China’s New Philanthropy on the Global Stage

Posted on May 8, 2014


Last September in a speech at a Gala to celebrate “China on the Global Stage,” I spoke about what it means for Chinese corporates to do business on the Global Stage from an entrepreneur’s perspective. Recently two men ushered in a new era for China on the Global Stage. On April 24, 2014, Jack Ma and Joseph Tsai, co-founders of Alibaba Group Holding Limited, announced philanthropic trusts that, according to the Economist (April 2014), “could be worth as much as $3 billion.” The magazine further quoted Mr. Ma as saying that “somebody has to do something.” Philanthropy on a large scale arrives in China.

succeed because crazy enoughAlibaba’s Press Release on the subject states that “[the] co-founders of Alibaba today announced the establishment of personal charitable trusts funded by share options granted by Alibaba to the charitable trusts designated by Jack Ma and Joe Tsai for approximately two percent (2%) of Alibaba’s equity. Their philanthropic activities will initially be focused on causes including the environment, medicine, education and culture in China, Hong Kong and abroad.

Jack Ma also said in the Press Release: “Alibaba was founded 15 years ago with a mission ‘to make it easy to do business anywhere’ and a set of principles and values that emphasize our responsibility to society. Giving back to society is deeply embedded in Alibaba’s culture and I am incredibly proud of the commitment that our employees have shown to improving people’s lives.”

“We hope to live in a world with bluer skies, cleaner water and better access to healthcare. I am extremely focused on the environment, medical care and education in China but concern and complaints cannot change the current situation.  I am passionate about actively contributing and helping to solve these problems. We must assume responsibility and take action to improve the environment that our children will inherit, and this is why I strongly support the efforts of The Nature Conservancy and agreed to take on the role of China Chairman last year,” Jack Ma continued.

Some may think that this is partly a publicity stunt on Alibaba’s part given that they are about to launch their IPO, but I do not think so. Alibaba’s brand is strong enough that the company, which is likely well-advised, would unlikely resort to such tactics. Instead, I think the company and its founders are motivated by philanthropic motives and simultaneously are trying to use the publicity the company has to jump-start larger scale corporate-related philanthropy in China. On this topic Joe Tsai said, “I hope that by taking this path and drawing attention to these issues, we raise awareness among even more people, and that we inspire and encourage our peers, partners and other entrepreneurs to join us in our philanthropic efforts.”

The Press Release ends with impressive endorsements from Alibaba’s directors and international business and philanthropic luminaries.

Masayoshi Son, founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of SoftBank Corp. and a director of Alibaba, said: “I have tremendous respect for this charitable initiative of Jack and Joe. I think it is truly outstanding that the people of Alibaba are contributing to Chinese society in this way, and I fully support the endeavor.”

Jackie Reses, Chief Development Officer of Yahoo, Inc. and a director of Alibaba, said: “I am impressed by the thoughtfulness and community spirit behind the establishment of the two personal charity trusts by Alibaba’s co-founders and by their strong desire to give back to the community.”

Michael R. Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City and Founder of Bloomberg Philantrophies, commented: “Jack Ma and Joe Tsai are both very generous individuals who understand the importance of giving back and helping others, which is reflected in the culture of Alibaba. I’ve spent time with both of them to discuss their commitment to improving lives.  Their gifts set a new bar for philanthropy in China, and hopefully other entrepreneurs and business leaders around the world will follow in their footsteps.”

Bill Gates, Co-Chair of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Founder and Technology Advisor of Microsoft Corp. commented: “This is terrific news. Jack and Joe’s generosity, leadership and example will do an immense amount of good, particularly in this remarkable time in the development of philanthropy in China.”

Warren Buffett, Trustee of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Berkshire Hathaway, commented: “Jack and Joe have been extraordinary leaders in business and have now become leaders in philanthropy. I admire and applaud them.”

About the founders, the Press Release has the following short histories:

“Jack Ma is the lead founder of Alibaba Group. Since founding the company in 1999, he served as chairman and chief executive officer for more than a decade. Since May 2013, he has served as executive chairman of Alibaba Group and continues to shape the company’s strategic direction and management development.

Mr. Ma, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute, serves on the board of SoftBank Corp., a leading digital information company that is publicly traded on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. He is also a director of Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, a media company listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. In 2009, Mr. Ma became a trustee of The Nature Conservancy’s China program and joined the global board of directors of the organization in 2010. Since May 2013, he has served as chair of The Nature Conservancy’s China board of directors. In September 2013, he joined the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation as a director.

Joe Tsai is one of Alibaba Group’s founders and has been a member of the company’s board of directors since its inception in 1999.  He previously served as the company’s chief financial officer and, since May 2013, has served as the company’s executive vice-chairman, responsible for strategic investments and acquisitions.  From 1995 to 1999, Mr. Tsai worked in Hong Kong with Investor AB, the main investment vehicle of Sweden’s Wallenberg family, where he was responsible for Asian private equity investments. Prior to that, he was vice president and general counsel of Rosecliff, Inc., a management buyout firm based in New York. Mr. Tsai is qualified to practice law in the State of New York and, from 1990 to 1993, was an associate attorney in the tax group of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, a New York-based international law firm.

Mr. Tsai received his bachelor’s degree in Economics and East Asian Studies from Yale University and a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School. He is a trustee of The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, United States.”