Build­ing a new type of giv­ing in China

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

If you are a mem­ber of China’s grow­ing mid­dle class and try to do some­thing to cre­ate so­cial value and serve the com­mon good, how many op­tions do you have?

You can do­nate money to char­i­ties, but as skep­ti­cism about their spend­ing has grown, peo­ple have be­gun to ask if it is wise just to give foun­da­tions money to pick what causes and groups they will sup­port. Even if you do­nate money to a ru­ral school or sup­port stu­dents from poor fam­i­lies, your op­tions are still lim­ited in China.

That’s why Amer­i­can sci­en­tist, en­tre­pre­neur and ven­ture phi­lan­thropist Lance Fors has been to the coun­try more than 10 times for the past five years to pro­mote a model of ven­ture phi­lan­thropy known as “so­cial ven­ture part­ners”.

“At least twice a year, one to two weeks each time,” he told China Daily in Bei­jing. He paid his own travel ex­penses each time.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing his bach­e­lor’s de­gree from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, and his doc­tor­ate from the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy, the 50-yearold be­came founder and CEO of Third Wave Tech­nolo­gies, build­ing it into a lead­ing pub­licly traded biotech­nol­ogy com­pany that made prod­ucts that en­abled the early de­tec­tion and treat­ment of cer­vi­cal, col­orec­tal, liver and other can­cers.

Since selling Third Wave 10 years ago, he has fo­cused on so­cial change and entrepreneurship. He is for­mer chair­man of So­cial Ven­ture Part­ners In­ter­na­tional and has con­cur­rently been the long-time board chair of sev­eral so­cial ven­tures in the United States. He has helped these so­cial ven­tures suc­cess­fully trans­form from start-up en­ter­prises to the lead­ers in their fields.

In­cluded among them is the New Teacher Cen­ter, an in­de­pen­dent non­profit founded by teach­ers in 1998 as part of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Santa Cruz and ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing stu­dent learn­ing by ac­cel­er­at­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of new teach­ers and school lead­ers. As the board chair of NTC, Fors has helped turn it into a na­tional so­cial ven­ture in new teacher in­duc­tion, which raised $23 mil­lion of growth cap­i­tal in 2014. An­nu­ally NTC sup­ports over 6,300 men­tors to im­prove the ef­fec­tive­ness of 26,000 teach­ers across the coun­try, amount­ing to 10 per­cent of all US new teach­ers and prin­ci­pals, he said.

He added: “Phi­lan­thropy is giv­ing trea­sure, giv­ing money. For ven­ture phi­lan­thropy, it’s giv­ing trea­sure, plus your own time and tal­ent.”

Fors com­pared ven­ture phi­lan­thropists with ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists. Ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists will in­vest in com­pa­nies for prof­its. Ven­ture phi­lan­thropists will in­vest in com­pa­nies to “make so­cial gain, not fi­nan­cial gain”.

“A very good ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist who put money, plus time and tal­ent into build­ing a com­pany is a very good anal­ogy for a ven­ture phi­lan­thropist. So it’s be­yond the money, re­ally in­vest­ing your time, your tal­ent and your net­work.”

Ven­ture phi­lan­thropists are like farm­ers who plant a lot of seeds and try to find which one of those is go­ing to be a very im­por­tant so­cial change-maker, he said.

“So we look to plant seeds more like very early-stage in­vestors. We watch those com­pa­nies we think to have high po­ten­tial and then help them grow to medium size, and hope­fully, to very large scale … We think of our­selves as pri­mar­ily in­vestors in early-stage or­ga­ni­za­tions, then we nur­ture them like par­ents.”

In China, Fors saw a so­cial trans­for­ma­tion sim­i­lar to what hap­pened in the US in the 1990s, be­cause the coun­try’s mid­dle class is grow­ing fast and many of them are will­ing to en­gage in phi­lan­thropy.

“We have seen how pow­er­ful it (So­cial Ven­ture Part­ners) is in the US,” Fors said. He thinks what’s good about SVP is that peo­ple learn how to get a start in ven­ture phi­lan­thropy.

“We want to do this, but maybe we don’t have mil­lions or bil­lions of dol­lars. So it’s a way for peo­ple to come to­gether, learn to­gether. Then they also de­velop cred­i­bil­ity and trust be­cause they’re part of some­thing that has an ed­u­ca­tion com­po­nent and fo­cus on how I try to help.”

As the chair­man of SVP In­ter­na­tional, he met Jaff Shen, the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral of Leping So­cial En­tre­pre­neur Foun­da­tion and re­al­ized that it shared a sim­i­lar vi­sion with SVP In­ter­na­tional. Es­tab­lished in Novem­ber 2010 by some renowned Chi­nese econ­o­mists and en­trepreneurs, the Chi­nese grass­roots NGO fo­cuses on in­vest­ing in lead­ing so­cial en­ter­prises and ad­vo­cat­ing so­cial in­vest­ment. Since 2002, it has nur­tured and in­vested 5 so­cial ven­tures and also has fos­tered so­cial en­trepreneurs and so­cial in­no­va­tion in China.

Fors in­tro­duced the SVP model to Leping, which founded SVP China as a part of the foun­da­tion. Since then, SVP China has at­tracted the par­tic­i­pa­tion of 35 Chi­nese part­ners in Bei­jing, and has be­come the coun­try’s first city with its own SVP. It has planned to cre­ate SVPs in 10 of China’s cities with the po­ten­tial of 2,000 part­ners by 2020, ac­cord­ing to the SVP China’s web­site.

“Most of our Chi­nese part­ners work full­time. In the US, we call them early adopters, in­no­va­tors, so they are will­ing to be risk-tak­ers,” he said. “They are kind of role mod­els for oth­ers to fol­low. It’s eas­ier to join an or­ga­ni­za­tion once it’s suc­cess­ful. It’s much harder to join and help build an or­ga­ni­za­tion when you don’t know what to do.”

The de­vel­op­ment strat­egy of SVP is “go slow, then go fast”, he said.

There are about 2,500 SVP part­ners in the US, he said, in 25 cities, and three-quar­ters of them still have full-time jobs.

“We’re like lit­tle hubs in a net­work, so it’s much more lever­age,” he said. “It (SVP) is kind of a univer­sity of ven­ture phi­lan­thropy — you learn by do­ing, step by step. One of the things I tell SVP part­ners in Bei­jing is: ‘don’t just think in­vest­ing in this or­ga­ni­za­tion, but think about learn­ing to be a bet­ter change-maker for your whole life.’ It’s like a life­time op­por­tu­nity.”

His words were echoed by Wang Gan, a SVP Bei­jing part­ner and also co-founder of Qian­qian­shu Equal Ed­u­ca­tion Part­ners, a so­cial ven­ture that brings high-qual­ity and low-cost cur­ric­ula and teacher train­ing to preschools serv­ing low-in­come fam­i­lies in ru­ral ar­eas as well as mi­grant work­ers, in or­der to pro­mote the eq­ui­table de­vel­op­ment of young chil­dren in China.

“Be­sides help­ing grass­roots non­prof­its and so­cial ven­tures’ ca­pac­ity build­ing, we think the most im­por­tant func­tion of SVP is that it can help its part­ners learn and grow,” she said. “I be­lieve that the dual mis­sion of SVP will make it a great model in mo­ti­vat­ing re­sources to build a civil so­ci­ety in the coun­try.”

In July 2014, SVP Bei­jing part­ners de­cided to in­vest in their first pro­ject, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion named Grow­ing Home. It tar­gets af­ter-school ed­u­ca­tion is­sues of more than 30 mil­lion board­ing stu­dents in the coun­try’s ru­ral ar­eas.

“I’m happy that there are a group of pro­fes­sional, pas­sion­ate and re­spon­si­ble elites from SVP China en­gag­ing in so­cial phi­lan­thropy,” said Du Shuang, Grow­ing Home’s gen­eral di­rec­tor. “We hope they can use their ex­per­tise to help more grass­roots NGOs like us.”

Dur­ing his re­cent trip to Bei­jing, Fors at­tended road shows pre­sented by a dozen new Chi­nese so­cial en­ter­prises and non­prof­its to SVP Chi­nese part­ners and shared his opin­ions and com­ments on each of them.

He found that these so­cial en­ter­prises and non­prof­its are still short of a vi­sion that solves a prob­lem for all peo­ple.

“I think it’s not a unique prob­lem in China that most peo­ple start so­cial in­no­va­tion from the heart. The ques­tion is how long will you be driven only by heart be­fore you in­te­grate your head and say, ‘ Ok, I made a good so­lu­tion’,” he said. “We don’t need just a bunch of peo­ple help­ing some peo­ple. We need to kind of solve the prob­lem.”

For young Chi­nese so­cial in­no­va­tors, his sug­ges­tion is straight­for­ward. “Think big, aim high. Fail­ure is OK. Fail­ure is just a step of growth.” Con­tact the writer at chen­liang@chi­


Chi­nese SVP part­ners have a group meet­ing in Bei­jing re­cently. SVP China has at­tracted the par­tic­i­pa­tion of 35 Chi­nese part­ners in Bei­jing.

Lance Fors, US sci­en­tist, en­tre­pre­neur and ven­ture phi­lan­thropist

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