Action Changes Our Future – the Story of a Grassroots NGO

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China’s NGO sector is being transformed by China’s younger generation whose interest and participation in this sector has grown rapidly over the last few years….. 

They often bring with them higher levels of education and professionalism than the older generation of NGO workers. This article provides a glimpse into the lives of two young people who helped found an educational NGO in the coastal city of Xiamen, and the motivations and ideals that led them to work in this sector.

Shoulder Action ( [1]担当者行动) is an independent NGO with an educational focus. Shoulder Action seeks to create more reading opportunities for rural children by providing them with books and reading activities outside the classroom.

July 5, 2010 was an important day for Shoulder Action because on that day, all ­four of our employees were present and gathered together. All of them were in the prime of their lives, and for some, this was their first full-time job.

That very morning, the four of us—Wenbing(文宾), Meiqin(美琴), Lixiang(丽香), and Akun(阿焜)—sat inside a small office located at 64 Democracy Plaza (民主大厦) on Siming Road in Xiamen. We held a brief meeting to discuss the assignment of job tasks and upcoming duties. Even if such routine meetings lacked excitement, we were all very passionate about charity work.

The history of our office can be traced back to June of 2009. Fan Chuangui ( 范传贵) and Shi Yinan (施颖楠) were the first staff members of Shoulder Action to move into the office. They s­­­­­tarted working with just a telephone, one used desktop computer, and three workspaces using desks and chairs borrowed from the local YMCA(青年会). The director, Guan Wenbin (官文宾), was at the time occupied with the projects of Migrant Workers Home (工友之家) and he was not able to join Shoulder Action. Later on, Agui[2] and Yinan started working at a local news station. Meanwhile, Wenbin left the Workers Home to become the first full-time employee at Shoulder Action.

From then on, Shoulder Action had its first full-time employee, a permanent office space, and its first charitable program—“A Library in Every Classroom”. In time, Shoulder Action would make its appearance in the Chinese NGO scene as a formal organization.

Less than half a year had passed on November 7th, 2011, when Shoulder Action announced its inaugural group of board members. The board members provided Shoulder Action a foundation on which the organization could further expand and strengthen its reputation as a professional homegrown charity.

Shoulder Action has since taken a big step forward with the addition of several new staff. Shoulder Action now has staff specializing in project proposals, project implementation, and brand-building. In light of new challenges, there is a need for staff and supporters of Shoulder Action, to come together and work to realize the organization’s mission and vision.

As a public service organization, we are intimately aware that our power and value lies in how we serve others.. As grass-roots philanthropists, we try our hardest to serve both the program beneficiaries and the staff and volunteers of Shoulder Action. We believe that with our ideals and conviction, we can create a better tomorrow!

Keeping up with Changing Times, Acting Together (Written by Guan Wenbin)

Guan Wenbin, one of the founding members of Shoulder Action, is now the general manager of the organization. While doing his master’s program at Xiamen University, he launched the Nanqiang Rural Education Association (南强乡村学社). [3]

Why do graduates choose to take up full-time public service after their graduate study? This is a question I am often asked. Frankly speaking, I was afraid my answer would not reflect my true feelings, I was also afraid I would forget to describe what the situation was really like at the time. I was most afraid of receiving praise from others, even if it was sincere.

Human nature is inherently flawed. We may lose ourselves in the opinions of other people. That is why I decided to give careful thought to why I entered this profession, so that in the future I would not discover that I had forgotten this piece of history. 

From the year of 2001 to 2005, I was studying at Quanzhou Normal University. I hoped to become an investigative reporter; so I went to study at Xiamen University for my masters in journalism. While at Xiamen University, I began attending social, charitable activities in the capacity of a professional news reporter. I began to research basic education in the most remote villages, and started a campaign to raise funds for the construction of rural libraries. Together, my classmates and I founded the Nanqiang Rural Education Association to promote the diffusion of knowledge and skills in the countryside .

I believed that a good news reporter should have a strong sense of social responsibility and an acute understanding of social problems. A good news reporter should be able to confront the most pressing problems of our times. Deep in my heart, I had always remembered what a young teacher, Zhang Tongqing, one of the founders of Shoulder Action, had told me. — ‘The most urgent and pressing challenge we face in our times is Chinese society’s transition to a modern society, which we can further through improvements in public policy.

On the year of my graduation, I was not hired by the Southern News Group (南方报业集团), [a company I had long wanted to work for]. Later though, I passed the exam to work for other news companies, but I felt there was no place for the ideals I had about the journalism profession. In the midst of my job search, I met Professor Qiu Jiansheng , who had graduated from Jimei University (集美大学) in the early 1990s and had committed himself to NGO work, and for some time had been working to promote rural development and urban education.

Under the name of the Rural Development Center at People’s University, Professor Qiu was at the time setting up the Workers Home organization to provide free educational training and consulting services for young migrant laborers in suburban areas of Xiamen City. Professor Qiu invited Shoulder Action to participate in the development of Workers Home which was just getting started. On behalf of Shoulder Action, I moved to the offices of Workers Home, lived in Chengzhong Village where their projects were, organized the workers, and worked together with them. I remembered clearly my feeling when Professor Qiu proposed that I work with his organization. I was instantly touched, but I also informed Professor Qiu that I had lots of debt from my education, that I had elderly parents back in my hometown, and that I shouldered a heavy burden. Professor Qiu said if I would like to work at the Workers Home, he could pay me 3,000 RMB per month. At first, I didn’t know whether to believe it or not, but soon after,I decided to accept. Frankly speaking, if I did not have debts and familial duties, I would have agreed to do such worthwhile work even without pay. 

After my graduation, I did not have time to go home and visit my mother. I moved from the Xiamen University student dormitories to Chengzhong Village and started working at Workers Home. For one year, I lived in the village and nearly cut off all contact with my old friends and classmates. That year was challenging, but I realized that I am determined and someone who could commit to a goal wholeheartedly. This year, I learned how philanthropic projects operate and how to manage them. It also put to test my ability to work together with colleagues to accomplish common goals.

Later on, Professor Zhang Tongqing told me that Shoulder Action’s first program, “A Library for Every Classroom,” was in its final stages and they would soon be in need of a full-time employee. At that time, I was working part-time as the second general manager of Shoulder Action, and was contemplating whether I should join full-time. In the summer 2009, I became the first full-time staff member at Shoulder Action. Professor Zhang and I discussed that I would be paid 1,500 RMB as my monthly salary. At the time, there were only enough funds in Shoulder Action’s banking account to pay me for two months.

Perhaps heaven was moved by my courage and decided to come to my rescue. After a few months, I met several Xiamen University alumni who were successful entrepreneurs. They joined Shoulder Action’s board. In April 2010, we had our second board member meeting, and we selected Zuoming as the director of the board. During the meeting we reviewed our annual budget. Meiqin, Akun and Lixiang joined [Shoulder Action] when we obtained funding for their positions. Having said this much, however, it still seems that I have not yet answered this question directly: “Why do students who have master’s degrees choose to do full-time charitable work?” But for readers who paid careful attention, I think that the answer is clear:  

First of all, it makes me feel very happy to be able to help other disadvantaged children be able to attend school and continue their studies. When I was young, I was shy and not confident, but I still had a good heart and was hard-working, just like the children that Shoulder Action helps today.

Secondly, I am proud to be involved in this type of visionary work in keeping with changing times for Chinese NGOs. The mission of Shoulder Action is to demonstrate a genuine devotion to philanthropic work. In the next 20 years, the development of Chinese NGOs will critical to the construction of civil society in China, and is the most important issue facing our country’s transition to a modern society. While journalists can use the power of media to shape the process indirectly, those working in the NGO profession can devote themselves fully to this historic moment of change. 

I Believe in the Power of Public Welfare (Written by Yang Meiqin)

Yang Meiqin is Shoulder Action’s program operations coordinator. She graduated from the Chinese Department of Quanzhou Normal University in 2010. She has been working for Shoulder Action since she was a freshman in college. After graduation, she decided to work for Shoulder Action full-time.

Many people asked me why I chose to do this work and why I decided to work full-time in the public welfare sector. Actually, the choice was not hard. I have always thought that it would be my good fortune to work in this profession.

When I was in junior high school, I read an article by Helen Keller where she tells how her teacher Anne Sullivan  patiently instructed and helped her. Even though she was deaf, mute and blind, Helen became an incredibly talented and successful woman. I do not remember clearly all the details of the stories in the article, but I felt that her teacher’s love and care pushed her to succeed. Would Helen have achieved such success if her teacher had just used teaching techniques for disabled children and her love and care had been absent? I’ve often felt that love is a powerful force, and that a person who uses love would be able to conquer all.

After entering college, I started thinking about life, and what kind of life could be meaningful. Although I do not have a clear answer yet, I am sure that thinking only about yourself and not others would be a life devoid of meaning.

That is why life should have a direction. We should not only live for ourselves but also for others. A life like this would make full use of one’s potential. I used to watch a TV program called “Cold and Warm Life” (“冷暖人生”) and I feel that the program is well titled. Cold and warm are types of feeling. In our society, not every one of us can feel that life is full of beauty, sunshine and fairness. Some of us are in a corner somewhere surrounded by the dark and cold, suffering social injustice.

I chose this work because I believe in the power of public welfare. I think that public welfare reflects the best of human nature. I believe that the deepest love can really move people. Because of love, we can serve others out of the kindness of our hearts. I believe that working on behalf of the public welfare can bring out kindness, justice and fairness. I feel that work and ideals are combined in this type of job, which is a good thing.

Afterword (Written by Guo Ting, CDB Online Staff Writer)

One afternoon in August, Guanwen Bin found me through the internet and said he wanted to submit this article to China Development Brief. I accepted the article and put it together with the rest of the stuff I had to do. When I had a chance to look through it, I just fell in love with it. I forwarded it to our public email system and it was approved for publication. Now our readers can view it.

While editing this article, from beginning to end, I had a strong feeling of identification with it. The feeling became stronger and stronger. These young people in their twenties all had different motivations. Wenbin repeatedly stressed his original motives and circumstances. Lixiang became a part of Shoulder Action because she wanted to have a meaningful life. But they all had a dream and the dream eventually became a reality. Akun always had an unforgettable face and smile in his memory, Meiqin was instilled with love from her teenage years, all of which are the most precious of human emotions.

Young people usually have dreams, yet very few of them can realize them. What a happy thing it is to make a life-time commitment to doing the things that you want to do the most. Many other people who are in the public welfare sector might have already forgotten the ideals and dreams they had when they were young. But I believe, if you are reading this, then you still have not let go of the dreams you had.


[1] This is the English name they use on their website,
[2] Refers to FanChuanGui ( 范传贵)

[3] 南强乡村学社Nanqiang Rural Education Society

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