Is the Alashan (SEE) Foundation a Model For the One Foundation?

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Interestingly, the author reserves most of his criticism for two foundations that are well known for supporting grassroots NGOs, even though he admits that the vast majority of Chinese foundations are in an even worse state of affairs. For more balance, this article should be read alongside the articles in our Special Issue on Philanthropy and Civil Society in China which raise a similar set of issues that include: (i) the lack of a professional approach to grantmaking, and even the lack of awareness of the concept of grantmaking, among most Chinese foundations; and (ii) the lack of interest among most Chinese foundations in supporting grassroots NGOs.

If one were to consider June 5, 2004 as the founding of the Alashan SEE Ecological Association and as the official beginning of what later would become the SEE Foundation , then by June 5, 2011 the SEE Foundation was already seven years old. If one considers December 2010 as the date when the One Foundation officially became a public fundraising foundation, then by June 5, 2011, the One Foundation was only 7 months old. ((Editor’s Note: The One Foundation made headlines when it became the first private (or nonpublic fundraising) foundation to register as a public fundraising foundation in Shenzhen in January of 2011.))

These two “foundations” both have close connections with the same few people, including Yang Peng, Wang Shi, and Feng Lun. In the vast scope of history, these two organizations have only been around for a very short time. In the context of China’s environmental movement, the two organizations can only be considered as buds beginning to blossom.

In recent years, I have carefully researched the short history of China’s charity sector, as well as the history of charitable organizations around the world. I have found that the single biggest factor determining a NGO’s success has nothing to do with whether it is publicly or privately funded, nor whether its internal structure and funding is transparent. Instead, it has to do with whether the NGO has clear and targeted plan for acquiring and using funds. It is simple: an organization that has developed successfully always has a clear and well thought out purpose, which guarantees its continued competitiveness. An organization that is struggling has nearly always lost focus of its mission. Losing that focus can create internal chaos in the organization, and even in the rest of society.

Everyone knows that foundations are meant to do two things: 1) to act as a sponge and take in as much of society’s excess wealth as possible; and 2) to act as a sprinkler system, taking the extra money and spreading it out to those who need it most.

In October of 2009, Lu Sicheng, who had recently resigned from his position at Greenpeace’s China office, was recruited by then secretary-general of the SEE Foundation, Yang Peng, as a “high-ranking expert.” Lu had worked with Greenpeace for many years and had the reputation of a “professional manager.” He had extensive experience in NGO management, working with the environmental movement, and in public advocacy. After just two to three months, this “high-level expert” had completed the adjustment into this new organization, and Yang Peng resigned from the position of secretary-general, leaving Lu to take over. Six months later Lu had to leave his post due to the illness of his father. Nie Xiaohua, the secretary of Liu Xiaoguang, the first president of SEE foundation, and the CEO of the Beijing Capital Group, took Lu’s place as acting secretary-general. When Nie first arrived, he had stated he would work in the position temporarily for three months. Yet it was not until almost a year later that she finally gave up the position to Liu Xiaogang. Liu is also a person with a special reputation, as she had worked in a charity organization similar to SEE, was a member of the SEE Foundation, and after the organization became privately funded, also became a “donor.”

By following the personnel changes of the secretary-general position we discover that from 2004 to 2008 the institution of the SEE Foundation was not very stable. Whether this was due to the constant turnover at the secretary-general level, or because of the strong democratic nature of the board of directors, this instability also created uncertainty in the organization’s decision-making. ((Editor’s Note: SEE is a unique membership association created by a group of entrepreneurs dedicated to environmental protection. These entrepreneurs also sought to run SEE in a democratic manner. Thus the board of directors of both SEE and the SEE Foundation are selected by a general assembly in which SEE’s members have voting rights. For more about SEE’s governance, see the article “The One Foundation and SEE as ‘Shell’ Foundations)) The organization was running out of sync, like a poorly constructed clock. Sometimes, one entrepreneur would take over the Secretariat and push the organization in a certain direction. Other times, a group of entrepreneurs would come together and override the authority of the Secretariat, taking the organization in a completely different direction. ((Editor’s Note: the Secretariat is the administrative body of SEE led by the secretary-general which is the equivalent of an executive director. While board members normally have a say in running the organization, it sounds like SEE’s board members sometimes took matters into their own hands.)) For six or seven years, the Secretariat position has experienced instability, as frequent changes created an atmosphere of unease and fatigue.

Highly experienced members of the philanthropic community that rely on entrepreneurs who believe that with wealth comes privilege, discovered for the first time that if an organization lacks a clear direction, whether because of fear, cowardice, or lack of ability, it will be unable to endure the seemingly democratic forces that are in reality unstable. By depending on these entrepreneurs, the organization is doomed to endure the pain brought on by these disorganized actors.((Editor’s Note: the author seems to be making a plea for a democratically-selected board to allow the secretary-general, who was selected because of her professional management abilities, to run the organization without excessive interference.))

Despite the SEE Foundation’s internal struggles, they have always maintained a relatively clear work plan: to find financial support for China’s environmental movement. They have increasingly expressed their willingness to “learn from environmental folk heroes.” There are a few “donors” who have ambitiously attempted to use funds to promote profound goals such as the “formation of a civil society,” and “the exercise of entrepreneurial democracy”. Generally speaking, however, most donors who have been exposed to the SEE Foundation believe that the best way to encourage and support a healthier environmental movement in China is to provide financial support to the heroic, yet poorly funded organizations that are working on the front lines of environmental protection.

If one were to consider the founding of Liaoning-based Saunder’s Gull Conservation Society, of Panjin City on April 20, 1991 as the formal beginning of China’s grass-roots environmental movement, then Chinese environmental NGOs have a 20 year history of development.   ((Editor’s Note: Environmentalists note that the Saunder’s Gull Conservation Society, not the much better-known Friends of Nature, was China’s first grassroots environmental NGO.)) Over these 20 years, China has seen a surge in the number of heroic environmental NGOs, with the civil society sector accumulating significant experience and accomplishments. When these environmental heroes had the misfortune of running into the SEE Foundation they soon discovered that this organization was transferring its own “learning costs” on to the entire environmental NGO sector. This is to say, every single instance of funding in truth became a process of “sharing the difficulty” (with the NGO being funde). Through the process of working and learning together, everyone fell into an old trap that led to anger and disappointment.

All areas of China’s civil society sector are severely underdeveloped. Nonprofit education, religion, medicine, scientific research, culture, art, charity, and disaster relief sectors are all meager, and all have a strong potential to utilize Chinese societies excess wealth. One can reasonably say that to give funds to any of these sectors is timely and valuable. All of these sectors are in need of strong guidance, and all are worth supporting.

It is therefore unfortunate that this learning cost must be passed on and shared by China’s NGOs. Nearly every government department in China has some sort of grandiose foundation, whose philosophy may be even more confused than the SEE Foundations. There are many examples. A vast majority of workers in these foundations do not have any idea who the most prominent and influential NGO leaders are. Many foundation staff either have a distaste for grant making, or they view potential grantees with hostility. One national environmental foundation to this day claims to do “its own projects,” and just divides up funds among its project officials. Some foundations involved in medical work start projects transporting books. Some poverty relief organizations continue to transfer public donations into government bank accounts. Many foundations are founded with the sole purpose of providing officials with opportunities for promotion, and their funds mostly come from government coffers or private donations that have been coerced through government intimidation. In general, China’s foundations are a poorly organized motley crew that has undertaken all activities under the sun, yet failed in doing the one thing they rightfully should be doing: clearly defining their purpose, which is to provide a clear direction for the public good and wholeheartedly support relevant activities that will allow advances in the public good.

Comparatively speaking, the willingness the SEE Foundation has shown to support grassroots environmental protection deserves respect, and should serve as a model for other private foundations. The SEE Foundation’s public expressions of support and confidence in China’s grass-roots environmental protection institutions should also be emulated by other organizations. Because grass-roots work is a labor of love, if sponsors are suspicious, dislike the goal they are supporting, and sneer at those they sponsor, then it is best for them to not get involved with the work to begin with.

“The One Foundation” is perhaps the organization most likely to have been infected by the SEE Foundation’s style. At the time, the One Foundation’s focus was disaster relief, poverty relief, and aiding less fortunate children. On the surface their goals seemed to be clear, yet within these projects sudden changes would occur, along with small changes in purpose. This may be because a foundation needs a relatively long “learning period” in order to fully mature. Although people who worked with the One Foundation had sufficient experience in the NGO field, when many different forces came together and combined with new societal actors, the process of assimilation was inevitably difficult.

Of course, society must show proper respect for a foundation’s “learning costs.” It takes many years for a person to understand what is in his heart, let alone a private foundation that is entering a period when society is become more diverse and gathering together people of wealth and influence.

One can imagine, the most fundamental reason that Jet Li publicly expressed his disappointment with the One Foundation in 2010 was not just because it was a “special fund” that was dependent on a government-sponsored foundation. (Editor’s Note: The One Foundation was registered in Shanghai as a private foundation, which cannot raise funds publicly. But it did have a “special fund” under the Chinese Red Cross, a GONGO that did have the authority to raise funds publicly. This “special fund” allowed the One Foundation to engage in public fundraising. In September of 2010, Jet Li made the news when he stated that the One Foundation’s three-year contract with the Chinese Red Cross might jeopardize the foundation’s ability to raise funds publicly. His statement was interpreted by many as a sign that the One Foundation might close down unless they were able to register as a public fundraising foundation. Several months later, in January 2011, the One Foundation made news again when it did succeed in registering as a public foundation in Shenzhen where the environment for registering NGOs and foundations has been less restrictive.)  The truth was that he discovered that the whole of China’s NGO community was in the midst of a chaotic period of learning. He hoped to get through this directionless learning period as quickly as possible, but it is not that easy. The start-up capital of the current One Foundation came from five organizations: the One Fund, the Lao Niu Foundation, the Tencent Foundation, the Wanke Foundation, and the Vantone Foundation. Every organization gave seed money of RMB 10 million (US $1.6 million), which when taken together added up to RMB 50 million (US $ 7.9 million). They had already prepared to raise another RMB 50 million to add onto this foundation. (Editor’s Note: The author is using the One Foundation here to make a point about how quickly things are moving in the China foundation world. Foundations are receiving money faster than they know what to do with it. Giving away money is not easy. It requires strong leadership, a clear vision and a professional staff who are versed in the art of effective grant making.)

Getting to the point, foundations, which engage in the “donation business,” belong to the service sector. The will to do the work should come from the organizations receiving the funding, and not from the donors themselves, nor from the donor organizations’ support staff. If the One Foundation used a firm hand to select the direction for its future projects in the same way as the SEE Foundation, and is totally devoted to that direction, then perhaps changing their grant making approach would be the best path to improve their efficiency and thereby receiving industry recognition. If one were to view a private foundation as a marketing company, and the recipient organizations as consumers, then every donation is a process of receiving a consumer evaluation, or an appraisal from society. In China, one rarely finds a private foundation that understands the true meaning of service work. Most staff in donor organizations spend a majority of their time in the office, auditing files, or holding meetings that have little relevance to the main purpose of their organization.

At the very least, the One Foundation has the potential to change the “traditional” donor model – from a model where the donor waits for recipient organizations to apply for projects, to a model where the donor actively identifies and works with the grantee organizations to develop projects,from a model where administrative work would go from 90 percent to 10 percent of the work time. In the current age of increasingly diverse sources of funding, simplifying the process for examining and verifying projects – putting an end to the seemingly endless applications and reports and the dismal process of examining and verifying over and over again – is the most just way of improving efficiency in the project funding process.

In Brief

This article is written by the founder of the environmental NGO, Green Beagle Environmental Institute, and offers a fairly scathing critique of the way in which Chinese foundations carry out their grantmaking work.
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