Building a new type of giving in China
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 email@example.com
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