The recently established Chengdu NGO Service Park (成都公益组织服务园) has drawn much attention as a potential model of social management innovation in Chengdu city and Sichuan province. Those who participated in the Service Park’s opening ceremony have been impressed with how it integrates various resources to support the public welfare.
The four-story building housing the Service Park is located in a quiet, secluded neighborhood along the tree-lined Zirui North Street, just north of the busy Zirui Avenue in the high technology zone in southwest Chengdu. The first group of 15 NGOs supported by the Service Park have their office space arranged in two rows of cubicles on the third floor of the building. The NGOs are also provided with access to space on the first floor where they can organize events. During large events this 200 square-meter space is filled to capacity.
Xu seems in a good mood when we sit down for the interview in a sunlit open terrace on the fourth floor. Chengdu usually lacks sunshine, but the late autumn day of the interview is bright and the terrace is bathed in sunlight. Xu officially joined the Service Park in February 2012, and took part in the preparatory work for its opening. He says now that they are up and operating, the biggest challenge for him lies in finding effective ways of working with both the relevant government departments and the Service Park’s management team. This is quite stressful and Xu does not handle the pressure well. In fact, he was even thinking of seeing a psychologist to help deal with the stress.
Xu is a member of the Service Park’s Advisory Committee together with Guo Hong, the director of the Sociology Institute, Sichuan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences and 4 other experts. The function of the Committee is to provide advice to the Service Park on main decisions, carry out high level strategic planning, and (after the initial start-up period has ended) continue to provide day-to-day advice. When Xu participates in internal management providing suggestions on management systems and hiring decisions, his advice is well received. But when he tries to participate in routine business operations, the situation became somewhat awkward. As someone who always asked the Service Park’s support team to respond to the needs of the incubated organizations, its support team complained for many times for meddling excessively. Hailing from Taiwan, Xu is used to a quick pace of work, and cannot get used to the working habits and slow pace of work of the members of the support team, who previously worked at public institutions (shiye danwei) and have been assigned to work at the Service Park.
Xu admits openly that his work partners acknowledge his skills and expertise, but his work is often restricted due to diverse perspectives, and does not achieve the impact that those in the sector expect. In spite of the challenges he still cherishes the opportunity to witness the social transition in China and to take part in the government’s innovative project. Indeed, the existence of the Service Park is proof of the government’s attempt to bring the state and society closer to each other.
As early as 2001 Xu participated in a failed attempt to set up a NGO incubator in Taiwan. Together with professor Jiang Mingxiu and several aspiring public officials, he designed a scheme for an incubator for charitable organizations, the first establishment of its kind in the Greater China area. From Xu’s perspective, this incubator failed because NGOs already enjoy a very supportive environment in Taiwan, and do not need the support of an incubator to help them access different resources. Moreover, Taiwanese academics and NGOs have remained very close. It has long been a tradition that the various departments and institutes of more than 120 universities cooperate closely with NGOs as they conduct action research. Moreover, academics in Taiwan often serve as staff or advisors to NGOs.
The incubator model was introduced to mainland China in 2006, five years after the first attempt in Taiwan. The first mainland pilot, Non-Profit Incubator (NPI), developed in Shanghai and has since been replicated in Beijing, Chengdu, Shengzhen and other cities. In the process NPI has produced a large collection of local materials and case studies that are useful for NGOs in mainland China. Given its expertise NPI has emerged as an important center of capacity development on the mainland. In 2009, NPI expanded its model by helping to establish the Shanghai United Foundation (上海公益事业发展基金会, also known as 联劝). This vertically integrated social enterprise builds a funding model that combines venture philanthropy services provided by the Shanghai United Foundation and the NGO incubator services to form a new approach to support the development of the public welfare ecosystem.
It is clear that the Chengdu Service Park has been influenced by NPI’s experience. This is most visible when looking at the similarities in the design and implementation of the incubation process and, similar to the NPI model, the establishment of the Chengdu Social Organization Development Foundation (成都社会组织发展基金会) which specializes in grant making while the Service Park focuses solely on capacity building support. There are also differences, however, between NPI and the Chengdu Service Park model. The Service Park relies on government resources to help participating grassroots organizations link up with community needs and provide services in the community, what could be described as more of a “learning by doing” approach. In comparison, the NPI incubator’s on-site technical support and capacity development resembles more of a lab environment. Moreover, in addition to supporting emerging organizations, the Chengdu Service Park introduces mature organizations from within and outside of Sichuan province to the city. This approach not only contributes to an increased quality of social services, but also enables the Service Park to draw on the experience of more mature organizations and encourages these organizations to guide the emerging ones. However, due to the resulting diversity of participating organizations, the Service Park also needs to provide diversified and individualized services. Thus the name “Service Park” more completely expresses the principles behind this Chengdu establishment.
However, implementing the principles supporting this innovation sets a high bar for the support team in terms of upholding public service ideals and professionalism. Unfortunately, Xu cannot ensure that this bar will be met as he does not have full control over human resource processes unlike the NPI team who are able to voice opinions freely and have more control over how programs are executed.
There are also differences between the NPI and the Chengdu Service Park approach with regard to how they engage with the government system. While NPI expands the space for public welfare by collaborating with government institutions, Xu and other consultants operate from within the government system, relying more on the government’s recognition of the importance of public welfare work and on trust and understanding to support innovations to attract community resources and expert knowledge. As Xu believes, “The government is not an enemy of NGOs, but rather should be our partner.” But when asked if the Board of Directors of the officially registered Chengdu Social Organizations Development Foundation has been formed, he admits he does not have all the information. As Xu shares with a little embarrassment, “The Board Chairman was selected very early, but has not yet visited the Service Park.” It is hurdles like this that make Xu question his ability to work effectively at the Service Park.
Given his dual identity as a public welfare activist and a scholar, Xu has been looking for an opportunity to set up a research institute devoted to practical issues related to the public welfare organizations, an idea that has already received support from many renowned scholars. Xu imagines such an institute would serve as a “driving school” for NGOs and hopes it would attract academics, practitioners and professional social workers from mainland China, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. A plaque reading “Social Innovators’ Institute” (社会创业家学院) is already hanging in the Service Park building, but the idea has not yet materialized. Chengdu officials’ support for the idea of a research institute was one of the factors that attracted Xu to the Service Park. Of course he is aware that the research institute will not come into being overnight and that he needs to be patient. He knows that a large upfront investment is needed for such a long-term project and, despite initial support from local authorities, the project may be put on hold when those authorities are transferred elsewhere. Despite these challenges, Xu has already succeeded in starting a course for senior social work supervisors through a collaboration between the Service Park, the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics (西南财经大学), and the Taiwan Red Cross (台湾红十字 会). Funding for the course comes from Taiwan and an instructor with more than 20 years of experience in social work flies into Chengdu from Taiwan every week to teach it
The contract between Xu and the Service Park in Chengdu will expire soon and he is not yet sure what will happen after that. “I have already thought of the coming year, if they want to extend the contract I would prefer to stay in Chengdu. I cherish this work and opportunity.” At the same time, some other cities and provinces in China have expressed interest in inviting him to help set up NGO incubators. Thus it is very likely that he will keep supporting the development of NGO incubators on the mainland.
SpinaChina gets a new push
After the interview, I went down to the 3rd floor to the Promoting Public Welfare Development Center (hereafter SpinaChina, 推动力公益发展中心) which is one of the NGOs supported by the Service Park. There, Sun Hongwei, SpinaChina’s founder, is checking his organization’s Internet visibility through the Baidu search engine. Under the supportive policies of the Chengdu High Technology Zone, Spinachina formally registered in May 2012 . Its mission is to increase public awareness of spina bifida, provide rehabilitation treatment to the spina bifida patients and achieve a barrier-free public space. Currently it is relying on the Internet and a few core volunteers to establish a Chinese mutual support network on the web. After taking part in a competition organized by the Cloud NPO Platform (云公益), Sun discovered that a Baidu search returned a large number of spina bifida related sites in the first four pages of search results.
The sudden increase in their online visibility is a mixed blessing for Sun and has caused him some anxiety. On one hand, even though they do not yet have a media strategy, their visibility has already helped to increase the public awareness of spina bifida. On the other hand, the organization has not yet developed its off line support services and does not have much to offer to those interested in the cause and in the organization.
Even though Sun lives in the northern part of the city and commuting to the Service Park is time consuming in a city as crowded as Chengdu, he is still very satisfied with being able to benefit from the Service Park’s services. He hopes that through the incubation process SpinaChina can become a leading organization providing support to people affected by spina bifida in China, and build a team that is strong on both strategy and implementation. He also hopes that some time in the future his dream of a center providing rehabilitation services can also be realized. In the Service Park, in addition to taking part in capacity development activities, he also has a chance to interact with other participating organizations and to learn from more mature organizations. He took part in two coordination events for organizations focusing on disability organized in October at the Service Park in cooperation with the Shuangliu county Disabled Persons Federation (残联). However, due to the lack of areas for cooperation, he has yet to form a partnership with the Federation.
Like the increasingly numerous, emerging organizations in other fields, Sun has high hopes for gradual improvement in the policy environment for NGOs in Chengdu. According to a speech delivered at the Sichuan Provincial Civil Affairs Work Conference on July 30 by Ge Honglin, the Deputy Secretary of Chengdu Committee of the CPC and the Mayor of Chengdu, Chengdu is planning to broaden the scope for direct registration for NGOs. The new policy will enable specific types of organizations to obtain direct registration, including business and economic associations, public welfare and charitable organizations, social welfare organizations, and recreational and sports organizations as well as organizations providing basic services ((Editor’s Note: The policy of direct registration for these four categories of NGOs borrows from similar policies that are being enacted in other localities such as Guangdong and considered for adoption at the national level.)). Community-based organizations (CBOs, known in Chinese as shequ zuzhi) that do not qualify for direct registration will be covered by a management procedure known as “depositing a file on record” (bei’an guanli, 备案管理). ((Editor’s Note: This practice is also found in other localities which use the bei’an system to register small CBOs which are unable to meet the higher requirements needed for full, legal registration.)). Moreover, starting from 2012, Chengdu city began purchasing services from NGOs. Based on incomplete reporting data, last year a total of 160 million RMB was outsourced to 59 projects carried out by “social organizations”. The outsourcing program included public employment training, teacher training, culture and health services, community legal services, and community-based elderly care, thereby helping to diversify public service providers ((Ge Honglin, “Adapt to the situation, deepen the reform, strengthen and innovate in the management of social organizations”, www.scmz.gov.cn/InfoDetail.asp?ID=11392)). A number of grassroots organizations have already benefited from this outsourcing program.