NGO Projects Don’t Have to be Flashy

Editor’s Note: three years ago, Yang Yuanze joined the newly established Dunhe Foundation. Having witnessed this foundation’s fast growth, he developed his own insights on foundation management, project funding, and the development of the NGO sector. Yuanze believes that there are two major challenges when foundations cooperate with their grassroots partners:“NGOs are less problem-oriented and more resource-oriented, while project officers in grant-making foundations lack hands-on experience and professional capacity.” From the perspective of the foundations providing the grants, he provides his solution: “Employ the foundations’ resources to identify problems and the partners’ needs, and achieve mutual growth.”

Before joining the Dunhe Foundation in July 2012, Yang Yuanze followed his parents’ wishes and worked briefly in a bank after graduating from university in 2010. He might have led a stable yet ordinary career, had he not joined the NGO sector. The idea of a career in the NGO sector was something he developed when he was in university.

Yuanze was born in Xinchang, Shaoxing City in Zhejiang Province. Being an independent and critical thinker, Yuanze took full advantage of his abundant spare time as an undergraduate student in Nanjing, reading extensively about history and culture as well as traveling and exploring the world. Concepts such as civil society, philanthropy and universal values entered his mind when he browsed websites such as China Development Brief or NGOCN and attended relevant lectures.

When Yuanze quit his job at the bank, he did not have many options in Zhejiang since the local NGO sector is still very new. It was at that point that Yuanze, with only a vague idea about the NGO sector, encountered the Dunhe Foundation at its start-up stage. After entering the foundation, what he did most was to visit and learn from the NGO tycoons with his colleagues.

NGO practitioners in China often face pressure from their family members, even if they work in relatively “high-end” foundations. Yuanze’s parents, who are both employees of state owned enterprises, find it very difficult to understand his “reckless” behavior. Yuanze strives to ease his parents’ concerns, showing them photos of himself with well-known businessmen at Dunhe events. Meanwhile, he seeks empathy and compassion from his parents by telling them the stories of the vulnerable. Although his parents still want him to return to the bank, they are much less opposed to his job in the NGO sector than they used to be.

During his three years at the Dunhe Foundation, Yuanze witnessed its fast development. July 2013 was the turning point for the foundation. One year’s exploration gave the council, the secretariat and the project officers a clear strategy for funding. Yuanze feels that there has been a fundamental change of views regarding Dunhe’s targeting problems, and the backgrounds and nature of these problems. Their annual funding rose dramatically from 10 million to 90 million RMB, and then to 100 million in 2015. As a result, Dunhe’s impact in the sector is quickly increasing. The number of staff members also increased from 12 to 20 in 2015.

As a front-line grant-providing officer, Yuanze feels very much a part of the decision-making and management process, although he realizes it may still need improvement. In November 2014, the Dunhe Foundation launched its “Seed Fund” project and planed to provide 3 million RMB to several foundations respectively. His recommended foundations, which were not originally on the funding list, were soon approved.

Another example of project officers’ participation in Dunhe’s decision-making is the project application process. Many NGOs contact the secretary general directly and expect favourable consideration of their projects. The secretary general will then refer it to the relevant project officer. Yuanze will process all the projects according to procedure, despite the NGOs connections with the secretary general. Dunhe eventually established an internal principle: to treat all projects equally regardless of the referee.

Nevertheless, Yuanze also has concerns regarding the fast-developing Dunhe foundation and the NGO sector all round. Without sufficient staff, Yuanze, an officer in charge of providing grants, also had to deal with administrative matters and recruitment until recently, when an HR manger was finally hired and a clear division of responsibilities was introduced. He has little chance to closely observe the foundation’s NGO partners or the social problems in the community, and the follow-up evaluations are insufficient. Moreover, there are few opportunities to communicate with fellow grant-making officers and there is not enough training and useful tools on project management, evaluation, and problem identification. Despite these problems, Yuanze has project officer Wu Junjun from the Zhenro Foundation as a close friend and Chang Jiang from the Bridge Plan as a mentor, with whom he can share his concerns and insights.

Within the Dunhe Foundation, the secretary general is mainly focused on achieving strategic plans on the sectorial level and communicates with project officers only via emails or wechat rather than face-to-face. He provides little support for their career development. There is an urgent need to develop an efficient communication channel between the secretary general, who gears the foundation in the right direction, and the frontline project officers in their busy daily operations.

The number of staff at Dunhe’s NGO supporting department, in which Yuanze works, has risen to five people. Yet, the pressure grows due to the incompetence of the grant-providing officers and the weak basis of the grant-receiving grassroots NGOs. The intricate relationship between foundations and their partner grassroots NGOs is a long-lasting issue, and Yuanze has also had several disagreements with the NGOs he works with.

Yuanze was in charge of a small grant scheme for local NGOs in Zhejiang. The first round of grant making occurred in November and the second round started in March. Although aware of the underdeveloped situation of the local NGO sector, Yuanze was still astonished by the local NGOs, few of which were qualified for long term cooperation. He is satisfied with only about a third of the NGOs, since some fail to follow their agreements and it is not uncommon to find extremely inaccurate numbers in their reports. The limited expertise is understandable but the lack of a rigorous attitude is unbearable for Yuanze, especially compared to the strict supervision principles and procedures of the bank where Yuanze used to work.

“Whose needs should the projects meet, those of the NGOs, the volunteers or the service receivers?” It is a simple question. Yet many organizations fail to answer it correctly. They are resource-oriented and display a certain fickleness. Their proposals are superficial and they have a muddled way of solving problems. Some NGOs complain about the lack of resources and the bad environment while other NGOs from the same area facing the same situation can focus on analyzing and solving their problems. Yuanze thus sees a huge gap between different NGOs.

Nevertheless, Yuanze is very excited about the positive changes in the organizations with which he cooperates. One of them is an environmental protection organization, specializing in recycling household waste. The founder has been categorizing waste for half a year with his own hands. The volunteers are very much touched by this and have started to join him. But the founder hopes that more volunteers will come to share the organization’s values rather than just admiring him. At the same time, he has turned down quite a few governmental venture capital investments in order to remain in his community. He believes that only those who live in the community can solve the problems of the community. When facing social problems, NGO projects do not have to be high-end. Focusing on a small and specific problem can also demonstrate the professionalism of an organization.

Yuanze believes that, thanks to his few years of experience, he can solve problems with more tolerance and from a more practical perspective. When in university, he was both impassioned and cynical. Now, however, he is in course to becoming a professional NGO practitioner who can promote the development of NGOs and solve social problems by working in a foundation.

“The Dunhe foundation aims to support the NGO sector and promote its development. As a front-line officer in charge of giving grants, what do you think are the core problems and challenges, judging from the current situation of the sector?” Yuanze looks at this wide-ranging question from two angles. Firstly, NGOs are resource-oriented rather than problem-oriented. Secondly, the officers providing the grants lack hands-on experiences and capacity. Yuanze offers his solution from the perspective of a grant-making foundation:“employing the foundation’s resources to identify problems and partners’ needs, and achieve mutual growth.” This reflects the role of the Dunhe Foundation in guiding and accompanying the development of the NGO sector.

Next year Yuanze plans to upgrade his projects, enhancing grassroots NGOs’ understanding of social problems and their targeting of specific groups as well as improving the feasibility of their action plans. Furthermore, Dunhe has initiated a round-table forum with the Narada Foundation, the Zhenro Foundation and the China Merchants Charitable Foundation. It will also fund other supportive NGO platforms for the capacity building of grassroots NGOs.

For this 28 year old NGO practitioner, the potential and the promising prospects of the Dunhe Foundation are particularly attractive. He strongly desires to improve his professional expertise.

Grant-making Principles for Foundations:

-“Excellent NGOs are not necessarily well-known.”
-“Large scale is not a must. Some NGOS are small and beautiful”
-“Those who excel in using professional terminology may not be the most professional. Elite NGO practitioners may be able to write excellent project proposals, but cannot provide feasible solutions for social problems.”
-“Funding should be problem-oriented and not resource-oriented. Choose grassroots partners not according to their scale, but by their answers to the questions “what type of services do you want to provide?”and “what kind of problems do you want to solve?”
-“A diligent and rigorous attitude is the basis of an NGO.”

In Brief

A project officer in the Dunhe Foundation looks back at his three years working for this Foundation. He describes how the organization has grown since he first joined, but he also bemoans some of the problems he has encountered, which are due to both the immaturity of the sector and the inadequacy of many of the NGOs which receive the Foundation’s grants.
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