A cross-cultural lesson in charity

Immersion: Dong Yi of the China Charity Foundation is learning how to ask for contributions from U.S. companies in China.

November 20, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Dong Yi hadn't been at United Way of Central Maryland long before she heard it -- that quintessentially American way of raising money known as "the ask."

Shortly after she arrived for a two-month immersion in the ways of organized fund raising, the 24-year-old translator for the China Charity Federation accompanied a United Way official to a meeting with employees of Giant Foods -- and was floored when he asked them outright to pledge $1,000 each.

"Just the way you raise money -- you ask people for money in a different way," Dong said. "In China, this is not so obvious."

But Chinese charity, a proud tradition long dormant under communist rule, has re-emerged as a newly popular and successful presence in the past few years -- one that United Way has become more and more interested in.

Since the 5-year-old China Charity Federation signed an agreement to affiliate with United Way International last year, it has become an increasingly well-known presence throughout the world's largest nation. With a historic agreement between China and the United States last week opening the country to trade with the United States, opportunities for fund raising United Way-style may abound.

American companies expanding in China "are really interesting because they want to quickly do something for the community, but they're unfamiliar with the territory," Gregory Berzonsky, program director for United Way International in Alexandria, Va.

Dong's two-month stint at the Central Maryland United Way -- to be followed by a visit from several officials of her federation -- marks the first extensive training visit to the U.S. by a representative from the Chinese charity.

Dong's connection with Baltimore began when she met Larry Walton, president of United Way of Central Maryland, when he traveled to Beijing to talk about how United Way runs its campaigns. During her visit here, Walton has shown her how United Way sets goals, uses executives on loan and encourages workplaces to compete with one another to raise the most money.

"We're trying to teach her how to pick the pockets of the American companies over there," Walton said.

Dong, who graduated from Beijing University with a law degree, became interested in charity work when she began volunteering at the federation -- a practice she said has become popular among young people in China.

The volunteers are finding much work to do. When the China Charity Federation announced a drive to help victims of last summer's floods along the Yangtze River, donors were lined up around the block.

A telethon for the same cause raised $70 million in a weekend, said Berzonsky.

"Last summer, we were very, very busy with disasters," Dong said. "Many, many people came to the office to give to the flood victims."

The federation also started a fund for the Chinese journalists killed in the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia.

To a great extent, the new interest in philanthropy in China comes of necessity.

The state bureaucracy once provided many social services in conjunction with a family's work unit. But as the government structure changes, more of those burdens are shifting to the private sector. And while charitable organizations like the federation are independent, they still are subject to government scrutiny and, some fear, corruption.

"If you worked in a factory, the factory took care of your health. The factory took care of your children. The factory was basically cradle to grave," said Steven M. Goldstein, a Smith College professor who specializes in Chinese politics.

"The Chinese state and Chinese enterprises are now passing on the cost of all these services to the population."

Dong, who uses the nickname "Daisy" in the United States, shies away from talking about that. But she does say that Chinese people are struggling to define the new philanthropy.

She's also been trying to figure out how to translate the concept of "community" for her Chinese colleagues -- a concept that the American fund-raisers she's met seem to define differently, even as they use it constantly.

"Some people told me communities are drawn by different locations or different religions," she said. "Now I think my definition of community has been expanded. I think community is a place where we live and where we care."

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