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Philanthropy and Fundraising in South Korea: One Fundraiser’s Impression

To most of us in North America, philanthropy and fundraising are a way of life. However, in countries where formal philanthropy is not a part of the history or the culture, can a government or a group of people bring about a wholesale shift in how its citizens perceive the concept that will lead them to behave accordingly? This is the very challenge being undertaken in South Korea today.

South Korea has grown and changed and is now a modern and highly competitive economic force in the world. Koreans are educated, ambitious and very forward-thinking, and they have worked hard to take the best ideas and accomplishments of other countries and incorporate them into their society.

One concept that Korea wants very much to develop is that of philanthropy. In Korean, the word that comes closest to philanthropy is nanum, which means, literally translated, “sharing.” It is a larger concept than our definition of philanthropy, “voluntary action for the common good,” because it incorporates all types of sharing, from one’s food to one’s help to one’s wealth.

“Korean culture has a long tradition of giving,” says Bekay Ahn, CFRE, principal of the International Council for Nonprofit Management (ICNPM) in Seoul. “Koreans are taught values of selflessness and compassion from a young age, so this has been very conducive to the gradual growth of philanthropy.” In fact, the tradition of giving, called dure, comes from a long history of everyone pitching in to help with the harvest.

Ahn believes there are several reasons for Korea’s interest in philanthropy. Many individuals now in leadership positions in Korea, from business leaders to faculty at Korea’s many universities, were educated in the United States, where they were exposed to American philanthropy and the role it plays in American society. Also, now that Korea and Koreans have become economically successful, they realize that they can and should give back. Ahn calls this trend “national self-actualization.”

At the same time, but not for the same reasons, nonprofit organizations in Korea developed and flourished. As the country developed its strong democratic government, starting in the late 1980s, and as its economy began to grow strong, many nonprofit organizations formed to promote human rights, build social networks and provide a way for citizens to influence the government.

The past 15 years have seen the nonprofit sector expand dramatically. Social services had traditionally been considered to be the responsibility of the government, but an economic crisis in 1997 changed that mindset. Although Korea recovered rapidly from that ownturn, its people saw how much suffering had taken place and began to understand that the government could not meet all the needs of its people...

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