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A Fundraising Korea; how South Korea is developing its fundraising and civil society

South Korea is one of the most vibrant nations on earth. Having been devastated by the Korean War in the early 1950s, it was the recipient of large amounts of international aid and support, particularly from the US. It had a national income per head approximately the same as Ghana.

South Korea is one of the most vibrant nations on earth. Having been devastated by the Korean War in the early 1950s, it was the recipient of large amounts of international aid and support, particularly from the US. It had a national income per head approximately the same as Ghana.

Sixty years on the transformation is astonishing. It is the world’s largest shipbuilder. It is the manufacturer of smartphones, TVs, laptops and tablets. It is home to car manufactures Kia, Hyundai, Daewoo and Ssangyong. Alongside its economic performance and growth rate, it is also democratic, with power having changed hands several times through the ballot box after the demise of the dictator General Park Chung-hee in 1979.

With this kind of economic and political development, the South Koreans are now looking to the development of their civil society as part of the next stage of their national development. They already have gone from being an international aid recipient to aid donor. Given how formidable the Koreans have been in transforming other parts of their society, the question is now what is possible for their civil society?

It is in this context that I went to Seoul last week to give two days of talks and seminars on fundraising and branding. The interest in my talks was astonishing, particularly given they were first mooted in early October. Both days sold out with over 500 people attending the first day’s conference.

The South Koreans are very interested in how we do fundraising and charities in the UK. In part, this is because we are a country of a similar size and population and with limited natural resources of our own. It is also because they see the UK as having a lot from which they can learn. They are sending over study groups and arranging visits like mine.

There are a number of features of the South Korean charity sector that stand out to me as an outsider:

  • Many of the largest charities there are familiar to us in the UK – Worldvision, Unicef, Save the Children to name but three. Their largest charity, Community Chest of Korea, is modelled on the US charity United Way. There are relatively few large charities that are ‘home-grown’. One is a charity shop model called the ‘Beautiful Store’ started by the Mayor of Seoul.
  • A large percentage of Korean charities fundraise for overseas development, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. To give an idea of commonplace fundraising for overseas causes dominating their thinking, a workshop I did on pitching for a donation for 11 people contained seven or eight who were working on overseas issues.
  • There is a dearth of charities working in cancer, heart disease or other medical conditions. When you think about the important of medical charities in the UK as fundraisers and innovators, their relative absence in South Korea is puzzling. I can only explain this by looking at where Korean society was 60 years ago, rather than today, as many of the overseas charities mentioned above started in programme delivery rather than fundraising in the 1950s. At that stage, poverty was so high that worrying about cancer or heart disease would have been a luxury.

Fundraising techniques are also very different. Given that South Korea is one of the most connected countries on earth, it is not surprising that digital fundraising is common, while direct mail is almost non-existent. Companies appear to be more interested in charities than they here in the UK, with corporate sponsorship or donations forming around 20% of charity income, compared to 1% or 2% here. Major donations are still in their infancy. Face-to-face fundraising is taking off, while challenge events don’t yet appear to have taken hold.

The South Korean government is keen to develop charities and civil society, but the left hand and right hand have not yet joined up. Registration of charities is complex and restrictive. Unlike in the UK, where the Charity Commission is the single registration body, South Korean charities have to register with their local municipality, the relevant Ministry and the Ministry of Safety.

Once registered, it is relatively difficult for charities to switch ministries or work across two. The simplicity of a system like ours in the UK, where the Charity Commission is a one-stop shop, is one to appreciate (despite the pounding the Commission was getting from the NAO report while I wasn’t here).

During my stay in Seoul, I was interviewed by three national newspapers, such is the interest in what the UK has to offer. One of them was very interested in our ‘Give it back George’ campaign. The South Korean government has proposed a tax reform to reduce the tax benefits of making a large donation. It has also made it harder for new charities by setting a maximum percentage that can be spent on fundraising and overheads (though this is higher if a charity recruits committed/regular donors, as I understand it).

Given what South Korea has achieved in economics, education and politics over the last few decades, they are a country to watch in terms of how their civil society develops. Indeed, in 10 or 20 years I would not be at all surprised if it is us trying to learn from them, rather than the other way round.


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