Our Registration Story: the Ford Foundation

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Editor’s Note

This article was originally published by the Center for Charity Law (CCL) at the China Philanthropy Research Institute (CPRI) of Beijing Normal University. See the original here.



The Law of the People s Republic of China on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in the Mainland of China (ONGO Law) came into effect on January 1st 2017, and since then, its implementation has garnered significant attention from ONGOs and other stakeholders. In the past months, many ONGOs have successfully registered their representative offices with public security departments across the country. The successful registration of representative offices is a joint effort relying on the cooperation of many forces.


The Center of Charity Law (CCL) at the China Philanthropy Research Institute (CPRI) is holding a series of interviews with the Chief Representatives of successfully registered ONGOs to better understand their unique experiences and extract meaningful and transferable practices for the larger ONGO Law community to learn from and enable a smoother implementation of the law.

Our first interview is conducted with Ms. Elizabeth Knup, Chief Representative of the China Office of the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation successfully completed the registration of their Representative Office at the Beijing Public Security Bureau on June 30th 2017.


The Ford Foundation’s Story in China

The Ford Foundation is an international NGO. We have our headquarters in New York and 10 offices around the world. Our mission is to help realize a world where the maximum number of people participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and the maximum number of people benefit from the economic and social development of the countries where they live.

In China, the Ford Foundation focuses on three aspects: poverty alleviation in the context of urbanization, strengthening and internationalizing the philanthropic sector and “China and the world”.

China now is focusing on reducing rural poverty by 2020.  Most researchers and policy makers are focusing on rural poverty. We have found that some people are thinking about the possible future emergence of urban poverty and we we would like to help these researchers and policymakers start to understand that possibility and to think about solutions before the challenges get too severe.

The second part of our strategy is around strengthening the philanthropic sector in China and supporting the internationalization of Chinese philanthropy. By this we mean supporting global engagement by actors in China’s philanthropy sector with international counterparts. For this work we can contribute both  financial support and knowledge exchange.

The third part of the strategy has its roots in our historic work on China-US relations.We are expanding beyond China and the US, and looking into more about China and the rest of the world. We will be looking at the Belt and Road Initiative. In addition, Ford’s global footprint includes other countries in the global south. We will look broadly at China’s engagement with the world. This strategy is still in development as we look for areas where Ford can make a unique contribution.

The Ford Foundation began its work related to China in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s by funding the establishment of centers of Chinese Studies at major American universities, including Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Michigan. Because of this early investment, at the time of the normalization of China-US relations the Ford Foundation was in a strong position to begin supporting work directly in the PRC. In 1988 we opened an office in China in partnership with CASS.

The Foundation witnessed China’s Opening and Reform. During this time China was opening up to the outside world and was learning and adapting ideas from around the world.  From 1985 to 1995, the Foundation invested in strengthening the field of economics. We supported Chinese students to study economics, either by traveling abroad or from faculty we supported to come to China to teach. The Ford Foundation, we believe, made an important contribution to China’s  “opening and reform” efforts.  (改革开放 ).

Around the time of the United Nations’ World Conference on Women (1995), we added work on women’s issues and sexual health and reproductive rights. We also added work on sustainable development related to natural resources, and then finally education. Each new area of work reflected changing needs identified by our Chinese partners and the Chinese government. We were able to identify these emerging needs and areas of interest because  we have a strong program team on the ground. Our program officers routinely engage with Chinese partners, the government, think tanks and researchers, and try to understand what contributions Ford can make to important issues of the time.

Based on this approach to listening and responding to partners on the ground, we are now increasing our support for the Chinese philanthropic sector, and for work related to China’s role in the world. In these two areas, it is now not so much about bringing in ideas and resources, but it’s about taking China’s experience and sharing it out. So I think that’s where we are headed.


Pre-ONGO Law

The Ford Foundation opened its office in China in 1988 and we have been compliant with the relevant Chinese laws and regulations since that time. Of course, there were few laws and regulations in 1988. As the regulatory environment became increasingly mature, Ford continued to adjust its operations as required.  For Ford, the 2016 ONGO Law is just one more step in the development of China’s regulatory environment for overseas NGOs and we have, as in the past, complied.

During the drafting of the law, we paid very close attention. When the second draft came out, we submitted our comments through the public portal and through other channels.


Registration Process

The law was formally published in April 2016.  Along with other ONGOs, the real work of registering under the law began when the list of  professional supervisory units (PSUs) and the catalog of fields and projects were published in December. But even prior to beginning the specific work of identifying a PSU, we focused our effort to  make sure that key stakeholders understood the Ford Foundation’s history in China, our commitment to China, and the contributions we have made. Our President and Vice President came to China and met with different stakeholders. We have an extremely supportive headquarters that helped facilitate our work.

China is not the only country where the Ford Foundation is trying to navigate new laws and regulations. And frankly, the process in China has been clearer than in some other countries.  The law was drafted and released for public comments, and then revised based on those comments. The process has been predictable. Many of the requirements are clear.

When the PSU list and the catalog of fields and projects came out, we noticed that CASS was not on the list of PSUs, so the next thing we needed to do was to find a new PSU. The second thing that we noticed was that the catalog of fields and projects included most of our areas of work, but it was hard to see how they would all fit under one PSU. So I think the biggest challenge for the Ford Foundation was that our work cuts across many of the Major Areas of Work ( 大领域  ) outlined under the law. We identified some PSUs that might fit and wrote to them, but none could catch everything that we did. While we looked for a suitable PSU, we continued our strategy of engaging with stakeholders and talking about registration; we wanted to be sure that our intention to be compliant and our strong commitment to China were clear.

Eventually, we were able to connect with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), and they became our PSU. And once CPAFFC was identified, it all went quite smoothly, and we got registered on June 30th 2017.

CPAFFC is a very suitable PSU for the Ford Foundation because they also work across a wide range of areas, and they have relationships with countries all over the world.

We want to thank the public security authorities for their creativity and flexibility. And, we also want to thank CPAFFC. They have taken on an important responsibility under the ONGO law. They are the PSU for several NGOs and they have embraced their responsibility with professionalism, efficiency, and humility.


Looking Forward

Under the ONGO law, the role of the PSU is new. In the past, host organizations did not have explicit legal responsibility for oversight of ONGOs. We are all (ONGOs and PSUs) in a “new normal”. So, we need to learn about each other, and this is a process that requires patience. We need to build trust. We need to build confidence. I have had good conversations with CPAFFC. We talk almost everyday. We are making progress towards figuring out how we will work together.  I’m eager  to make some grants this year, and they’re eager to make sure that the processes are correct. I’m quite confident that over time the working process will become regularized.

I am very grateful for CPAFFC willing to become our PSU. We have to recognize that PSUs are stepping up in a really important way.One really important message is that other PSUs should recognize that it is possible to step up. It’s possible to take a chance.

There are a few things that I hope can be explored and clarified. There are important differences between ONGOs that directly implement projects and those that make grants to financially support organzations to implement projects. These are differences in terms of what constitutes an “activitity” and also in terms of operations. I hope that these differences can be reflected in future implementing regulations.

I think that it is reasonable for any government to seek to regulate the NGO sector operating in its country. When these laws are implemented in a fair, transparent and consistent way the laws have the potential to be a positive tool for regulation.

This law is part of China’s ongoing development of a set of laws to govern its society. And over twenty years living in China, I have seen many new laws come on the books, so I think in that sense, this is a very normal process. I also think China has a relatively open approach to seeking public input into its laws. Some people were thinking that this law would not have that public input opportunity, but it did. I think that was a very important moment that underscores China’s commitment to a legal drafting process with public input. That is positive.

I think that future implementing regulations will be very important to help us understand how this law will be understood, interpreted and implemented throughout the system, from the national level to the local level.  Transparency and consistency of implementation are important to allow the PSUs to do their jobs and to allow the ONGOs to do theirs.

Also, I think small organizations are just as important as large organizations in terms of contributing to China’s development, internationalization and developing an ecosystem. I hope that the new regulatory environment can accommodate the little ones, in the same way that they can accommodate the big ones.

I think there are a few lessons. First, I think proactiveness is key. Since January 1st 2017, my job everyday was to push the rock up the hill just a little bit. If I could do one thing everyday — talk to somebody, go to a meeting, learn something…  Every single day — that was my goal. I think that if we hadn’t demonstrated our positive desire then our Chinese stakeholders may not have understood our commitment to operating in China.

Second, I think we need to have an openness to engage with government authorities, and I think this lesson is particularly applicable to ONGOs who are either not registered in China or don’t know where to start. Government authorities are actually really helpful. They are surprisingly open, flexible and oriented to problem-solving. That’s a really important transferable lesson to take away.

I’ve also learnt patience is a huge asset. Again, I think it is important to bring good faith to the process. I think it’s often easy for people to project that the law is negative. But the only way this is going to work is that we all bring our best faith forward. The public security authorities, the PSUs, the ONGOs, and everybody needs to come forward with the best intentions, and together to make it work for everybody.


About the Representative Elizabeth Knup

Elizabeth Knup is Chief Representative for the Ford Foundation in China, overseeing all grant-making and the Foundation’s operations in the country from the office in Beijing. Elizabeth focuses her programmatic work on strengthening the philanthropic sector, impact investing, and China-U.S. relations.

Elizabeth has focused her career on developing stronger ties between China and the rest of the world in the education, not-for-profit, and business sectors.The early part of her career focused on strengthening the capacity of social organizations and working on expanding educational opportunities in China. She spent the decade from 1988-98 at the National Committee on US-China Relations focusing on the Committee’s work in education, environment, and social development. In 1998 Elizabeth moved to Nanjing, China where she served as the American Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies where she oversaw the establishment of the Center’s Institute for International Relations and a summer immersion Chinese language program. Upon moving to Beijing she joined Kamsky Associates, a business strategy and investment advisory firm. Most recently Elizabeth simultaneously served as chief representative of Pearson PLC, one of the world’s foremost education and publishing companies and president of Pearson Education in China.

Elizabeth currently serves on the boards of the National Committee on US-China Relations and the Institute for Sustainable Communities where she serves on the Governance Committee and as Board Secretary. Earlier she served on the board of the Capacity Building and Assessment Center (CBAC), Global Environment Institute (GEI) and the Lingnan Foundation, a supporter of education initiatives in southern China. She also served on the boards of the American Chamber of Commerce and the British Chamber of Commerce, both in Beijing.

Elizabeth has a master’s degree from the University of Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Middlebury College.


In Brief

An interview with Elizabeth Knupp, the Ford Foundation’s chief representative in China, about the Ford Foundation’s experience registering in China under the Overseas NGO Law and its future plans in the country.
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