“Blood and Sweat” for the Public Interest

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CDB Editor, Liu Haiying, highlights a growing recognition in the NGO sector that public service, nonprofit work is not simply about pursuing one’s passion and ideals. As the public service sector matures in China, it has become a way for many to make a living and pursue a career. But low salaries and long hours make it difficult to retain and develop more professional staff and leaders, which is one of the many challenges that NGOs in China face in their journey from the margins to the mainstream of society. 

On November 8, NGO employees asked each other: “Did you skip work today?”

On October 11th, Xu Zhenjun wrote an appeal on the NGOCN site (NGO发展交流网) under the user name “Powerful Tiger” entitled “Oppose low salaries: stop work for a day.” For this, he earned the nickname “Public Service Pay Raise Brother.”

“Public Service Pay Raise Brother” urged colleagues in the public service sector to take off work on the first Monday in November. He suggested:

1. We are not on a strike, and not specifically targeting our organizations or funders;

2. Preferably the entire organization participates together, so no one is caught in an embarrassing situation;

3. Our aim is to give the public, at least the members of the public concerned about public interest, a greater understanding of us;

4. We will encourage colleagues through microblogs to join us and proclaim our four “wants”!

Our message applies whether you want to just make a living,  be secure, get a raise, be promoted, fall in love, marry,  have fun, rest, learn, or develop …

On November 10, the day following the one-day break, an employee of an international NGO wrote an open letter to the NGO director on the NGOCN website. The letter discussed working conditions, disguised deduction of wages and asking employees to work on their days off:  “with regards to my job responsibilities, risks and pressures, I have not received reasonable compensation. The current compensation lags behind that of other sectors, payments are often late, and the annual salary has neither increased as agreed upon in the labor contract, or in accordance with the relevant national or provincial regulations.  I feel a lot of pressure in my life; overtime work and work on holidays should receive adequate compensation, unless it is something urgent. From now on I refuse to work on weekends and holidays.” This highly discussed issue of pay for public service employees has raged for half a year, with this open letter sparking discussion to the year’s end.

In addition to the NGOCN website, in the second half of this year, the media repeatedly reported about pay and personnel issues in the public service sector. In this sector, one rarely sees such heated discussion focused on just one issue. In its September issue, China Fortune magazine published an article headlined “Blood and Sweat for the Public Interest”. The dramatic title heightened the perception of this problem.

This year’s issue no.7 of Social Entrepreneur included the article “My Public Service ‘Salary’” which expressed the stories and feelings of colleagues in the sector, and revealed pay standards at different types of organizations. China Development Brief’s (CDB) website is an important platform for recruitment and information updates in the sector. CDB took last year’s information and conducted a detailed analysis of its job recruitment database. It organized a small seminar to discuss salary and personal training issues, and published the results in its Fall issue.

It’s Time for a Salary Increase

At the end of 2010, in collaboration with several foundations, Horizon Research Consulting Group released a “Report on a Survey of Human Resource Development and Needs in China’s Public Service Sector,” showing that 90 percent of employees in public service NGOs earned a salary of 5000 RMB or less; the largest category of about 25.7 percent earned in the 2000-3000 RMB pay range. People without fixed income or salaries lower than 1000 RMB represented 18.4 percent of those surveyed. Over 20 percent worked more than 12 hours per day.

The salaries in the public service sector have been low for many years, especially since low salaries for grassroots organizations is so normal, so society takes it for granted. In internet comments and threads, a common view is that if you are interested in sacrificing for what you love, then why complain about wages? Some people even believe this is an occupation for retired people to be useful in their retirement. The ill-informed media likes to talk about keeping administrative costs low, which damages the sustainable development of the sector. [Editor’s Note: There is a widespread perception in China (and elsewhere) that charitable donations should go almost entirely to those in need and that giving away money or providing services funded by donations does not require much in administrative costs.]  While public service has been a hot topic in recent years, public service employees have either been marginalized by society, or marginalized themselves.

Funders play a pivotal role in the public service food chain. But funders spend money mainly on project development and execution, with low investment in human resources. Previously, when organizations developed, limited resources tended to be concentrated on the organization’s director or founder. Since young people lack sustainable development opportunities, it tends to be only the leaders who really end up benefiting.

This year, people are making their voices heard in their own way, declaring that the time has come to face the issue of the survival and career development of grassroots public service employees! The sector is calling on donors of all stripes to reach a consensus in their awareness and orientation, starting by increasing the proportion of personnel costs in project expenses.

This issue has endured for many years, and people have demanded change for many years, so why is it that only in the last few years that changes have started taking place? This has to do with different groups entering the public service arena, and changes in the sector’s structure and composition in recent years. On closer inspection one notices that some foundation employees earn up to 100,000 RMB a year, while employee salaries at grassroots organizations remain extremely low. This gives NGOs the feeling that they are not equal partners but rather are at the bottom of the food chain. Government contracting of services [from NGOs] has grown, but staff salaries have not grown in proportion. This issue undoubtedly raises concerns in the industry. But the real impetus for change will come from private foundations.

Li Yusheng of the Narada Foundation (南都公益基金会) wrote in an article that since 2007, the number of private foundations has increased by 20 percent a year. Right now the field is in its early stages of development, and the degree of professionalization in the field is still not high, and the public service value chain is still being formed. In the short term, there are stages when resources are lacking. But as private foundations become more professional, the public service value chain will mature, funders and project implementers (e.g. grassroots NGOs) will come to understand each other’s roles and divide their labor accordingly. What will this mean? Undoubtedly, competition for better organizations and better projects (broadly speaking, this includes better staff) will grow. When the public service sector’s “buyer’s market” arrives, Li Yusheng predicts a change in the next 2-3 years, or perhaps 5-6 years.

At this point, though, the public service sector lacks qualified staff and new foundations and organizations are already having difficulties recruiting in this field. People from other sectors entering the field because they believe this sector holds a higher moral purpose are sometimes mocked. A competitive salary is the most practical and reliable draw. As the industry develops, personnel and leadership training has gradually been put on the agenda. Thus, some personnel training projects have been established at places such as the Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University and public interest universities established by several other foundations.

As for the past problem of funders prioritizing project expenses over personnel training, Narada’s Ginko Partners Program (银杏伙伴计划) and Alashan SEE Foundation’s Ecological Award (阿拉善SEE基金会的生态奖) have been investing in personnel and leadership training. In 2010, five people were selected as Gingko Partners and, in 2011, 16 people were chosen with each receiving support of 100,000 RMB a year for three consecutive years, which indicates Narada’s growing commitment to training leaders. According to news reports, one of the selected partners this year, Fang Hong, the founder of Henan’s Enlai Public Interest, really “took a plunge” into the field. He had worked in public service for ten years, invested all his time and savings, and was about to reach his limit. Low salaries are truly discouraging people from the public service sector because they may eventually have to give up their work in the face of economic realities.

Two years ago, Feng Yongfeng and his colleagues founded the Green Beagle Environmental Institute (达尔问自然求知社) . Now the organization’s annual budget is about three million RMB. What is enviable or likely to inspire jealously is the salary standards: 3000, 5000, 8000 and even higher.  First year entry level salary is 3000 per month, second year is 5000. While it may be common practice to avoid discussing salaries, Mr. Feng openly discussed the wage standards. At the end of the meeting for Gingko Partner Programs, he commented: “Recently I have felt strongly that if NGOs are going to be an industry, we should recognize that one marker of an industry is the status of its workers. If their treatment is improving, and this is not to say it is solely about money or benefits, then it signals that other associated things are also good. When I go to any foundation I am very proud, I say to them, if you give me money, because we are the only people who can put it to use, then no matter if it is in front of 18 people or a few hundred, in the future I can go to any foundation and say that if you give me money, we are the right people to put it to use.”

In truth, he did not mention that when he first started the organization, he himself invested hundreds of thousands of RMB. He felt that the cause was worth taking a risk.

What Kind of Talent Should be Cultivated?

Narada’s Gingko Partner selection criteria include “outstanding people, the right growth period, and leveraging potential.” So the next question is what type of person to select? What are the training objectives?

For two consecutive years Meng Weina participated in Narada’s Gingko Partner candidate selection meetings. She believes the candidate’s speeches were all excellent and similar, which makes her a bit anxious. Narada is looking to cultivate future leaders in the public service sector, but the current group’s “weight class” is generally lightweights. They are passionate, but these future leaders are not very aware of their own problems, always talking about the structure, talking about “things” and not “people”, or of people’s gratitude and the like, but never allowing a clash of ideas.

She recommends that since Narada is looking for “future leaders” and not “current stars,” it is important to ask the recommended candidates how they see the relationship between their own developmental constraints, their “sense of ethics” (dao) and their “skills?” As China’s public service sector develops, each organization’s leader has had many professional development opportunities to develop their “skills” but not necessarily their “sense of ethics”.

Meng Weina, the founder of Huiling, has a director [of one of the regional Huiling schools] who is one of the candidates. [Editor’s Note: Huiling, one of China’s earliest and best-known NGOs serving the disabled, now has 10 schools around the country.]  When discussing the main constraint on this person’s career growth, she and this individual had very different views. The candidate wanted more professional growth, but Meng Weina emphasized that joining the Gingko Leadership Program was about creating high level leaders who are able to deal with a changing social environment, and with different or contradictory opinions. Essentially, it is about elevating your “sense of ethics” and becoming stronger through the Gingko Program, not about boosting your ego and reputation. Even though she felt this Huiling director was not quite as strong in this respect as others already on the list, Meng Weina agreed with her being included as a finalist.

Are the expectations of the older generation of public service workers the same as the career goals of the younger generation? On this issue, there is an intergenerational difference in the public service sector. Younger people emphasize “efficiency and effectiveness in professionalization”, rather than focus on grand problems. Young people are particularly concerned with how they can acquire more resources, “and older people should also have this vision.  In order for the sector to develop sustainably and to attract new people, it is important to develop a new ecology,” according to one young environmental protection practitioner.

Chinese University of Hong Kong researcher Wu Fengshi was addressing this intergenerational issue at a meeting one time and said “I think the first generation of NGO leaders had very broad experience in and understanding of Chinese society.  They possessed a great deal of wisdom in this area and were very broad-minded. The situation with the new generation of NGOs is a reflection of the changes China has experienced. Today’s post-1980s and post-1990s generations have not experienced political oppression, so they find it difficult to take political problems into account. It is worth considering how the older generation of public service workers might share and pass on their experiences? This is extremely important.

In Brief

CDB Editor, Liu Haiying, highlights a growing recognition in the NGO sector that public service, nonprofit work is not simply about pursuing one’s passion and ideals. As the public service sector matures in China, it has become a way for many to make a living and pursue a career.
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