The Leping Foundation that you founded was the first one to introduce social innovation approaches in China and is now recognized for its influence in the sector. Can you tell us a little bit about your philanthropic journey?
I’ve been interested in philanthropy and social change since college. After more than ten years in the business sector, I started to work with several renowned Chinese scholars and economists in the philanthropic field. It’s been 18 years since then, and I’ve learned a lot. From the earliest days as a serial entrepreneur, I have founded and incubated five social enterprises across different fields including education, women’s empowerment and agriculture and then I realized that a hybrid organization was needed to promote social development and social change, so I founded Leping Social Entrepreneur Foundation and Fuping Social investment Co.
China has it’s own specific ways of driving social change and social development and business should be the main force. On one hand, entrepreneurship plays a very important role, so it is critical to make full use of it to promote the solutions of social problems and the development of society. At the same time, shifting to a stakeholder’s economy, a kind of business ‘new normal’ is also extremely important. Moreover, in this era, new technology, new power and a new generation have also been setting up a new context and bringing new opportunities for our society.
The foundation describes its mission as a being “catalyst and market builder for social innovation”. What does that mean in the Chinese context?
As a catalyst, we need to adopt the idea of ‘seeing in order to believe’, so that, through our actions, practices and experiments, others will see and so believe. In a society where pragmatism prevails, we must be the ones to take the first step.
As an ecosystem builder for social innovation, we have been connecting and engaging cross-sector and cross-field resources, communities and top talents from various fields (including philanthropy, business, academic, government, arts and so on) in a variety of new ways, to jointly accelerate positive ecosystem change in China. In particular, we need to understand that social change cannot be pre-set or controlled, and it’s not a ‘top-down’ process. We believe change would be amplified by cross-sector and cross-field connections, and the connections can also spawn many new changes.
In short, as a catalyst, we introduce new ideas and implement new practices; as an ecosystem builder, we create ecosystem change by connecting cross-sector and cross-field talents and communities.
How do you see the role of Chinese philanthropy at the global level? Should we expect to see Chinese foundations taking a more proactive leadership role beyond their borders in the future? If so, how?
In China, all kinds and levels of philanthropy exist, from the most advanced and cutting-edge to the most conventional. But overall, the development of philanthropy in China is still lagging behind.
China has advantages in two respects: first, civic expression on the internet and in new media is quite active in China. And young people are still able to use these ways of collaborating and innovating. Second, China is also active and leading in the use of business innovation to solve social problems.
The vitality of Chinese philanthropy and civil society is constrained by the political system and because the rich emigrate in large numbers. Philanthropic education among the wealthy is still at a relatively low level.
That said, we can expect to see Chinese foundations taking a more proactive leadership role beyond their borders in the future, but it might take a longer – like 10-20 years. In order for them to do so, as nowadays most young people of China receive global citizen education and collaboration, business and the use of new money is across borders and cultures.
Also, the post-pandemic era will be more uncertain and there will be a new and different kind of globalization, in which we can expect to see a new picture of China.
What are the biggest barriers to effective philanthropy and what makes you hopeful about overcoming them?
The three biggest barriers I see are the limitations of people’s perceptions and the constraints of the political system: China’s philanthropic sector is still in the process of learning from outdated Western paradigms and models. Methodologies based on local practices have not yet emerged; and finally, the unstable social environment and the outflow of wealth to other countries.
What makes me hopeful is that China is a really big country and is still developing rapidly, which can help us overcome those barriers and create new ideas and concepts. Another thing is that the pressures of an uncertain world and the return of talent and resources as a result of the new globalization will make people’s willingness and ability to build and change the environment even stronger.
Your foundation is publishing the Chinese edition of The Stanford Social Innovation Review. Is there any special content that we should be looking forward to?
We systematically organize and publish our content through agenda setting, and we promote campaigns and movements around our agenda. We present both global and local cases, with an eye on China’s specificities and universality. We want to create a global learning community, in which different countries and cultures can learn from each other. We also try to apply the content in various scenarios and at more levels, and have good interactions with other platforms, institutions, knowledge centers and networks. We have collaborations with a number of knowledge hubs and universities around the world in building curricula and in the creation and spread of knowledge.
In addition to the actual content, we believe cross-sector and cross-field communication and collaboration are critical for social innovation. Through network leadership, Leping has been closely engaging and connecting cross-sector communities, resources and top talents from public, private and social sectors who are interested in social innovation to jointly accelerate positive social change in China. And we believe new power can play a key role in stimulating and enlarging the communities, and promoting their development.
We are seeing increasing scepticism from different civil society thought leaders towards corporate approaches to social change (venture philanthropy, social enterprises, etc) as narrow, short-term and unable to address the complexity of the social issues we are facing. What is your view on this?
In general, we’re in favour of venture philanthropy and social enterprise, which are more efficient, more entrepreneurial, and have more income streams. But they aren’t the mainstream.
The mainstream and the most important thing is, as I mentioned earlier, to transform the whole economy to a business ‘new normal’. We need to build the fourth sector on a larger scale in a more radical and fundamental way.
For example, corporate approaches are continuously evolving and are not static. This can lead to a more radical, systemic social change. In terms of socio-economic development, in capitalism 3.0, both creating shared value and the Stakeholder Economy are new trends with the potential to solve complex social problems.
Also, the kind of approach that is the most appropriate depends on the specific situation. Corporate approaches and other approaches have their own ‘perfect match’ context and environment. For example, in China, where the business sector is a major force in building civil society, corporate approaches are extremely important.
How do you think the philanthropic sector will look 10 years from now, in China and worldwide? And how should it look like?
The world ahead of us is full of uncertainties and possibilities. In the next 10 years, the philanthropic sector could move forward, as we hope it will, but it could also go backwards.
What I’d like to see is that, in 10 years from now, the philanthropic sector is especially highlighting mercy and innovation. Mercy and love are particularly important, while innovation makes them more effective. There is a need for courage to embrace the future and insist on constant exploration of what mercy and love in this new era. We need to have renewed ideas, new interpretations of love and mercy, a greater capacity to take on mistakes, and more space and encouragement to innovate!
I’d also like to see the philanthropic sector have a stronger ability to enhance, strengthen and expand itself. It’s not just about money, the philanthropic sector needs a greater variety of talents and social capital. The boundaries between the philanthropic sector and business will become increasingly blurred, and people would see philanthropy as an investment in the long term. People’s perceptions and mindsets also need to change, and thought leadership should become more important. Opportunities always exist for both new money and old money.
As a board member of WINGS what role do you think WINGS should play in bringing about these changes in the field?
WINGS should shed its image as old money and should represent cutting-edge thinking and ideas instead of often seeking to ‘be correct’. Put down your old baggage and repack lighter. Try to embrace changes, be INNOVATION-oriented, and put your efforts mainly in solving realistic and tough problems.
WINGS could through its own members and in cooperation with external resources and partners, set corresponding agendas and promote corresponding changes. It could also promote movements drawing on Jeremy Heimans’ theory of new power.
Jaff Shen, Founder and CEO, Leping Foundation
The Leping Social Entrepreneur Foundation is dedicated to building an ecosystem for inclusive development in order to support and accelerate those mobilizing solutions for social impact. Read more on their website: Leping Foundation