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Niu Gensheng

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“The reason why I focus on childhood education is also related to this: I hope they can be both physically and spiritually healthy.”

Niu Gensheng is among the most forward-thinking philanthropists in China today. When he first started the Lao Niu Foundation with his family in 2004, they donated all of their shares and part of the dividends from the China Mengniu Dairy company, which Mr. Niu had started. His approach was the first of its kind. He recalls, “At the time, everybody—including my family—thought I was crazy... [E]ven Bill Gates told me, ‘You were ahead of me.’” Today Mr. Niu continues to forge new paths into philanthropy. Along with Bill Gates and others, he has funded the China Global Philanthropy Institute in Shenzhen, directed by Mr. Wang Zhenyao of Beijing Normal University’s China Philanthropy Research Institute. He is also a signer to The Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. Mr. Niu is one of a handful of Chinese and Chinese Americans, and the first from Mainland China, on The Giving Pledge list. The Lao Niu Foundation, based in Inner Mongolia, promotes philanthropic sector development but also education, the environment, poverty alleviation, and public health.

From 2015 to 2017, the foundation ranked among the top Chinese foundations in terms of transparency, according to the China Foundation Center, and it has ranked among the most generous foundations with total giving exceeding 150 million dollars over 10 years. By the end of 2016, the Lao Niu Foundation had completed 198 philanthropic projects in partnership with 156 agencies, organizations, and individuals, covering 30 provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities, and Special Administrative Regions in China as well as some cities in the United States, Canada, France, Nepal, and Africa. What’s worth noting is that the Lao Niu Foundation donated 1 million British pounds (USD 1 27 million) to the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) initiated by former British prime minister Tony Blair to conduct philanthropic work in Africa and provide training and consultation to local governments to increase their work capacity and efficiency. When the Ebola epidemic broke out, the foundation’s work was refocused on helping fight against the epidemic and with the reconstruction work. Mr. Niu even visited the communities and hospitals in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, providing his support to the survivors and medical workers.

Factors that drive Mr. Niu’s giving are varied and reveal a rich and complex set of motivations. From a historical and cultural perspective, Mr. Niu points to a long tradition of giving in China. When interviewed, he said, “I thought about what I could do and decided to learn from our ancestors—China has a long history of sharing, for over 3,000 years... Words like “sharing” and “philanthropy” all came from ancient cultures... Such things have already been done in history long ago.”

In addition to honoring tradition, Mr. Niu focuses his charitable work on specific sectors such as the environment, education, sector development, and disaster and poverty relief. One of his observations about the environment is that environmental protection is the most “fair and equal” type of philanthropy. He believes everyone, those of all types of socioeconomic backgrounds, benefit from healthy surroundings. Education is another area of strong interest. In particular, early childhood education lacks sufficient attention, according to Mr. Niu. Comparing his own country to Western countries, Mr. Niu concluded that more needed to be done in China. He cited a Chinese saying that “one’s adulthood is determined by his childhood.” Consequently, he has invested significantly in childhood education initiatives. With respect to disaster and poverty relief, Mr. Niu recalled that he came from a poor region; poverty has always been an urgent issue to him. Indeed, as an infant, he was sold for USD 8.2 (RMB 50) by his family to his more prosperous foster parents. The need to address disaster and poverty are obvious to him.

A third motivating factor is to develop the next generation of philanthropists and further develop family philanthropy, dedicated to exploring a path for a “Modern Chinese Family Foundation.” While a goal of the Lao Niu Foundation is to sustain the foundation to its 100th year and beyond, under Mr. Niu’s influence, all of the family members have been dedicated to philanthropic giving, and his daughter and son have recently established the Lao Niu Xiongmei Foundation to carry forward the family legacy. Taking lessons from the Rockefeller family, the Niu family is thinking strategically about cultivating the next generation of givers.

Considering the importance of impact in his philanthropy, Mr. Niu approaches impact with nuance and caution. As an initial response, Mr. Niu cited a well-known proverb: “Let the facts speak for themselves.” Elaborating further on his perspective, Mr. Niu emphasized the value of feeling spiritually and personally satisfied. For example, seeing children play and learn and seeing improvements in the environment make him happy. Ultimately, impact does matter to him. “Philanthropy is one of the forces that could change the world. I feel satisfied spending the money on fields I want to support and even more satisfied if my support yields to positive results,” he said. He summarized his thoughts, noting “The reason why I focus on childhood education is also related to this: I hope they can be both physically and spiritually healthy.”

From an outside observer’s perspective, the impact of Mr. Niu’s philanthropy goes far beyond any individual projects. Philanthropic sector leaders have noted that his approach to philanthropy has been pioneering, both at home and abroad. Mr. Wang Zhenyao of Beijing Normal University concluded, “Over 10 years, with his distinctive creativity, Mr. Niu has been leading the development in philanthropy, domestically and even globally.” The Lao Niu Foundation has worked with over 150 domestic and foreign institutions such as The Nature Conservancy, Teachers College, Columbia University, China Charity Alliance, and China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation. Mr. Xu Yongguang, chairman of the board of the Narada Foundation, commented on the professionalism and innovative way in which the Lao Niu Foundation operates. Mr. Xu noted that not only was Mr. Niu the first to create a Chinese family philanthropic trust and a family foundation but that the foundation itself is well managed, controlled, and sustainable. In summary, the impact of Niu Gensheng’s philanthropy so far has extended to advancing the philanthropic sector as a whole in China and worldwide.

Reflecting on what advice he would offer to emerging philanthropists, Mr. Niu stressed the importance of integrity. “My advice for them would be: they need to do what they promise to do.” He also cautioned others to be sensitive to the developing nature of philanthropy in China and to be thoughtful when engaging in publicity. “It’s not easy to do philanthropy at this point in China as it can easily yield to public criticisms. So it’s important to ‘do more and talk less,’” he said. There is the potential for misunderstanding when sharing mistakes made or lessons learned, especially when insufficient time has passed for programs to come to fruition. “China is still in the phase of growing,” he observed. Mr. Niu Gensheng’s perspectives and advice reveal that giving money away is as challenging, if not more challenging, than making
it. Finally, Mr. Niu has also stated, “Money is a wondrous thing. It can make people shed tears of gratitude and can make enemies. Everything depends on how it is used.”

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