2016-12-19 Time and a Dime (Korea Times column)

Time and a Dime
The Korea Times
Dec 19, 2016
by Casey Lartigue Jr.

It is often noted that South Korea and Ghana had similar GDP levels per capita in 1960, but since then Korea has flourished while Ghana has floundered. Despite the economic gap, they remain twins in one way: charitable giving. In the 2016 World Giving Index, Ghana is ranked 77th out of 140 countries. South Korea is 75th.

Earlier this year, an influential South Korean had explained, like a judge reading a lengthy guilty verdict, why my organization would struggle with raising money in South Korea. First, South Koreans don’t give to charity.

The Korea-based “Helping and Share” consulting group reported that 52 percent of South Korean families donate to charity (compared to 86 percent of U.S. families). U.S. families on average donate 3.1 percent of the family budget to charity (South Koreans donate 0.35 percent of the family budget to charity). Only 3 percent of South Korean adults volunteer, much lower than Europeans (Norway, 52 percent, U.K. 30 percent, Sweden 28 percent, Netherlands 16 percent, Finland 8 percent) according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies.

Second, the South Korean government and its authorized chaebol-like agencies are a barrier. They suck oxygen out of the room by being the major source of funding for civil society and government requirements suffocate fledgling organizations.

Organizations in the government’s bottom-level NGO category (voluntary associations) can’t hire staff and are ineligible to receive tax-deductible donations, slowing their development and discouraging donations. It took some time for me to catch on that possible supporters weren’t seriously considering us because of our bottom-level status. To get to a higher level, our volunteer-run association could no longer operate out of the now defunct Freedom Factory Co. we had to scrap together a $10,000 deposit for an independent office, pay monthly rent, have enough money in the bank, have patience in dealing with a mountain of paperwork, among many things.

In July, we passed the government’s inspection, but we still hadn’t reached the promised land. My Korean co-director had already learned we had to wait until July 2017 to apply to be eligible to offer tax deductions on donations, meaning our fundraising potential remained restricted (I keep asking her to confirm this).

Third, what about company donations? My skeptical adviser mentioned that Korean companies engaging in CSR have a history of the government directing donations. Add national pride to that, and it equals Korean companies seeking to feed hungry children abroad to highlight Korea’s transformation from aid recipient to aid donor (helping Ghana is the ultimate dream).

Then he closed his case, figuratively pointing at the guilty defendant: “And you’re a foreigner. Koreans think you will steal the money they donate and run away to America.” He advised me not to be publicly visible. If I were an entertainer, athlete or businessman, no problem. I was expecting him to advise me to resign, for the good of the organization.

Recognizing our weaknesses in South Korean society, I returned to a previous strategy I had considered: Build a community around North Korean refugees by having volunteers raise money.

Our volunteers agreed in theory, but not in practice. I couldn’t blame them, knowing they give so much time volunteering to help North Korean refugees. One volunteer unaware of our challenges indignantly informed me that it was either/or: “Give a dime or give your time.” Others warned that I would destroy the organization by asking volunteers to raise money.

Last week, I announced the new policy requiring all volunteers to try fundraising. Within a few days, we already had enough volunteers sign up under the new policy. It helps that several applicants have NGO experience and that volunteers who had personally donated publicly supported the policy change. Combining offline activities with online crowdsourcing, volunteers can give their time and raise dimes to help organizations in Korea expand.

Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” we had to click our heels to get to our destination. We had wandered around seeking funders in a system not meant for startup NGOs lacking political or business connections, then realized our community of international volunteers has untapped potential. Most importantly, refugees will benefit from volunteers with “skin-in-the-game” feeling more connected after they have helped support the organization expand.

At a recent session with tutors, a North Korean refugee who had been on our waiting list dramatically informed us that she had attempted suicide three years ago. Looking at our “beautiful” volunteers eager to help her, she was so happy she hadn’t killed herself. As she was leaving, freshly connected with five new tutors eager to help her learn English, she insisted on donating 100,000 won. She said it was amazing that foreigners are helping North Korean refugees, even saving lives by giving them hope. She didn’t seem to be worried that I might run away to America with her donation.

Casey Lartigue Jr. is the co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR) in Seoul. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.