Global giving Featured

9:51am EDT July 22, 2002

American companies have a long history of commitment to nonprofit organizations. Businesses, both large and small, willingly donate time, money and energy to numerous causes. That hasn’t been the case in Japan.

“In this country (the U.S.), you have a long history of the nonprofit sector and a lot of resources,” says Hisae Tomita, executive director of the Hamamatsu NPO Network Center in Japan. “In Japan, we don’t have enough experience yet, and we don’t have the history. So we have a lot of things to learn from the United States. Philanthropic culture is very different in the United States than Japan. We have to modify some things to fit the Japanese market.”

Tomita spent 12 weeks in this country as a guest of National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Part of that time was spent in Cleveland with Community Shares, an organization that, according to its mission, promotes “social justice by funding organizations through workplace giving.”

It wasn’t until March of last year that the Japanese government passed a nonprofit law, which allowed grassroots organizations to gain corporate status beginning Dec. 1, 1998.

Hamamatsu NPO Network is a coalition of 13 grassroots organizations, Tomita says. By contrast, the U.S. has nearly 45,000 foundations, and 85 percent of all money given to charity comes from individuals — often through workplace donations. This is the type of system Japan is trying to develop, she says.

The United States has a great deal of experience for Japan to draw on, but there are benefits to starting fresh, explains Hugh Shannon, director of marketing and development for Community Shares. “In a way, it kind of sounds like they are 30 years behind, but they are also working with a clean slate.”

Community Shares is a relatively new organization, he says. And with an organization such as United Way so entrenched in the corporate thinking, it’s often difficult to get people to think about other agencies.

“It’s one of the things that we constantly have to battle. We’re only 15 years old, so people don’t know us very well. So why should they care? Why should they participate? Hopefully, somewhere done the road, what they accomplish in Japan, we’ll be able to draw some lessons from as well.”

When an obvious need arises, the Japanese are very generous, Tomita says. On Jan. 17, 1995, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale devastated Kobe, Japan. “People are more motivated for some special occasion like the Kobe earthquake,” Tomita says. But they don’t have opportunities to give on a more regular basis.

There are other impediments to giving as well.

In Japan, charitable donations are not tax deductible. Explains Tomita, “It’s difficult to motivate the people to give. We are working to a tax deduction system included in the law.”

And whatever they learn in Japan about the philanthropic spirit could come back to the United States.

“One our main missions is opening choice, so that people have as many opportunities as possible to give,” Shannon says. “What we do falls into what they are trying to establish. Hopefully, they can establish some precedents in Japan about gaining access to major corporations that we might be able to call upon later.” How to reach: Community Shares, (216) 371-0209

Daniel Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor at SBN.