Chinese Whispers and the Art of Corporate Philanthropy

In the Hutong
Starbucks lemon tea is a diuretic
1752 hrs.

Moments of national emotional outpouring can be times of great peril for foreign companies in China. Foreign companies are easy targets (just ask Carrefour), and the high profile that served you so well yesterday becomes an instant liability. The best response in these situations is often to lay low and ride out the storm.

But there are moments when standing to one side in the face of national tragedy is unconscionable. One of those moments came in the wake of the Great Sichuan Earthquake of May 12, 2008.


To their credit, the foreigners stepped up.

In rapid succession, one foreign company after another stepped forward to offer assistance, giving in kind if what they produced could help, giving in cash if in-kind was inappropriate, and in many cases doing both. Some companies dug into their corporate treasuries, others also organized employee donations. Many gave something, some gave a lot.

But it was not long after the news began reporting episodes of selfless corporate gift-giving that SMS messages and blog posts began to circulate, criticizing a host of companies – many of which had in fact given quite a lot, but had refrained from publicizing their gifts – for stinginess in the face of human tragedy, accusing them of either giving nothing or not enough.

Dance of the eThugs

Many here in the Hutong, including the Party Secretary, expressed their disgust at these lynch-mob tactics. At best, these were righteous outbursts of people hurt by what they believed to be the failure of foreign companies to live up to their end of China’s implicit social contract.

At worst, though, there was some less-than-charitable activity taking place. As I mentioned in a recent post on Internet-word-of-mouth in China, there are companies and agencies who are not above hiding behind false identities or anonymity and spreading disinformation about rivals.

It would be foolish for anyone to levy a blanket indictment on China’s netizens for this eruption of ill-founded bile. At the same time, it would be foolish to ignore what it implies.

Charitable values and the value of charity

The Judeo-Christian-Islamic (JCI) tradition is quite specific about the ways charity should be given. Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, in his thought-provoking ethical treatise To Heal a Fractured World, notes that the Jewish sages identified eight different levels of charitable giving. One relevant passage:

“What matters is not how much you give, but how you do so. Anonymity in the giving of aid is essential to dignity. The poor must not be embarrassed. The rich must not be allowed to feel superior.”

Even though frequently observed in the breech, the importance of giving anonymously is hard-coded into JCI tradition. The greater the earthly reward the giver takes for his gift, the lesser its ultimate value as a genuine act of giving. (Even the U.S. Internal Revenue Service has addressed this concept in the way it values donations to philanthropic causes.)

In China, the reality is quite different. While there are many people in China whose views accord more closely to the JCI approach, There is among many Chinese almost an expectation that a giver would take credit for a gift. Why ever not? After all, wasn’t the credit the main point of the gift in the first place?

From you much is expected

It is this implicit expectation among parts of the audience that makes philanthropy in China so complex. In the U.S., a company or individual may choose to give openly or anonymously. Nobody asks. In China, however, while many people approve of anonymous giving, many people will assume that if you don’t talk about it, you haven’t given.

There is an unspoken rule for companies doing business in China. If you come here to make money, the rule goes, you are expected to give something back. The rule applies to both foreign and local firms, but the implicit belief is that somehow the foreigners owe more.

As a rule, corporate giving during “normal” times does not fall under much scrutiny (although this will  change in the not-too-distant future.) In moments of national crisis, however, there are people keeping score. Some of them are impartial. But some of them are working for the other team.

No modesty please. We’re Chinese

Put simply, companies and prominent individuals need to be prepared to give in times of disaster, and they need to be prepared to talk about it.

The complex audience in China – some preferring anonymous giving, some keeping score, and lots of people in the middle – changes the way you will need to give. Transparency demands that not only will you need to err on the generous side of caution, you must be prepared to up the gift soon afterward.

Communicating about it, however, is more of an art form than a science. What you say about your gift, how you say it, and how you pass the word are situational. What comes across as discreet communications in one situation may come across as crass and uncaring in another.

When I suggested the importance of talking about your giving on Twitter, somebody actually asked the question – at what point does all of this talk devolve into disgusting self-promotion? (I think he was being rhetorical, but I digress.)

My answer was that there is no clear line between discreetly publicizing the good works you have done and sounding like you are turning disaster into corporate opportunity. It comes down to good instincts.

The Imagethief gave an even better answer – it is like the line between pornography and erotica: I cannot define the former, but I know it when I see it.

Talk, but listen first

This is another one of those places where having a really good gut feel for the the market and your audiences is critical.

Even more important, especially for those of us not born and raised in China, is having smart people around you who can instinctively tell where the winds of zeitgeist are blowing. Take their counsel and listen to what they have to say.

Not only will you protect your reputation, you will also set in motion a constructive cycle in your company where everybody sees the value of corporate and personal giving, and where you will be more likely to give (and give well) the next time.

And that’s a very good thing.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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