Every year on the second Sunday of January, red hearts take over the streets in Poland. Ubiquitous volunteers with donation boxes give out a red, heart-shaped sticker to every donor (regardless of the size of the donation). This is the time of Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy (WOŚP) – “The Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity.” WOŚP is one of the biggest non-government charity organizations in Poland. In 2018, its annual finale was held for the 26th time in Poland and for the second time in China.
WOŚP would – and should – make government officials blush. The aim of the charity is to collect funds for equipment in the children’s wards of government hospitals. Each year the organizers pick a particular type of health issue (such as heart problems), a particular group of children (such as infants or children that suffered in accidents), a type of ward or clinic (such as maternity wards) or a particular type of equipment (such as tumor-detecting equipment) for which money is to be collected. Infant healthcare is one of the most often supported areas in WOŚP’s history. With this clear focus, the charity has rendered substantial help to government hospitals and filled in a lot of equipment shortages. WOŚP breaks its collection records every year – in 2017, the value of all donations was over $30 million. In Poland, it is impossible not to know about WOŚP or not to take note of it when it’s happening. For the 2011 events, the charity organizers prepared 35 million red heart stickers – in a country that has just under 38 million citizens.
The money comes from public collections and auctions. Many of the auctioned items are of a predictable kind (such as paintings, musical instruments, mugs, or clothes) but some are quite extraordinary. During this year’s WOŚP, one could bid for a tractor, a guitar from Slash (of Guns N’Roses fame) or a life-size figure of Robert Lewandowski, a world-famous Polish soccer player (the figure was made entirely of LEGO bricks and was built from some 70 000 pieces). One could also attempt to buy auctioned services, such as visiting an army barracks, being served dinner by some of the most famous Polish cooks, having a walk with the well-known Polish economist Leszek Balcerowicz, or having training lessons of various sorts (for example with a boxing or parkour expert or even a sniper shooting lesson with the past head of the Polish Armed Forces). Some of the most original auctions have included the possibility of buying a trip to Istanbul to test a Porsche on a race track; a traditional ball from Myanmar; having a dinner and a night at the embassy of the Netherlands in Poland; the skis that belonged to the president of Poland Andrzej Duda; taking a selfie with a celebrity in an elevator; or a life-size tank model once used in a TV show (it was purchased by scrap metal dealers, unfortunately). Moreover, when the administration of a small Polish town rejected a request to procure an item for auction, the rejection letter was auctioned instead.
In 2017, the charity began to take baby steps onto Chinese soil.
The branching out was all thanks to a Polish band called Roan, which is a phenomenon of sorts: though not much known in their own country, the musicians have acquired the status of rock stars in the Chinese port city of Ningbo (this is something I already wrote about). In 2016, Roan revealed its idea of arranging WOŚP events in China and proceeded to do so both in 2017 and 2018. While Roan arranged a WOŚP gig last year in Shanghai, this year the band organized events both in Beijing (Temple Bar) and Shanghai (Hard Rock Café), followed by a concert at a university in Ningbo. In Poland, WOŚP is much better known than Roan but it is the other way around in China (though of course Roan is still known only to a chunk of Chinese fans, particularly in Ningbo). The band is thus trying to use its popularity to help the charity make headway in the Middle Kingdom.
This year’s events in Beijing and Shanghai were graced by the presence of WOŚP’s organizer and spiritus movens, Jurek Owsiak. One of the highlights of this year’s WOŚP gig in Shanghai was the auctioning of the team T-shirt that was gifted – so the organizers claim – by Givanildo Vieira de Sousa, better known as Hulk. Hulk is a Brazilian soccer player who was transferred from Zenit Saint Petersburg to Shanghai SIPG in 2016 for a whopping $66 million. He is currently the best-paid forward player in the Chinese soccer league. As for last year’s charity concert in Shanghai, its most original auction item was an opportunity to spend a week at one person’s luxurious apartment by the sea, along with having a limousine and a chauffeur at one’s disposal.
It’s not that WOŚP events have never been held outside of Poland. But the charity’s events (such as concerts) and collections were generally organized in countries with a larger Polish diaspora, such as the United Kingdom and United States. In other words, the events were international, but still Polish, organized by Polish people (wherever they are), for Polish children and probably mostly supported by Polish people, even when it comes to foreign countries. Yet, the WOŚP gigs in China are perhaps the first such ones to be held in an Asian country (or at least in China) and are directed not only at the Polish audience. While this year’s events in Shanghai and Beijing attracted mostly Polish expats (the Shanghai gig was described by one of the attendees as a “meeting of Poles but in a larger group than usual”) the band declared that collections were also to be made during the concert at Ningbo, which was to be attended by a few thousand Chinese fans. It is clear that this outreach to Chinese donors would have not been possible without Roan’s popularity.
Herein also lay some risks. Should a Polish charity collect funds for Polish children from Chinese donors? The band members recognize that this may cause diverse reactions. One of the musicians explained in an interview last year: “We collected money mostly among the Polish diaspora. We could not roam the streets with donation boxes, so the fund collection took place during the concert in a Polish school in Shanghai.”
This time, the event was not held in a Polish school, and, if collection was also arranged in Ningbo, it also targeted the Chinese fans. From one perspective, it is great news that WOŚP is expanding. On the other hand, however, searching for funds for Polish children in China may create bad impressions (even if we should accept that the PRC has left Poland far behind in terms of economic growth). The risk of this, however, is small, as the charity will probably remain largely concentrated on Polish donors, wherever they might be. If a choice to address foreign donors should be made, it should be accompanied by the will to expand the charity’s activities to other countries. At any rate, both Roan and WOŚP are small proof of an otherwise little-seen phenomenon – Polish soft power.