Why isn’t Korea a “donation nation”?

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Why isn’t Korea a “donation nation”?


Oriental medical scientist Lyu Keun-chul surprised Koreans recently when he donated property and art worth 57.8 billion won ($51.6 million) to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the nation’s leading research university. It was the largest donation ever made by an individual in the country.

Since 2000, donations from both individuals and companies have gone up significantly.

Individual donations jumped from 27.7 billion won in 2003 to 42.2 billion won in 2007, and those from companies more than doubled, from 84.3 billion won to 181.4 billion won, during the same period, according to Community Chest of Korea.

Community Chest is a fund-raising organization for the central government and 16 local governments, supervised by the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.

“Both small contributions of under 20,000 won and much larger sums of more than 10 million won have substantially increased in number since 2000,” said Kim Nu-ri, director at the Community Chest of Korea.

Donating is the act of giving money or property to charities or public enterprises. It is believed that donating had its origin in the Western tradition of noblesse oblige, a moral responsibility shouldered by the upper classes in society.

Korea has also kept its own traditions of charity and donation - providing labor during the busy farming season is one example - although such a culture of sharing faded as the country went through wars and industrialization.

Donation is a social safety net that props up the development of a capitalistic society. That is why we see more acts of donation and its accompanying culture in the United States than in European countries, which have higher tax rates that provide more substantial welfare systems.

In the U.S., where the central government’s social welfare functions are relatively weak, donation instead acts as a safety mechanism - it serves to embrace communities that the benefits of the market economy and the government often fail to reach.

“Donation alleviates income polarization and is a source of happiness for donors,” said Jeong Moo-sung, a professor of social welfare at Soongsil University.

However, the dominant motivation is still pity in Korea, followed by moral responsibility and the hope of addressing social problems. These were the findings of a survey conducted by Jeong Jeong-ho, a professor of social welfare at Seoul National University.

“The results of the survey are in accordance with the fact that winter is the season laden with donations. Regular donations have not taken root in Korea yet,” Park Won-soon, a lawyer and a civic group leader, said.

In Korea, the recipients of donations are also limited to charities and needy students. In advanced countries, however, donations are often made to organizations that work to change the social structure for the better, such as museums, civic groups and environmental improvement projects, Park said.

Donations from corporations accounted for 67.8 percent of total contributions made in 2007, according to Community Chest of Korea. Worldwide, companies are actively making donations and other social contributions.

More companies are now taking an interest in creative capitalism - making a profit while supporting charities and public enterprises.

This goes further than the traditional concept of donation, and attempts to use the market to reduce poverty and inequality in society.

The Next Key Center project, started last year with the aid of U.S. billionaire Warren Buffett, is a good example. It raised $700,000 and launched a housing scheme for those in the low-income bracket.

American billionaires such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in their philanthropy uphold values that deem it undesirable to leave fortunes to children.

In contrast, disagreements and conflicts often arise within families in Korea when family heads give away large sums of money to society.

The custom of bequests here must be changed first in order for a culture of donation to take root in Korean society, experts say.

Another problem in Korea is that it is hard to find a suitable target charity that people feel they can trust with a donation.

In this regard, many have welcomed the establishment of Guide Star (www.guidestar.or.kr). This organization seeks to promote a transparent culture of donation by providing information about nonprofit organizations to potential donors.

Some opinion leaders are also calling for the introduction of an integrated system so that donations across the country can be managed better.

In the United States, 15 percent of all contributions across the nation are collected through community foundations. This is an instrument designed to pool donations into a coordinated investment and fund-raising facility dedicated to a given community’s improvement.

It has now become a global phenomenon, with 1,400 existing around the world, over 700 of which are in the United States.

“If there are more foundations related to a given community, it will help revitalize a culture of donation across our society,” Soongsil University Professor Jeong said.

It pays off to encourage teenagers to participate in acts of charity or fund-raising from an early age.

Donation has been found to engender repetition: 66.8 percent of people who did volunteer social work in their childhood and youth participated in volunteer activities when they became adults, U.S.-based volunteer aid agency Independent Sector found in a survey.

On the other hand, among people with no such experience when they were young, only 33.2 percent took part in helping others in later life.

“Volunteering to help others by investing one’s talents and time is also a good example of donation,” Park, the lawyer, said.

“Education to initiate our children into the habit of sharing and donation is necessary at each level of school.”

By Park Gil-ja JoongAng Ilbo [spark0320@joongang.co.kr]
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