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Do Chinese people volunteer?
25 October 2006
by Richard Brubaker

Often while speaking with people about corporate social responsibility in China, I am inevitably asked, "Do Chinese people volunteer?" or "Is there a culture of volunteerism in China?"

Not only is there a culture of volunteering in China, there is a long and proud history of it. It is just different than the one that we celebrate in the West. For many westerners in China (I speak from an American perspective), it takes a while for us to understand that what we see on the streets is not the only side of China's humanity, and that within the community there are networks that support those in the community who are in need.

In the West, volunteering is a part of our culture, and it is something that as Americans we are very proud of. Where there are people in need, there are hundreds of programs like Habitat 4 Humanity, the American Red Cross, or Meals On Wheels that are easily identifiable and accessible for people to get involved in.

In China though, this infrastructure is in a very different state. Many NGOs in China are still in a fragmented and immature state. A public culture has yet to develop whereby volunteers are aware of opportunities, and there is little media coverage of volunteering within cities. However, that does not mean that there is not a spirit of volunteering, nor does it mean that a Western-defined style of volunteerism is not possible.

It is quite the opposite. In China, the sense of family and community are still very strong, and while not always adequate, there is a basic support infrastructure in place that identifies those in need and will do its best to address those needs. The strongest support structure is still the family, with local neighborhoods and companies also providing some measure of support, however as China changes this will inevitably change as well.

As the changes occur, Western style volunteer programs will become something that China will need to incorporate. Already, in Shanghai and Beijing, volunteer programs are forming (students for largest majority of volunteers), and this is a trend that will continue.

Currently three main forces for change that are introducing the idea of volunteerism in China:

Returning Chinese
The influence of returning Chinese (Chinese whom were born in China, but moved abroad for work or study, and then returned to China) is very strong. It is something that many multinationals are attracted to when not only hiring staff, but also when targeting marketing campaigns. Many trends–be they clothing, food, cars–have all changed as returning Chinese define new concepts.

In the case of volunteering, it is no different. For many friends in Shanghai, volunteering was something they were exposed to abroad, and when they return they seek out opportunities to continue volunteering. As their friends, colleagues, and family are exposed to this, mindsets begin to change.

Multinational companies
Many multinationals firms like G.E., U.P.S., Home Depot, and BP have long histories of philanthropy and cultures of giving back to the community through employee service. In recent years, as many of these companies have stabilized, they have begun implementing service programs in which their employees can take part.

Through our corporate programs, I have found that when one employee identifies an opportunity, they will influence others, and programs that were once small have the potential to grow very rapidly.

Development of NGOs
As NGOs in China have begun to grow, and advertise, issues have been brought to the forefront. Topics like migrant children, elderly care, and AIDS, and opportunities to get involved, have all become mainstream topics, and it is due in large part to the strengthening of NGOs.

In China, the culture of volunteering has been inhibited by a number of things, two of the greatest being a lack of issue awareness and a lack of opportunities for ordinary citizens and corporations to get involved. However, with the three forces above coming together, things are beginning to change, and it could not come any sooner as China begins to come to grips with a new social fabric.

In addition to the above, one of the most important forces has been the support by various government representatives at the national, provincial, and local levels who have made a real effort to identify and address many of the underlying social issues in China. Were it not for this, much of the work by local and international NGOs would not be possible, and with their support the public awareness of issues like HIV, elderly care, and the environment have all increased.

As China begins to mature economically, there will be a greater need to identify, understand and address many different social issues. As this occurs, the spirit of volunteering that one feels in the immediate families and communities will need to expand outside of its traditional walls. The process has begun, and like everything in China, the future development of this issue is going to be very interesting.

Richard Brubaker, as the managing Director of China Strategic Development Partners, assists foreign companies develop and implement their China based market entry and sourcing strategies, including CSR strategies. In addition to his responsibilities at China SDP, Rich founded the charitable organization Hands on Shanghai to promote volunteerism among young professionals in the Shanghai community.