Fundraising in South Korea


I’ve always been fascinated by how non-profit fundraising varies across the world. I’ve done projects now in about 40 countries and each one has been interesting in its own way. There are a number of aspects of fundraising that are surprisingly similar across the world and some which are incredibly varied. Last month we carried out a project for one of our clients in South Korea which again illustrated how global fundraising can be sometimes very similar and then be completely different.

South Korea has been the land of fundraising opportunity for international NGOs over the last decade. Organisations such as UNICEF, Save the Children and UNHCR have achieved incredible growth over that period, UNHCR’s fundraising income grew from zero to $45m in under ten years. Many INGOs have entered the market with Oxfam, WWF and Concern Worldwide all opening offices in the country in the last couple of years.

There’s now a lot of fundraising going on in South Korea and much of it looks very familiar. Face to face fundraisers on the street and direct response TV ads for the major INGOs are all instantly recognisable to a western fundraiser. There’s a gulf between domestic and international charities, home grown Korean charities do not use modern marketing methods and are mainly dependent upon corporate donations and events for their income.

In our meetings with the international organisations fundraising in Korea, all the usual issues were raised with their number one challenge being the ability to recruit and retain the right level of staff. Sound familiar? A particularly Korean aspect of this issue is that with a fundraising workforce that is 75%+ female, the cultural expectation that Korean women stop working once they have children is a real problem.

Korea has an extremely strong and very distinctive culture. It is an extraordinarily homogenous society. A lot of things that look like they might be similar to practices in Western markets really aren’t.  So while the fundraising approaches and channels are familiar, how they work in a Korean context can be quite different. Campaigns can do extraordinarily well or sink without a trace and the explanations for success or failure are not always obvious. Something that dawned on us a bit belatedly is why UN organisations do so well in Korea. This is a legacy from their importance during the Korean war and this has resulted in huge trust in the society in the UN logo.

It’s not just the UN who does well in Korea. There’s some serious money in the country. The most successful charity in the country is the Community Chest of Korea which raises over $600m a year, mostly from companies and employee giving.  It also has over 1,000 major donors who have given at least $100k. (Cancer Research UK eat your heart out). One Korean foundation has given over $95 billion to charities in its 40 year history.

Korea is a super digital society. There’s technology everywhere. Every taxi driver seems to simultaneously use three different satnavs, free wifi is available in even the simplest bars and cafes and even the toilets are electronic. The only organisations who are not particularly digital are the NGOs, which must be an opportunity.

We’re hoping to do a bit more work in Korea so will hopefully be returning soon. I can’t wait.

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