Teaching Nonprofit Management Abroad, Part 2: South Korea

11 Jun

By Mark Hoffman, Ph.D., associate professor and director, School of Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration, Grand Valley State University

Dr. Hoffman’s class

In a previous posting, I discussed what I had learned about nonprofit education in Poland. This week I’ll discuss my experience on the other side of the world. More prosperous than Poland and unscarred by decades of Communist rule, it might be conjectured that Korean students would be more interested in nonprofit management — more similar to the U.S. However, this is not what I found when I taught there for a semester during my 2011-2012 sabbatical. Why? Below are the five reasons that I could discern by talking with Korean students in and out of the classroom.

The first and most obvious reason is that in Korea, government service is held in much higher regard than it is in the United States, while religion is held to a much smaller role. Koreans are less cynical about big government than Americans. Most Koreans believe that it was activist government policies that brought about their economic miracle. The prestige of government has fallen with the numerous scandals that have accompanied democratization. However, citizen disaffection has been more with party politicians than with government bureaucrats.

Unlike Americans, the majority of Koreans have no strong religious affiliation. They mix Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Muism (Korean Shamanism), without “belonging” to any, in the western sense. Thus religious institutions have not served so great a role as incubators for nonprofit organizations nor have they provided a compelling rationale for nonprofit activity. For those students that feel a public service calling and must choose between the government and nonprofit sectors, the former wins more hearts and minds.


A Confucian text used to study for the civil service exam during the Joseon Dynasty.

The second reason is the long-term influence of Confucianism on Korean culture. Confucianism is a code of ethics and social order that dominated Korean public thought from the fourteenth through nineteenth centuries. Confucianism prescribed a merit system for controlling entry into the state bureaucracy. Civil Service tests were first instituted in 788. However, once entry was achieved, promotion was based on seniority, rather than performance or creativity. That is, once the best and brightest were hired through competitive exams, they were expected to behave cooperatively.

Because of Confucianism’s influence, South Koreans spend their youth studying very hard and taking many standardized tests. Students and their families accept that the sacrifice and discipline will pay off if they can achieve high marks and secure lifetime employment with big corporations or government agencies. Not only Korean college seniors, but their families and friends, are extremely anxious about their job hunt. Becoming a nonprofit manager, looking forward to chasing the latest RFPs, courting fickle donors, and frequently revising and sending out resumes, would seem a far worse outcome, and receive less family approval, than the lowliest position with a large corporation or the national government.

Reinforcing this attraction to big business and big government jobs is the idiosyncratic nature of Korean capitalism. From the early 1960s through the 1980s, Korea’s unprecedented economic development was the result of a symbiotic relationship between an authoritarian government and a few dozen Koreas corporations known as the chaebol. The chaebol received exclusive access to credit from the government-owned banks, tariff protection for their key products, and various other government favors. In return, the government received above-board donations and under-the-table kickbacks, inflated employment rates, and cooperation in extremely ambitious and unproven economic development plans. One consequence of this development path was the bifurcation of Korean business into large conglomerates, and small, mom and pop, businesses. Mid-sized businesses, starved for decades by lack of available credit, are still a conspicuously weak segment of the Korean economy. South Korean students can easily see their best future will be with either the chaebol or the government. The step down from there is very steep. In Korea, big really is better. Thus, the nonprofit world, with its countless organizations forming and dissolving with every grant cycle, is very unattractive.

A fourth impediment to nonprofit management gaining popularity in Korean universities is its perceived political alignment. Unlike the situation in Poland, Koreans often associate nonprofits with leftist politics rather than the right. In the 1970s and 80s, opposition to the dictatorships centered on the Honan (southwest) region, the Catholic Church, intellectuals, and the foreign-influenced nonprofit sector. Today, Korea’s two main political parties trace their linage back to the days of the dictatorships. The pro-development party, currently known as Saenuri, is the party of President Park Geun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee. Students and professors who favor Saenuri are critical of the nonprofit sector, and see it as a hindrance to the continued prosperity of Korea. I was teaching in the Yeongnam (southeast) region, a stronghold for the Saenuri party. Thus my students might have been particularly skeptical of nonprofit management as a study topic.

The fifth barrier to nonprofit management studies is that the increased wealth of South Koreans has not yet sparked a strong increase in philanthropy and volunteerism. Wealth is concentrated in a relatively few people: the owners of the chaebol. Thus the wealthy are a much smaller percentage of the population than in most other developed countries. The second and third generations of chaebol family members are still the major corporate shareholders and comprise the top corporate management. They are far more focused on family business than on family philanthropy. With the wealthy not involved in high profile philanthropy, the large South Korean middle class remains equally uninterested. Why should they sacrifice from their meager incomes when the wealthy do not? Furthermore, they may see their loyalty to Korean-made products over cheaper imports, their fastidious recycling in a resource-poor country, and their relatively few paid holiday and vacation days as fulfillment of their social obligation.

There are some signs of change. In 2011, Park Won-soon won the mayor election in Seoul, which is the second highest profile elected position in South Korea. Park is a veteran of the nonprofit world, being the founder of a nonprofit watchdog organization and former president of a foundation promoting income equality. In 2012, software entrepreneur and independent politician Ahn Cheol-soo established the Ahn Cheol-soo Foundation for the education of children from low-income families. Last month, Ahn was elected to the National Assembly. In 2009, Korea was officially accepted into the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, becoming the first country to move from beneficiary to donor status. Korea’s overall aid budget will increase to an estimated $3 billion by 2015. Accompanying this aid activity has been the establishment of Korean-based NGOs such as Good Neighbors, which is currently working in 30 countries.

In the future, more Korean students will undoubtedly become open to the study of nonprofit management. But interest is likely to be targeted at careers with large international NGOs and highest among students who identify as political independents or lean toward the reformist Democratic Party.

For their ideas and comments, I would like to thank Sungsoo Hwang, assistant professor of public administration at Yeungnam University, and Inchan Choi, alumnus of Yeungnam University and currently a graduate student at Grand Valley State University.

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