In recent years, capacity building has become popular in the NGO sector. Various guidelines have been drafted and workshops designed to help organizations “obtain, strengthen and maintain the capabilities to set and achieve their own development objectives over time” (UNDP, 2010), as well as serve their target groups better.
While different authors might advocate their own approach to capacity building, it is hard to deny that different environments, cultures and contexts make the capacity-building process unique for each organization and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Recently, CDB had the opportunity to talk to Zhang Jufang, director of the Capacity Building Assessment Center (CBAC), and invited her to share her stories and insights on capacity building for NGOs in China.
Zhang’s journey in the sector began with the Fourth World Conference on Women that took place in Beijing in 1995. Regarded as a milestone for the international women’s movement, the conference also opened a door for NGOs in China, which at the time were still in their infancy, to see how their counterparts were operating in the rest of the world. As a reporter at China Women’s News, Zhang was involved in the translation and reporting work for the parallel Non-Governmental Organizations Forum of Women and was deeply touched by this remarkable event.
“Through this conference, we saw the diversity of women around the world and how women in different countries organized to help tackle various social issues.”
Shortly after the conference, China Women’s News started to become involved with women’s programs in collaboration with international organizations under the guidance of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. These programs hoped to support women both in urban and rural settings and raise awareness of protecting the rights of women and children.
“By 1998, we had managed to launch many good women’s programs across the country. But then we realized we had little idea of how to make sure we could sustain them and ensure that they had an impact in the long-term.”
After careful consideration, Zhang decided to go back to university and study NGO operation and management. Soon, she had the opportunity to attend George Mason University for a year as a visiting scholar focusing on public policy and development of NGOs in international relations. While this specific area had attracted students and researchers from around the world, Zhang noticed that people knew very little about NGOs in China. It was not a total surprise, as Chinese NGOs were still getting going and big governmental foundations were playing prominent roles. But it gave her a chance to share her experience.
Following her return to China, she continued working as a reporter until 2001 before joining an organization called PACT, where she was able to learn various strategies and methods related to NGO capacity building.
At that time, capacity building was a relatively new concept in China. Before taking any action, PACT’s Beijing office held several rounds of discussions with a number of influential foundations including China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA), China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) and the Amity Foundation on the content and strategies of capacity building activities to make sure they suited the needs of Chinese NGOs, of which there were only around 1,000 at the time. The basic knowledge of non-profit organizations and an evaluation system named OCA (organizational capacity assessment) were chosen among many other resources provided by PACT to help Chinese NGOs fit local conditions. Six organizations participated in the first capacity-building workshop and gave positive feedback.
One interesting principle that PACT always insists on is localization. This means that once an overseas working office has mastered the core values and methodologies of PACT’s capacity building, it needs to be localized in accordance with local policies and regulations and become an independent organization. Localization is thought to allow the organization to make decisions quickly and serve local needs.
Localization of the Beijing office took place in 2004, leaving Zhang and other members of staff to decide if they would continue the path of capacity building. Having witnessed the effect of capacity-building activities on Chinese organizations, she was determined to continue the mission of NGO capacity building. Several months later, Zhang registered CBAC as a company that exclusively focused on capacity building for both local and international NGOs in China. With the aim of registering as an NGO in the future, the company was managed according to the standards of an international nonprofit. In 2013, CBAC was successfully registered as an NGO.
So far, CBAC has served more than 100,000 people across the country. Over the past two decades, Zhang and her team have designed a variety of programs centred around capacity building and assessment. Since it was founded, CBAC has been actively involved in the making of various sectoral assessment standards and frameworks for NGOs of different types, focus and size. One of the most exciting projects CBAC has taken part in involved working with five local and international environmental NGOs to draft standards for liveable and low-carbon cities.
“While these five NGOs all had their own strengths in areas related to environmental health and protection, there was little cooperation between them. CBAC was able to provide a platform for them to discuss issues, exchange ideas, share information and achieve objectives. This collaboration eventually led to the birth of the 10 principles of liveable and low-carbon cities. Later, we promoted these principles to relevant governmental bodies for further research and in the end, the 10 principles made it into the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016. Now, these principles are promoted in cities worldwide.”
For its organization assessment system, CBAC continued with the OCA system and made an effort to localize and digitize it. Through participatory methods, OCA helps an NGO to grasp a clearer picture of its strengths and weaknesses based on a strategic development plan drafted with the assistance of Zhang and her team to guide future operations and management. For program assessment, CBAC has adopted RBA (result-based accountability), a results-driven assessment framework, to ensure that the actual effect, not just sheer numbers, can be reflected and shown to the funders and the public. According to the evaluation result, CBAC will also assist organizations to make specific plans to improve approaches to program operation, management, transparency and marketing. So far, CBAC has developed more than 300 types of assessment tools that have been used by over 4,000 NGOs.
Assessment can be regarded as a tool for capacity building, according to Zhang, but not necessarily the first step to capacity building. She argues that basic knowledge is also essential – with misunderstandings not uncommon, even within the sector.
Another important point for education is how to establish a responsible NGO to serve social needs. “Capacity building at this (organizational) level is essentially about establishing a well-functioning management system for an organization, which enables it to have a high standard of performance and be socially responsible,” said Zhang.
Similar to assessment, in capacity building there are also three different levels that CBAC is contributing to.
“At the program level, we employ a 4Ps model: problem – how to discover and target social problems; program – how to make service programs reach a high quality and become impactful; promotion – how can an organization’s programs become good examples for other organizations in the sector; and policy – how to use programs to engage in policy making and improve existing policies,” Zhang said.
At the organizational level, apart from establishing an effective management system, CBAC also pays attention to an organization’s role in the sector, including positive impact and leadership. The last level of capacity building endeavours to build connections between organizations of different size which share the same mission and encourage collaboration, information exchange and mutual help to achieve better results and a bigger impact in a certain area.
The needs of the NGO sector vary across different periods of time. To make sure CBAC’s capacity-building programs are meeting the latest needs of NGOs, every two or three years the organization conducts surveys to collect opinions from as many NGOs as possible.
“For example, we did consecutive surveys between 2015 to 2017 to learn the needs of more than 300 social organizations in China. Three issues stood out: lack of funding, shortage of qualified workers and insufficient expertise.” Zhang believes that these three issues in essence reflected the inability of the sector to retain talented workers, and to solve this problem capacity building must trigger changes both within and outside the sector.
“Unlike many other professions, being a professional in the NGO sector is not effectively supported by our higher education system,” Zhang said. It is noticeable that NGO workers all come from different backgrounds and most of them did not receive any education or professional training. That is not to say that skills learned from other subjects or disciplines are not useful, but without the proper knowledge and understanding of how an NGO works, newcomers can only learn by doing, meaning that they take longer to make an impact. And while there are more than 300 universities that have set up taught or research programs on social work, the courses are not sufficient to supply the hundreds of thousands of professionals the sector requires.
But professional training does not end with a university degree; training and career development plans are critical and should be offered to employees in any profession.
“Currently, there are no policies directly demanding or guiding NGOs to offer professional training and clear career development plans for their employees. NGO funders, such as the government and foundations, usually do not consider employee training as part of an ongoing program. Therefore, although NGOs can get funding for their programs, there is in fact almost no funding for professional training and staff development. An organization that wants to train its staff has to source the money from elsewhere, or meet the costs itself. Inevitably, this has an impact on staff retention and performance.
“Many NGO workers are in fact in poverty,” Zhang admitted. To battle this bleak situation, CBAC has designed special programs for NGO workers’ professional development that are combined with program and organization assessment and capacity building to ensure maximum effect. Meanwhile, CBAC has developed training sessions to target different groups and encourage communication between colleagues from different organizations.
A large number of NGOs are dependent on external funding to operate, but funding from the public only makes up a tiny percentage. Zhang pointed out that at the current stage, the government and foundations should take the lead to support NGO workers, which in the long term should make a positive impact on the development and sustainability of the whole sector.
“We hope to see clear policy guidance from the government which requires organizations to set up effective professional training schemes for workers. More funding is expected to come from the government, and when it purchases services from NGOs it should encourage organizations to devote a certain percentage of the payment to staff training, capacity building and development – ideally more than 10 percent. Meanwhile, we expect a greater number of foundations to act as funding bodies and closely collaborate with local NGOs to provide services, instead of managing everything by themselves. Lessons from NGOs in developed countries have shown that the social issues of a certain community are best solved by local organizations and staff who understand the local situation well. In addition, working with local community-based organizations offers more opportunities for the public to know about NGOs’ work and to become involved themselves.
Nearly three decades have passed since the 1995 World Conference on Women. Looking back, Chinese NGOs have been influenced by a variety of development trends which resulted in distinctive development directions and demands for capabilities. In this ever-changing age, with modern technologies and a global pandemic, capacity building can never be successful without catching up with the trends in the NGO sector and other parts of society. Zhang, with her experience in the NGO sector, foresees a couple of trends that are likely to occur.
“I believe in the near future, more regulations and laws will govern and guide NGOs’ work; donations from the public and the government will increase as people become wealthier; and a greater number of foundations, especially funding bodies and charity trusts will be established; people will become more active in local community work; and a considerable number of Chinese NGOs and companies will have or consider opening offices overseas and get involved in local services and CSR work.”
Facing these upcoming trends, CBAC has also laid out plans to seize new opportunities and confront new challenges.
“In the future, we hope to expand our services depending on the needs of the NGO sector. We’ll continue searching for innovative methods to empower NGOs and their staff, build up the NGO sector with valid sectoral standards and frameworks, and create opportunities and platforms for more conversations between NGOs in China and overseas. Equally important, we want to carry on collecting useful data from the NGO sector and use it to influence policies that are most likely to shape the future of domestic NGOs.”