Bringing "Pro Bono" to Beijing: A Case Study in Localizing International Practices

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Amanda Brown-Inz profiles a partnership between the international nonprofit, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), and the Chinese nonprofit, Huizeren Volunteering Development Center, to bring international “pro bono” volunteering practices to Beijing.

New trends in social responsibility and corporate philanthropy seem, much like the ever-expanding international web of corporate and financial interests, to cast a spotlight on the question of the “glocal.” This portmanteau of “global” and “local” refers to the ways in which international organizations or models form unique adaptations to suit the needs of the local community as they expand. In China’s growing non-profit sector, adaptation becomes crucial in ensuring that imported models and organizations are able to effectively take root in China’s unique environment. One such public interest model that has attracted a fair amount of attention in recent years is that of “pro bono” or professional volunteer services, which seek to mobilize organizational or individual professional skills in the service of public welfare.

The international nonprofit Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) has taken a proactive step in this direction with a recent pro bono development project carried out in collaboration with the Beijing Huizeren Volunteering Development Center (北京惠泽人咨询服务中心). BSR’s CiYuan Initiative, which seeks to develop collaborative projects between non-profit and for-profit organizations, began working on the project shortly after its 2010 launch, when BSR partner and U.S. pro bono facilitator The Taproot Foundation suggested that the pro bono model might prove a useful fit for China. As a passionate organization with a strong network and experience organizing volunteer work, “Huizeren seemed like a natural fit to adapt the Taproot Model,” explained CiYuan Program Manager Brooke Avory, and Huizeren was enthusiastically brought on board. Once the CiYuan Initiative had secured additional support from the Narada Foundation (南都基金会) and Hewlett-Packard, the pro bono project was established with the objective of assisting Huizeren to establish its own services as a facilitator of pro bono arrangements between NGOs and enterprises.

Experiments in adapting pro bono are eagerly observed by the growing number of foreign organizations– including CiYuan collaborators the Taproot Foundation and Hewlett-Packard, as well as the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which seek to internationalize their pro bono programs. For those unfamiliar with the concept, “pro bono” refers to the utilization of organizational or individual professional skills in the service of public welfare. Most prevalent in the field of law (the American Bar Association recommends that lawyers contribute at least 50 hours of pro bono service per year), the pro bono model has expanded in recent years to include professional volunteer projects focused on IT, marketing, and organizational training and capacity building. Pro bono tends to be more goal-orientated than traditional volunteering, assigning professionals to work on a clearly delineated project in the aid of public interest organizations or disadvantaged individuals.

In recent years, there have been efforts to develop pro bono services in China, with notable players such as the One Foundation (壹基金) and the YouChange China Social Entrepreneur Foundation (友成企业家扶基金会) organizing professional volunteer capacity building projects. Wang Zhongping’s Horizon Volunteer Consultancy (北京和众泽益志愿服务中心), with offices in Beijing and Shanghai, has also been closely involved in facilitating professional volunteer service partnerships between enterprises and NGOs (See the CDB article “New Companies in the Public Interest Marketplace”. Even the government seems interested in fostering professional volunteer services– the Guangzhou provincial government issued the “Suggestions Related to Developing Guangdong’s Occupational Volunteer Service Work” in August of this year, which requires that by the end of the 12th Five Year Plan period, at least 20 percent of the workforce should be engaging in professional volunteer services.

Yet these initiatives have not been smooth sailing– while professional volunteering has begun to have a presence in China, Huizeren Director Zhai Yan emphasizes that it has not been a particularly popular model for volunteering. Generally, Zhai Yan said, volunteering in China has focused on short-term or leisure-style activities such as painting a house or playing with children. “When people volunteer, they don’t want to do the same thing that they do at their job all day,” Zhai Yan explained, “They want volunteering to be fun.” “Volunteering has been promoted as a very hands-on process in China,” Avory agreed, citing examples such as the Sichuan Earthquake and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, “So that’s the main way that people understand volunteering.” Adapting pro bono to China, then, would be no simple feat, and a variety of resources from the collaborative partners were required to get the initiative in motion.

Hewlett-Packard and the Narada Foundation committed to providing the bulk of the financial support, contributing USD $30,000 and USD $60,000 for the two-year project, respectively– a portion of which was utilized to create a dedicated project manager position at Huizeren. As the model for Huizeren’s new initiative, the Taproot Foundation would offer its own infrastructure as a development blueprint. To start, Taproot hosted two staff members from Huizeren (including the newly-hired project manager) and one from the Narada Foundation in a study tour of its US office. During the course of this visit, the Taproot staff provided the Chinese visitors with company resources and insight into their operational methods, as well as access to their internal website. The project collaborators hoped that the observations garnered from this trip would serve as useful background as Huizeren sought to adapt the model to a Chinese environment.

Upon their return, Huizeren began to develop its own program, drawing up documentation to explain the concept of pro bono, and evaluating the needs of 20 NGOs who would be matched up with professional partners through the program. In the process of carrying out this research, Huizeren also learned of the trepidation with which NGOs faced a collaboration with the professional world. “NGOs wanted [the service],” Zhai Yan explained. “But they were worried that businesses might not understand them, and so it might actually have a negative effect on their organization.” To Zhai Yan, this emphasized the necessity of an intermediary organization such as Huizeren, and strengthened her determination to carry forward with the project. Upon completion of their needs assessment research, Huizeren determined that NGOs were most greatly in need of marketing, human resources, and information technology, and set out to create partnerships that catered to those needs.

BSR put Huizeren in touch with their large network of corporations by co-hosting several promotional events to introduce companies to the concept of and opportunities for getting involved in pro-bono projects, and Huizeren began to present its newly-developed program to its prospective clients. It was at this point in the process, however, that the Huizeren team ran into a major roadblock. While Huizeren and the other partners had assumed that the strength of the pro bono model would hold an obvious appeal to Chinese businesses with an interest in public welfare or volunteering projects, “businesses weren’t interested,” according to Zhai Yan. “They thought their employees would want to engage in fun activities, and that they would want a brief, energetic project, rather than something longer term.” Zhai Yan also noted that from a CSR perspective, these businesses preferred volunteer activities that could attract publicity for their organization, such as events that would be likely to receive media coverage.

Fortunately, BSR and the other partners were able to aid Huizeren in rallying up some initial clients. With help from Hewlett-Packard’s own pro bono team, as well as a local network of Chinese Information Communications Technology (ICT) Companies, Huizeren set its first series of projects in motion. Three projects were successfully completed, including a marketing project which paired IBM and BOE Technology Group with a grassroots community development NGO, and a legal training session in which Hewlett-Packard’s legal department introduced NGO regulations and environmental law to 10 local NGO leaders. Five of the projects, involving 20 volunteers from eight companies including HP, IBM, and Lenovo, remain in progress.

Not all of the projects were successful– three projects in software development, website development, and management system design were discontinued. The reasons for the termination of these projects ranged from a lack of NGO readiness to a failure by volunteers to maintain their support through the completion of the project. Additionally, Huizeren’s loss of its own project manager caused unavoidable delays in implementation.

While admitting that these failures were frustrating, both BSR and Huizeren feel that early missteps were part of an important learning process that will help Huizeren to better meet the needs of its clients in the future. On one hand, Avory explained, organizers observed that “it was difficult for NGOs to narrow their scope and articulate their needs,” which posed a major challenge for effective project design. Additionally, lacking understanding of some of the technical processes, NGOs often asked more from volunteers than they were realistically able to give. On the other hand, businesses seemed to look down on NGOs due to their lack of professional expertise, and expected that “’We are helping you for free, so you should listen to us’,” according to Zhai Yan. Avory also noted the use of “occupational jargon” that was difficult for NGOs to grasp, causing further difficulty in project implementation. The greatest problem, as Zhai Yan described, was that “No one trusted each other!”

Indeed, the types of challenges that Huizeren faced in implementing this project are not unique to China, but issues of miscommunication, and particularly of a lack of trust, reach a far greater extent in China, where the non-profit sector has reached a far lower level of professionalization than its counterparts in Europe and the United States. This gap in understanding and lack of trust on both sides highlighted the crucial role that an intermediary organization can play in coordinating future pro bono projects. “We found out that we have to train both sides before we carry out a project,” Zhai Yan explained. “That way we can understand their differences, and what we can get from them, and how to deal with them, and how to support volunteer training.” Without an organization working to bridge the significant communication gaps between non-profit and for-profit organizations, Zhai Yan feels it is unlikely that such projects will be successful.

Based on its experience, Huizeren will focus in the future on pro bono facilitation, and aim to use this mechanism to address the capacity gap among Chinese NGOs. “We learned that this model was very useful for NGO development,” Zhai Yan explained, “and so we want to focus entirely on this type of work.” In this way, the pro bono model has begun to develop its own particular niche among social welfare projects– using professional knowledge to build up a nascent sector. Earlier capacity building programs for NGOs, organized by groups such as the Ford Foundation, have focused on building awareness of advocacy and participatory methods. “But we found that NGOs didn’t even know the basics of business management, such as labor laws or management training,” Zhai Yan said. “They need to learn to use software and do budgeting and so on, before we start with training in concepts like advocacy.” Huizeren will focus its pro bono projects on basic training and consulting needs. The organization will work with groups that are moderately well-established, and help them to clarify their needs to a business partner, facilitate the collaboration process, and evaluate the final results.

As for their relationship with BSR, their collaborative partner in the pro bono development project, Huizeren expressed primarily laudatory sentiments. “They were very valuable in the process, and helped us to progress.” Zhai Yan explained, and the most crucial factor was that “they trusted us. The government doesn’t trust us, businesses don’t trust us, and average people don’t trust us. BSR supported us always, and support is more valuable than money.” Zhai Yan’s statement here provides valuable insight into the nascent and often unstable nature of China’s non-profit sector, and emphasizes a crucial buttressing role that international organizations can play in the development process. While there were some bumps caused by personnel changes at BSR and Huizeren’s initial lack of familiarity with the business world, Zhai Yan was immensely pleased with the project and the change of direction that it signified for Huizeren as an organization.

In terms of the future of BSR’s CiYuan Initiative, Avory notes that “BSR is learning along the way how to best play the role of facilitator.” In fact, BSR’s involvement in the project ultimately revolved around capacity building for Huizeren itself, highlighting the many layers of this pro bono development project. “Because our project included capacity building for Huizeren, we had to learn their strengths and weaknesses in order to figure out how to best help them,” according to Avory. At the same time, BSR emphasized that as the local partner, Huizeren had to be in charge of the adaptation process. “Because [Huizeren] are the ones adapting the model, they needed to take the lead. So juggling how much to get involved was a balancing act,” Avory explained. She admitted that this hands-off approach could sometimes prove frustrating, as some of the partners felt that they may have been able to help Huizeren avoid some early blunders (such as hiring personnel). In the end, according to Avory, BSR learned to “keep communications open and define roles early on so that every partner is clear about expectations.” As these roles might change during the process of implementation, BSR also learned that a review of roles and expectations midway through the project was quite useful as well.

The complexity of the project and the variety of challenges faced in its implementation can shed an illuminating light on glocalization in the non-profit field. Most importantly, it can highlight the necessity of dedicated organizations that devote a significant amount of energy to figuring out exactly how to adapt international models so that they make sense in a local environment. This process can be long and arduous, but both BSR and Huizeren have demonstrated that with commitment and creativity, glocalization is indeed possible for the non-profit sector, and can aid in its development.

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