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How Can Chinese Philanthropy Advance Social Entrepreneurship?

In recent times, we have seen significant changes in the philanthropic sector in China, and with increasing wealth in the country, Chinese philanthropy has the potential to advance solutions to pressing social and environmental challenges. This series will attempt to open that conversation to a broad and influential audience of thought leaders and development practitioners from around the world. Click here for a video interview with Dr. Wang Zhenyao on the power of charity in China.

 
 
 
 

The China Challenge: Is It Worth the Effort?

The China Challenge: Is It Worth the Effort?

December 9, 2013 | 5791 views

  • Problem: Although much has changed since 1998, those who aspire to create enterprise for social good in China today, especially if those efforts are directed toward stimulating any sort of systemic change, face some pretty substantial challenges.
  • Barrier to Progress: A flood of charity scandals has shaken the public trust. The social media explosion sometimes feels like a bash-the-do-gooder-free-for-all. And although the government has declared its commitment to facilitating the work of NGOs and social enterprises, there has been little actual progress.
  • Solution: Government partnership. Scalable solutions. Investment in organizational capacity. Focus on positive social contribution over sustainability in start-up years. Support efforts to educate the philanthropic sector.

When we began our work in China fifteen years ago, I don’t think a term like “social enterprise” even existed. In fact most of the healthy NGOs were actually GONGOs, or government-operated non-governmental organizations. Most ordinary people I met in the early days were just struggling to get by and provide for their families. I work in state-run children’s welfare institutions; most people didn’t even know such places existed.

What philanthropy occurred was of the traditional variety – family first, and once future generations were secure, the rare wealthy entrepreneur (usually overseas Chinese) might endow a school or hospital in his ancestral home. But the massive outpouring of public donations, volunteerism, and all-around goodwill that followed the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake seemed to bring about a new social awareness and national empathy. At the same time, China was beginning to prosper; a middle class was rising, and for a few heady months it seemed that the New China might have a strong social conscience.

Although much has changed since 1998, those who aspire to create enterprise for social good in China today, especially if those efforts are directed toward stimulating any sort of systemic change, face some pretty substantial challenges. What feels like a never-ebbing flood of charity scandals has shaken the public trust. The new social consciousness that has been fueled by Weibo (micro blog) and the fast-growing WeChat sometimes feels like a bash-the-do-gooder-free-for-all. Just about everyone who tries to raise philanthropic funds is suspect – frequently for good reason. The idea of any sort of revenue-generating social enterprise is often met with skepticism. And although the government has declared its commitment to facilitating the work of NGOs and social enterprises, there has been little actual progress.

Still, Half the Sky’s experience has taught us that once a true decision to act has been made, no place can move faster than China.

  • In 1999, when we arrived in-country, foreigners weren’t allowed inside state-run orphanages. When we first approached the Chinese government with a proposal to bring nurturing, family-like care inside institutional walls in order to give orphaned and abandoned children a second chance at childhood, we were told, “Impossible.”
  • Six years later, even though we still lacked legal registration, Half the Sky’s four programs serving children from birth through adolescence in 25 cities had proved their success and so we were invited to consult with the government to create national guidelines for child welfare.
  • Six years after that, legally registered, with programs in over 50 cities and growing, Half the Sky launched a five-year partnership with government to train every child welfare worker in the nation.
  • And in 2012, we helped establish our sister organization, ChunHui Bo’Ai Children’s Foundation. A 100% Chinese, fully transparent, accountable and legal foundation, ChunHui will carry Half the Sky’s work for China’s marginalized children into the future.

I recount our progress not to trumpet our own achievements, but only as proof that, even in an “impossible” place like China, all things are possible.

So what works? Probably all sorts of approaches. Here’s what’s working for us:

  • The government partnership. For Half the Sky it was necessary because our programs were designed to help children who are dependent on the welfare system, but I believe that, at least at this time, finding a way to cooperate with government at some level is essential in China. There are a number of fine NGOs that have operated quietly in the margins for many years; they make a steady social contribution, but likely they will never be allowed to scale the models they have developed because their existence has never been legally recognized. This is, of course, not always by choice.
  • Offering scalable solutions to address an urgent and real social need. Even though the need we addressed didn’t seem particularly urgent or real to most government bureaucrats when we first began to tell our story, over time that changed dramatically. Today we are not only a trusted government partner, but also one that is relied upon to help establish and maintain quality care standards nationwide.
  • Investment in organizational capacity. Half the Sky is fortunate to have found a few forward thinking corporations and philanthropists who understand that to be effective, an organization must have much more than cash in its pockets. Thanks to our philanthropic partners, we’ve invested time and resources into developing effective policies and governance, skilled management and field teams, rich training curricula, etc. Now we are trying to do the same for our Chinese sister organization, ChunHui. It is a rare Chinese NGO that has such assets. Social investors who want to make a real difference in China would be wise to offer capacity-building support, both financially and through arranged mentorships.
  • A model that, at least in its early iterations, has no revenue-generating component as part of its sustainability plan. This has been true for us, at any rate. The profit motive, even if those profits are dedicated to social good, seems to generate suspicion in China. Over the years we’ve explored various business models to sustain our programs but, in the end, felt it only confused would-be social investors. Only now, after several years of concentrating on purely social return, are we beginning to hear ideas about how our partners in the field might use revenue-producing ideas to help sustain their programs. The key is, I think, that the ideas are born in the field.
  • A willingness to educate a budding philanthropic sector. Social investment is entirely new in China. CSR is new in China. But there is tremendous wealth and, especially among the successful young business entrepreneurs, an eagerness to learn, to give back, and to be on the cutting edge. There are a few exciting movements afoot to educate Chinese philanthropists about social impact investing. International philanthropists with an interest in China would do well to investigate and support such efforts.

The challenges are never small in China, but the opportunities have never been greater.

 

15年前我们刚刚在中国开展工作时,我以为“社会企业”这样的字眼根本不存在。事实上,当时大多数健康的非政府组织都是由政府运营,我遇到的大多数机构都只是勉强维持。我们当时在儿童福利院开展工作,而大部分普通百姓甚至不知道还有这样的机构。

当时的社会慈善通常是传统模式——首先照顾好自己的家庭,确保后代衣食无忧,然后极少数的富裕企业家(通常是华侨)会在家乡投资一所学校或医院。但是在2008年汶川地震期间数量庞大的社会捐助、志愿者服务以及多种形式的救助工作无形中大大提高了人们的社会意识,激发了国人的大爱情怀。同时,中国经济繁荣,中产阶级开始崛起,在那段时日里中国人民好像一下子萌生了强烈的社会责任感。

尽管自1998年以来中国社会发生了很多变化,当今中国那些热衷致力于创建慈善企业、尤其是那些寻求制度变革的人士,面临着严峻的挑战。一批批接连不断的公益领域丑闻大大动摇了公众的信任。由微博和微信推动的新的社会责任感论坛平台,常常令人觉得社会上人人都可以鞭笞慈善人士。任何为公益事业筹集善款的人士都会收到质疑——通常似乎都是出于好意。同时,成立任何盈利性社会企业的想法也会遭到质疑。尽管政府承诺支持非政府组织和社会企业的工作,但公益领域取得的实质性进步微乎其微。

然而,半边天的经验告诉我们,一旦真的做出了决定,中国比世界任何其他地方行动都要迅速。

  • 1999年我们刚来中国时,按照政策规定,外籍人士想进入中国公办福利院非常困难。开始时我们首先联系中国政府部门,提出希望为中国福利院孤残儿童提供家庭般的抚育关爱,使他们重新拥有一个美好的童年,当时我们得到的答复是“不可能”。
  • 六年后,尽管半边天仍然还未能在华注册成功,我们在全国25个城市为0-18岁不同年龄段孩子服务的四个教育抚育项目的进展却非常成功,这就是后来我们为什么能受邀与政府部门一同参与制定全国性儿童抚育标准。
  • 又过了六年,半边天正式注册了,我们的项目不断壮大,已拓展至50多个城市。半边天与政府主管部门共同启动了一个为期五年的合作培训项目,为全国所有儿童福利工作者提供儿童抚育专业培训。
  • 2012年,我们的姊妹机构春晖博爱儿童基金会成立了。春晖是一家完全透明、负责、合法的纯中国机构,它将秉承半边天的工作,继续为中国的弱势儿童创建美好的未来。

上述是对我们发展过程的描述,并非炫耀我们的成绩,而只是为了证明,即便是在中国这样看起来“不可能”的地方,也还会是有可能的。

那么,什么样的方法行之有效呢?我们尝试了各种方法,总结了以下的解决方案:

  • 政府合作。这对于半边天来说很有必要,因为我们的项目宗旨就是服务于福利机构的儿童,因此与政府合作是很有必要的。中国有一些民间机构,它们已默默地独自运营了许多年,持续为社会做了很多贡献,但由于它们没有依法注册,所以它们的组织规模似乎永远难以拓展。对此,它们也无能为力。
  • 提供可扩展的弹性解决方案,应对真正紧迫的社会需求。尽管我们刚开始接触政府官员,讲述我们的工作时,大部分政府官员可能觉得我们提到的社会需求没有那么急迫或实际。但随着时间的推移,这种情况大大改变了。今天,政府不仅视我们为忠实的合作伙伴,而且需要我们协助制定并实施全国孤残儿童抚育标准。
  • 组织能力建设投资。半边天有幸获得了几个有超前意识的企业和慈善家的帮助,他们懂得,一个组织机构要想成功运营,需要的远不止资金。有了我们这些合作伙伴的支持,我们投入了数量不菲的时间和资源,培养了专业的工作团队,制定了行之有效的运营策略、管理制度以及丰富的培训教材。现在,我们也要在我们的姊妹机构春晖博爱儿童基金会开展同样的工作。在中国拥有如此丰富经验的非政府组织屈指可数。想在中国做一番事业的人士,可以投资于组织能力建设,资金支持、顾问指导等多方领域。
  • 有一种模式,最起码在它的最初构建阶段,在制定可持续发展规划时,并没将盈利纳入初衷。从某种程度上来说,我们就是这样的模式。如果试图盈利,即便所得利益用于社会公益,在中国也会引起公众质疑。这么多年来,我们制定了各种项目运营模式,但最终还是令潜在的投资者感到困惑。所以近几年我们只注重社会效益,现在大家才开始了解、谈论我们的合作伙伴可以用何种盈利方法维持自己的项目。我认为,关键是,这样的想法是在实践中产生的。
  • 愿意对初露头角的慈善部门的工作者开展教育。对于中国来说,社会事业投资是全新的事物,企业社会责任也是一个较新的概念。但是中国人,尤其是成功的青年企业家,他们非常富有,而且他们也愿意学习,愿意奉献社会,愿意成为先进。现在中国有几个振奋人心的活动,可以增进中国慈善家对社会影响力投资的了解。对中国感兴趣的各国慈善人士深入了解并支持这些活动,他们在这一领域做得相当不错。

在中国,我们面临的挑战是严峻的,但机遇也是前所未有的。

 
 
 

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