Over the past few weeks, I’ve been traveling around China to interview 35 Chinese entrepreneurs in different industries on how the business sector can promote environmental protection. These interviews will inform a new, three-year member strategy for the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE)—an association founded in 2004 with the goal to solve the desertification challenge in Inner Mongolia. Now, seven years later, SEE has nearly 200 members spread all over the country and faces a new challenge: Its members are not satisfied with supporting a single anti-desertification project. Instead, the organization wants to address broader ecological issues across the country. To do this, SEE will be working closely with BSR’s CiYuan initiative, a project focusing on building cross-sector partnerships to enhance the value of social investment in China. 

As expected, the business leaders had a lot to say. They clearly recognize how important their donations are to keeping nonprofit organizations up and running.  Yet many of the entrepreneurs told me that they are no longer interested in “one-off” donations; instead, they want to understand better the long-term impacts of the money they give. To do this, some of the entrepreneurs have established their own corporate foundations. Others actively manage and monitor the projects that they support, while others focus their efforts on improving the transparency of their foundations and their projects’ achievements. 

In addition to financial support, many entrepreneurs also showed willingness to contribute other corporate resources. In one interview, a bank president suggested that commercial banks could leverage their retail channels to raise environmental awareness among the public. In another interview, a CEO from a big manufacturing enterprise offered his employees as volunteers for local environmental projects. Some entrepreneurs are focusing on the big picture, and more specifically, how they can influence government policies and use industry resources to create a greener world. For example, Green House—a foundation focused on eco-city development—is working with representatives from the real estate and decoration sectors to develop a model eco-city in Shanghai. Once the city proves to be successful, the foundation will use its experiences and the lessons learned to advocate for more environmentally friendly policies.

One notable interview brought to light how the entrepreneurial spirit can support nonprofit development. This interviewee, the president of an investment company that founded the first internet-service provider in China, told me: “The entrepreneurial spirit includes the creativity to establish a new business model and the execution ability to overcome challenges and make dreams come true. This spirit is exactly what China’s social sector needs, since the entire social sector in China is still in its infancy—similar to the private sector in the early 1990s.”

Whether it be by investing time, money, resources, or wisdom, it’s clear that this group of business leaders is dedicated to supporting the long-term growth of China’s social investment sector.