Social Good

Much obliged: Bringing Corporate Social Responsibility to China

December 2016

As part of our Positive Influence series, Richard Brubaker shares his story of promoting CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) practices in China.

In China, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is starting to take off as organisations see value in being 'good guys': becoming part of the solution for some of the long-term economic, environmental and social hurdles faced as economic growth in the region accelerates.

US businessman Richard Brubaker, founder of not-for-profit HandsOn China, is deeply involved in promoting and executing CSR and setting trends for the burgeoning CSR market in Greater China.

He started the organisation as HandsOn Shanghai in 2004, and now has registered offices in Shanghai, Chengdu and Hong Kong. Since it began over a decade ago, HandsOn has overseen and executed hundreds of volunteer projects in the region.

Brubaker still manages the day-to-day operations of the organisation and sets plans for future innovations. He's also the managing director of Collective Responsibility (a strategic consulting firm) and is the vice-chairman of the CSR Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. On top of all that - he's spreading the word to a new cohort of China's business leaders, as Visiting Professor of Sustainability at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS).

Richard dedicates his time to HandsOn Shanghai

Making a move to China

Richard Brubaker grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where he studied business and finance. He moved to the US West Coast in the late 90s, working in Silicon Valley just as the tech boom took off. By January 2002, he'd turned down several job offers, deciding to try his hand in China, having identified the country as the only one in the region with an economy capable of growth in a global recession.

After a year learning Mandarin in Beijing, Brubaker started a consulting firm in Shanghai, specialising in buy and sell ventures for companies and real estate.

Earlier volunteering experience in the US led him to seek similar opportunities in Shanghai - but finding none available, he travelled to Mongolia, where he volunteered at Habitat for Humanity.

On his return, he decided to start something that would provide tangible social benefit.

He assembled a few friends and began to dedicate his weekends to CSR activities, running projects every other week, or even once a month or quarter, whenever he could find a partner to host them. This weekend activity became the only volunteer opportunity available to people in and around Shanghai.

As HandsON grew, Richard shut down his consulting firm so that he could concentrate on what interested him most: his CSR activities.

The HandsOn Story Simplified

Brubaker's primary goal with HandsOn was to help people in a tangible manner and to identify ways to solve problems with urbanisation in the next 25 years.

"Just before the Shanghai Expo in 2009, the Shanghai district partner knocked on our door and said 'We want you registered'," Brubaker recalls.

He recalls the registration as a straight-forward process, which took less than two months. Today, the company has non-profit licenses in Shanghai, Chengdu, Beijing and Hong Kong. Richard was one of the first foreigners to ever obtain these licenses.

In the following couple of years, as HandsOn Shanghai grew into its three key areas: education, elderly care and children's health - Brubaker formed his strategic consulting firm, Collective Responsibility, focusing on CSR initiatives from a “Big Picture" perspective.

Although HandsOn dominated his working hours, Collective Responsibility also grew fast, with Brubaker in demand by boards and business executives, who wanted his recommendations for lowering pollution and his ideas for new business models for healthcare.

"Our mission is to make a long-term commitment to society - and to do that, we have to balance the short-term needs of volunteers"

Strategic Awareness

Managing both a non-profit and for-profit, even with both aligned to the common goal of enhancing CSR adoption and awareness, is not without its challenges. Brubaker finds it hard to leverage his personal brand in any of his ventures, despite his frequent public speaking engagements.

“One of the things I do to differentiate myself is - that I am not the person that people know for either organisation," he says.

"The primary concern is that the activities of both profit and non-profit do not jeopardise the brand of either." He believes that, despite having clarity internally, having Brubaker as the face of both organisations could create problems of opaqueness externally, given the number of activities he is involved in.

HandsOn, for example, is a local Chinese operation with Brubaker acting as the Executive Volunteer while still paying bills and making management decisions.

He is purposely not the face of HandsOn but he acts as a mentor to the entirely local Chinese team - he doesn't even carry a business card.

“I'm very sensitive to the idea of legacy and I've no intention of answering ridiculous questions in relation to profit or non-profit overlap. I am unclear to the market but that's okay because I can inspire the market," he added.

As he pointed out “No one platform can do everything that I want to get done," and he has plans for other platforms to solve problems he has identified.

The Importance of Partners and Volunteers

Every year, HandsOn has between 50 and 75 corporate partners, generating more than 200 individual projects.

“Our mission is to make a long-term commitment to society - and to do that, we have to balance the short-term needs of volunteers," Brubaker says.

Local partners, such as schools, hospitals and businesses are essential, and they are on-boarded through a partner selection and verification process that includes site visits and an initial test event.

There's no secret formula to organizing a volunteer project, he says: it just takes time (three to six months in most cases). "Depth can be built over time with initial projects leading to expansions," he says.

HandsOn is built with the framework that if volunteers turn up once, it satisfies requirements. This is factored into all stages of the process, as their networks are robust enough to deal with 100 percent volunteer turnover if necessary.

However, 20 to 30 per cent of volunteers are long term, with some having ten or more years ongoing experience. As Brubaker pointed out, as the volunteer project choice grew, so did the number of volunteers, with 25,000 available in Shanghai as the time of writing.

What Motivates Volunteering?

According to Brubaker, there are three primary motivations for people to get involved in volunteer projects.

For large business-to-consumer companies (B2C) brand awareness is the motivating factor and usually involves public relations (PR) companies.

For B2B, it is normally driven by human resources (HR) and used to improve the company culture.

Finally, entrepreneurs and smaller companies are concerned with legacy and a desire to do something with real social impact.

Stereotypically, Chinese companies are behind Western firms in times of structure and the maturity of programs. They tend to be more one-off and more philanthropic versus volunteer-based, said Brubaker.

“The culture of the Chinese CSR up to 2008 was purely driven by philanthropy or forced volunteering, where your professor or your boss says we are going somewhere get on the bus," added Brubaker.

For the foreign firms, most are almost always employee-driven rather than top-down in the first case.

"If you look at CSR eight to ten years ago, foreign companies were focused on volunteering and philanthropy - but Chinese were philanthropy only," he says.

"But now philanthropy is being perceived as no longer required in China with the elderly, healthcare and education generating the most opportunity for projects. All companies whether Chinese or foreign are now looking at the long-term solutions, up to 25 years ahead. "

Chinese companies are also looking at volunteering as a means of improving company culture.


With no real difference between project rollout in and outside China, Brubaker believes that health and education have the most potential for growth, citing elderly healthcare as a particular cause for concern,

This market contains many challenges. Supporting change in this area through technology is a key element, insists Brubaker.

“It doesn't matter what your ailment is at the moment - as hospitals cannot keep up. Even in the luxury market, people tend to travel for a better quality of healthcare in other countries," said Brubaker.

Health is crying out for new technology, physical infrastructure and training , he says.

In Shanghai, for example - the city with the highest proportion of over-65s, government policy for elder care is expressed with the slogan, '90-7-3' - a plan for 90 per cent of elderly residents to live with a spouse or family, seven per cent to live in community retirement centres, and the remaining three percent in nursing homes.

But Brubaker claims that the proportions are wrong, and closer to 30 or 40 per cent will need to live in community retirement homes.

He points out that many people can't afford to support elderly relatives, and for those whose spouse has died, additional care is often needed. Brubaker forecasts a crisis, and says it's up to both the government and socially aware companies to help address this potential problem.

“Today's 55-year-old's will expect a lot more from their healthcare solution when they retire than is currently offered," said Brubaker.

A lot of hard work is necessary. Relocation to vacant areas isn't a solution, given that the elderly will also want to remain in proximity to their families.

On a positive note, prior projects (whether in education, elderly care and children's health) have always been successful and Brubaker is most proud of one with Abbott, the global healthcare company.

The project, which teaches students about science, started in Beijing and Shanghai and was so successful that the program was approved as an NGO and rolled out to more than 250 cities.

Remain committed to the value proposition of your business

The Future

Brubaker married his American wife in China and says he can't imagine a future without the region in his life, given his commitment to HandsOn, Collective Responsibility and a range of other projects in the pipeline to achieve his CSR goals.

He is a keen technology advocate and believes that technology can help solve many future issues, not just in China but globally, for urbanization up to 2025.

“Even VR could be used in a remote capacity to communicate with the elderly in a retirement home - to have a conversation, for example."

His advice to entrepreneurs is emphatic.

“Have clarity that whatever you're trying to do with your business has a value proposition and that you're willing to remain committed to that value proposition."

He also cautions against receiving advice from those without a vested interest in your success. (He cites his wife as a worthy personal advisor!)