The Bodyguard of Chinese Philanthropy — China Charity Navigator (CCN)

In 2011, a 20-year-old Chinese girl named “Guo Meimei” exhibited a series of photos of her shiny Maserati car, birthday party in her extravagant villa and other luxuries on Weibo –the Chinese Twitter, as reported by ChinaDaily. On her profile, she described herself as the “General Business Manager of The China Red Cross Society.” As Weibo has a thorough identity checking system when members sign up, the approval of the description came as a surprise. The incident immediately provoked a serious controversy over the operation and transparency of The China Red Cross Society —“How can such a young lady possess this wealth; is her wealth linked to Red Cross?” Even as the China Red Cross Society denied any possible connection with “Guo Meimei”, it became trapped in this reputation crisis ever since.

Not only Red Cross, but also the majority of Chinese philanthropic organizations, arguably the entire Chinese philanthropic sector is currently suffering from the credibility crisis. On the one hand, until 2011, 1,288 out of over 2,200 Chinese foundations did not have their own websites and few of them displayed their complete financial information to the public, according to the Secretary-General of China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, Xingzui Wang.  On the other hand, the Chinese public has little trust in Chinese organizations in general. To confront the ongoing transparency issues in the Chinese philanthropic world, the first Chinese independent charity evaluating system, China Charity Navigator (CCN) emerged. Because CCN’s website is temporarily down for the second-stage development of their evaluating system, one of CCN’s co-founders, Ning Cai, accepted to be interviewed.

China Charity Navigator was founded in June 2011 by three Chinese college students from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Xiaofei Cui, the oldest and most experienced in various philanthropic projects among them, came up with this idea after he surfed on the US Charity Navigator’s website and noticed that China did not have one. CCN’s mission became “to establish an independent monitoring system as the fourth monitoring power apart from government agencies, public, and stakeholders”, as mentioned by Cai during a philanthropy workshop held by the China Philanthropy Research Institute last summer.

As Cai discussed in the interview, CCN’s evaluating model of philanthropic organizations is comprised of four parts:

  • The organization’s operational efficiency (40%);
  • Other financial transactions (30%);
  • Transparency and accountability (20%);
  • Public evaluation (10%)

The evaluation methodology was developed by referencing to the ones used by US Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving. This, however, did not stop CCN’s founders to integrate their own philosophies and China’s philanthropic context. Some critics have asserted that CCN is nothing but a copy of the western system, but Cai believes, to some degree, that CCN does learn from US Charity Navigator, however, every country has its unique circumstances and demands. He assures that CCN is an “entirely independent evaluating system.”

Needless to say, CCN has been facing uncountable challenges since its establishment. These challenges primarily come from China’s developing philanthropy sector. Cai comments that,

“Most Chinese philanthropic organizations lack energy. Their operational system and philosophy are struggling to improve in isolation, and they rely heavily on government. Moreover, Chinese public pay little attention to philanthropy. They think it’s good to have philanthropic organizations but never think about overseeing them. Only when Internet becomes common, the degree of public supervision starts to grow. In the end, it’s hard for such evaluating philosophy to be acknowledged and applied in China.”

Until now, CCN is still an online private organization with three founders contributing their time for free. As indicated by its website before it temporarily closed, CCN has publicized evaluations on 2,523 Chinese philanthropic organizations in Mainland China as of January, 2012. In order to protect CCN’s independence, its founders have restrained from joining or affiliating themselves with any philanthropic organization, enterprise or government agency. Their goal is to eventually register CCN as a non-governmental organization in China. However, NGO registration in China requires 30,000 RMB (approximately $5000) and a permanent office address, which they deem to be a waste of resources at the present, says Cai.

In response to the question of future funding, Cai explains that there are lots of Chinese philanthropic organizations volunteering to provide funding for CCN. However, they think that changing the philanthropic philosophy of the Chinese public needs time. They deferred those funding and donations, but are actively participating in networking and sharing their experience. As announced on CCN’s official Sina Weibo, its second-stage development has been finished and its website will be opened soon.


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