On a cold winter’s day, you may have come across a Salvationist ringing a bell against a charity pot in order to encourage passers-by to help those in need. As the end of the year draws near, more and more people are starting to show concern for the disadvantaged around them. It is this very kindness that breathes warmth into the chilly winter air. However, does this civic spirit occur throughout the year or is it a passing phenomenon that arises only near the end of the year?
Donations can come in different shapes and sizes. Today, people can make donations through crowdfunding, the internet, and even television shows. For example, Korea University (KU)’s famous burger store, Yeong Cheol Burger, was brought back to life through crowdfunding, and a woman suffering from neurofibromatosis received 900 million won after she featured on a television program. As such, people are greeted with heart-warming stories from time to time. However, these intermittent deeds may create the false image that Koreans give large sums of money to charity.
Charitable giving is an excellent indication of a country’s civic awareness. If the citizens of a country do not donate often, it is difficult to view that country as culturally developed. The World Giving Index (WGI) monitored by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) measures charitable behavior across the world. According to the 2015 index, Myanmar topped the list with the United States (U.S.) and New Zealand ranking second and third, respectively.
Myanmar citizens donate small amounts of money to the poor on a frequent basis. This illustrates that although Myanmar is not considered an economically developed country, the citizens are rich at heart. Of course, Korea is starting to donate more nowadays. In the past, it had received donations from foreign countries, but now it has reached a national self-actualization stage, so it repays the kindness that it received by helping other poor countries. Nevertheless, the Korean donation culture has a few problems that hinder the donation process.
Firstly, people are too focused on ensuring that others know about their donations. For example, most companies donate today because they recognize the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR). However, the number of donations made by workers in upper management under their own name is very low even though their social role is just as important as CSR. Thus, many CEOs and other members of upper management are criticized for taking personal credit when donating only under the name of their company.
Rice and coal are among the most common nonmonetary donations made by Koreans. A problem arises in that the needy may not necessarily want either. For instance, only a low proportion of poor regions still use coal today, so it may be better to directly support heating costs instead. However, donators continuously provide these goods whether the recipients want them or not because the products can be recorded in photographs and thus work as evidence for their good deeds.
Bekay Ahn, a certified fundraising executive, however, does not view the limited selection of items as negative. According to him, donations stem from a mixture of altruism and selfishness. “Sincerity starts by imitating others. Whether people deliver coal and rice just to show others or not is not essential. Selfishness is okay as long people find the value of giving and accrue happiness from the process,” said Ahn.
The inefficiency that results from self-conscious donations can definitively be improved. However, as Ahn suggests, it is even more critical that people actually make the donations in the first place. Unfortunately, donations are not made on a regular basis; most appear at the end of the year. People tend to look back on their lives prior to celebrating the start of the new year. As a result, they feel obliged to help others at that time. Occasionally donations can also be made in order to attract a tax refund. Thus, companies that have been putting off their donations until the last moment make their donations quickly so that they can receive some of the money back for that year.
As a solution to these problems, small organizations have been encouraging more people to donate regularly by asking them to pay only a small amount of money. Unfortunately, this movement may be under threat due to the recent Kim Young-Ran law*. “This law is a good excuse for people to not donate, especially for those who had been forced into the process,” explained Ahn. Furthermore, it is very likely that some people have been receiving rewards for their huge donations. Now they are less likely to donate since they do not want their actions to be misunderstood.
* Kim Young-Ran Law: The law sets a specific limit on the value of gifts to prevent corruption and inappropriate solicitation—30,000 won for gifts, 50,000 won for meals, and 100,000 won for cash gifts for funerals and weddings.
With all the factors that work against a healthy Korean donation culture, Ahn has suggested other potential solutions. He said that Korean donation culture needs to be developed into an industry so that money can be easily transferred from the donators to the receivers. The role of match makers is also extremely important, yet the position of fundraisers in Korea is ambiguous at the moment. They are more likely to make the most of their ability if they can be part of a specific industry.
▲ An example of Hyundai CSR. Provided by Hyundai.
▲ An example of Samsung CSR. Provided by Samsung.
Ahn also proposed that donators need to understand that some portion of their money needs to be spent to maintain the donation system. All donators are concerned about transparency and are unwilling to donate unless all of their money gets sent to the receivers. “People want transparency, yet they do not realize that it takes money to create transparency reports and carry out inspections. Transparency is important but it is also essential that our money helps the system improve,” said Ahn.
▲ Bekay Ahn, a certified fundraising executive. Provided by International Council for Nonprofit Management.
All in all, the donation rate in Korea can be enhanced by tackling the fundamental problems with the system. A donation industry that clearly manages the flow of money between donators and receivers can facilitate the donation process within society. Furthermore, allocating a greater proportion of donations to maintaining the system will ensure the effectiveness of charitable giving in the long run and improve transparency.
It is a pity that philanthropy has not yet become established in Korea. This is ironic because Korea is a country famous for warm human affection, known as jung. It is time for Korea to live up to its ideals. Luckily, future prospects are not so bad. We have seen Korea’s potential when it achieved economic success in a very short span of time. Perhaps we can expect a similar miracle in our donation culture.