities Aid Foundation, is an annual report that ranks countries based on charity. The Foundation aggregates Gallup World Poll data representing about 95% of the world’s population. In China, pollsters interviewed at least 2,000 different people asking them if in the past month they had: helped a stranger; donated money to charity; or, volunteered time.

· Only 24% had helped a stranger in need. In Iraq, 81% had helped someone.

· In the last month, 6% had given to charity. This is just ahead of war-torn Yemen.

· Just 6% of Chinese had volunteered their time to an organization.

What’s most interesting is that China’s neighbor, Myanmar, ranked as the world’s most charitable country. Although sharing Buddhist ideals, the two are polar opposites in one of the central tenets of the practice. Several scams and historical incidents have led to a huge mistrust of charity in China. While this doesn’t excuse a lack of charity, it at least starts to explain it.

So, what will get the Chinese giving? It all boils down to the experience.

Make giving personal. With rising costs of living throughout much of China, people have a difficult time separating with their hard-earned money. To make them more charitable, giving needs to be personal. It needs to have a direct impact on their life or the lives of those they love.

Social entrepreneurship is a great example of how making giving personal can work. The concept of making money while doing good was foreign not so long ago. Today, China is seeing a boom in social enterprises. It was not that people weren’t charitable. The fact is they needed a means to give back while also putting food on the table for themselves.

Make giving covert. Southpark residents thought they had made it when a new Whole Foods came to town. They stocked up on fresh, organic produce and expensive bath products without even glancing at the price tags. Upon checking out, the cashier made a simple request: “would you like to donate $1 to charity?” Bells and whistles would greet the donor. Guilt and public humiliation would greet the scrooge.

Don’t expect this approach to work in China. To get people to give, they must not feel like they are giving at all.

Many retailers in China are now giving a percentage of proceeds to charitable causes. Without even knowing it, the masses of Chinese consumers are helping out those in need. Making giving covert can also translate into making giving fun. On any given weekend in Shanghai, you’ll notice swarms of people in matching T-shirts racing around the streets. Multinational corporations encourage giving back through scavenger hunts and charity runs. While not the most elegant form of corporate responsibility, they are another example of how to get Chinese to give.

Make giving Chinese. Yes, I understand the irony of me writing this. In the end, though, forcing traditional concepts of charity just may not work. Much like socialism, being charitable can come with Chinese characteristics. A grandstanding philanthropist whose self-bequeathed title is “world’s most charitable person” may not sit well with most of us. If he’s donating huge sums to the needy, though, don’t the means justify the ends? While setting up mega-foundations may seem like a way to launder money, don’t we owe the chairperson the benefit of the doubt?

Underneath all this, there’s still a movement happening here in China. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll see massive numbers of people are indeed charitable. Take the 24% of Chinese who helped a stranger in the past month. Sure, it doesn’t compare to the 81% in Iraq. But, 24% of the Chinese population is still 273 million people. That’s the same number of people as the top 10 helpful countries combined. It’s important that we foster a platform for them to continue their own form of charity and encourage the rest of the Chinese to follow suit.

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