A Fresh Approach: Impressions of Beijing Sun Village

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The standard internet description of Beijing Sun Village (Běijīng tàiyáng cūn) as being “a charity that cares for and educates minors whose parents are serving a prison sentence” is one that had stuck in my mind for many years, right up until recently when I was finally able to experience what the charity does first hand, and to begin to understand the new Sun Village.

Thinking back to my previous visits to charitable organizations, it always saddens me to recall the serious difficulties they face in developing their operations. While reading up for my trip to Sun Village I saw that its director, Ms. Zhang Shuqin, had already been asked “What is the most challenging aspect of your work?” during an earlier press interview, to which she had replied: “Money!” – a perennial problem that inhibits the survival of all grassroots NGOs. A few years ago, the monthly cost of supporting a single child at Sun Village was CNY 300, while staff salaries ranged between CNY 400 – 600. But with prices soaring over recent years the organization’s budget is stretched to the absolute limit. How are kids expected to survive on CNY 300 per month today? And how can Sun Village survive? With these questions in mind, I set off on my visit.

Zhang’s energy level completely belies her age – she is soon to be 60 – as does her tight schedule: a queue of other journalists wait in line with appointments that follow on from my interview. Candid and talkative, Zhang responds to questions with a flow of lucid prose, summarizing the village’s survival story in one word: “self-reliance!” Prior to 2002, “Two-thirds of our income came from voluntary donations; the other third was generated by reselling goods donated in kind for cash.” Goods that are donated in kind are items deemed unsuitable for the children at Sun Village to use, but which can be “re-marketed” as second-hand goods and sold for cash. The income this generates – which comes to several tens of thousand CNY per month – has underpinned the Sun village’s survival for many years.

But scraping by on handouts does not constitute success for Zhang who realized early on that the village would need to develop its own independent lifeline to secure its long-term survival and development, rather than rely on goodwill. So, while many NGOs were still yo-yoing between “survival and destruction”, prior to the era of social entrepreneurs, Zhang had already begun to actively explore the process of becoming independent.

This kicked off in 2002 when the village began to establish its own community farm (“Àixīn nóngchǎng”) by renting 260 acres of land which it used to plant pear trees, jujube and other crops, using the income to plug funding shortfalls. Over time, as Zhang slowly recognized the value of leisure travel, the village began to explore how to transform its farm base into a site that integrated the values of public benefit with leisure. This led, in 2005, to the launch of a one-day summer camp, which hoped to attract urban visitors by laying on activities such as picking fruit, feeding chickens and rice farming, as well as offering participants the chance to sponsor a jujube tree for RMB 100 – 150. Following positive public reaction to both initiatives Zhang launched the “Happy Farmhouse Community Club” project in 2007: a fee-paying membership model that gives members a range of benefits, including the opportunity, at weekends and during holiday periods, to plant and tend a variety of seasonal fruit and vegetables in a tranquil rural setting, and to receive art, including paintings, produced by the children at Sun Village. Charitable people warmly welcomed these activities.

However, the good times did not last. The harsh winter of 2009 wiped out 40,000 jujube trees, leaving the fledgling enterprise on the brink of extinction. “What could we do? Being at the mercy of God, we could only grit our teeth and start again!” said Zhang. It was while in the midst of this predicament that the organization made the decision (following exploratory investigations) to strengthen its capacity to withstand natural disasters in an effort to develop a secure income stream. The embodiment of these efforts is the greenhouse project.

In 2011 the village made a successful application to the Beijing Agriculture Commission which, through a programme of subsidized funding, provided opportunity for the construction of 74 greenhouses to cultivate strawberries. “For every greenhouse built, the Commission would provide a subsidy of RMB 30,000. But in the beginning we didn’t even have the funding to build a shed, and so we were trying to drum up sponsorship from everywhere, asking business after business whether they could make a RMB 50,000 contribution. Using the subsidy from our first greenhouse we were able to pay off old debts from 2009. Over the course of 2 months, we were able to construct greenhouses containing 7,000 square meters of steel using this investment model!”

Listening to Zhang’s story amazed me. How could all of the construction and planting work be finished in little more than two months? “By mobilizing society!” was her incredulous reply. Funding from businesses made up only a small part of the overall cost of the greenhouses. Other contributions came via direct sponsorship or in-kind gifts such as building materials. In addition, volunteers such as students or families helped to plant strawberries, while some made advance strawberry purchases by “adopting” a strawberry greenhouse.

“Our yields have already reached a certain scale” Zhang said proudly, while at the same time encouraging staff to taste freshly picked strawberries from the two boxes that had been prepared for us. “Sun Village is already out of the woods!” she said with an air of confidence. “Asking businesses to ‘adopt’ a greenhouse is much easier than direct financing. They are more willing to donate in this way and can receive great strawberries in return. What’s more, the prospects for strawberry sales are very good. From here on, Sun Village will be able to rely on income from greenhouse crops to secure its existence and provide assistance to more children in a wider variety of ways. According to our assessment the farm now has fixed assets of more than RMB 10 million, and this year we are preparing to establish a ‘public benefit industrial development fund’ and a second-hand goods supermarket. But we also want to be a base that provides free office space and accommodation for grassroots organizations.” In Zhang’s mind the future is rosy.

The question I am left pondering while visiting Sun village’s yard is “What has allowed Sun Village to emerge from its predicament in such good health?” Although the children are not yet back from school the yard is full of busy people: a TV camera crew, corporate sponsors delivering supplies and delivery trucks dropping off flowers and plants. The area in front of the activity room is decked out with materials, including plaques, from business sponsors, work units, schools, the media and other institutions that have adopted Sun Village as a base for their charitable activity. There is space to house dozens more and what’s visible “is just the tip of the iceberg.” The children’s rooms are located in the yard of a one-storey building, each named after a donor company.

From what I have observed during my visit “self-reliance and social mobilization” are not just words but ‘lived’ values for Zhang Shuling. The organization adopts an entrepreneurial mindset to run its business, exploring new ideas to build its own model of sustainability. While all resources, regardless of their dimension, are viewed through the eye of a spider: in other words as objects that can be adapted to its use. Size simply does not matter when it comes to the effort invested into the management of relationships and resources: be it a government department, a business or a school, the media or the public, a major policy innovation or a small individual donation of a few yuan, the organization will go to great lengths to coordinate every last detail. Using this fluid business strategy, Zhang has been able to gradually develop a virtuous and sustainable model of development.

Having bid farewell to the Sun Village and returned to the office to write up my findings, I stumbled across two further sources of information. The first was a Sun Village strategic development plan from 2006 that provided a detailed SWOT analysis (undertaken by the management consultancy group McKinsey & Company) of the organization’s plan to develop its long-term development objectives. The second was an article describing the organization’s experience of the winter of 2009 – written up not as a sob story, but of how the charity was exploring ways to replenish destroyed crops and become financially self-sustainable. The piece provoked a lot of public sympathy, but also some criticism from those that wanted to provide funds directly for the benefit of the children, but who were not concerned with compensating the charity directly. Nonetheless, the positive slant of the report convinced people to remember all of the good work previously carried out by Sun Village and for it to preserve its credibility and positive brand image.

In my opinion, a small grassroots NGO like Sun Village that has a progressive outlook, an ability to view itself rationally, a management ethos that “continues to seek out new horizons and set new goals” along with its ability to connect with the hearts of the people must surely have a bright future.

In Brief

Dong Huijie interviews Mrs. Zhang Shuqin, founder of the Beijing Sun Vilage and explains how the organization has transformed in a social enterprise and become self-sustainable to continue providing services to children of prisoners.
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