Returning from Abroad to Work in China’s NGO Sector

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Editor’s Note:

In the NGO sector it is not common to find an individual like V, whose resume includes so many impressive words -“foundation”, “overseas education”, “interdisciplinary experience”. Following her dream of working in the NGO sector, V joined a private fund-raising foundation (which we will refer to as Foundation Y from now on) when she returned to China from overseas. During her time working in foundation Y, she has witnessed its shift from being an operational foundation that organizes projects itself to being a grant-making foundation, and how its requirements towards project officers and their organizational capacity have changed. The examples she offers regarding communication between project officers and management also vividly demonstrate the significance of front-line project officers’ participation in the decision making process. For the future, V harbors another dream, which is establishing a social enterprise to deal with a challenging social problem –the integration of Africans into the local community in the area between Guangzhou and Foshan.

In a new sector like the one of charity foundations, people with overseas experience are rare. The concept of interdisciplinarity being very popular at the moment, V completed a double degree in Sweden in both Entrepreneurship and Sustainable Leadership, the two majors respectively covering business entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship. V found she prefers the latter, and while in Sweden she participated in numerous volunteering activities regarding gender equality and the rights of people who live with HIV/AIDS. After going back to China, in order to continue along this meaningful path that she had chosen, V joined a non-public fund-raising foundation with a business background in Guangzhou. Employing the knowledge in project design and management gained from her overseas study, V quickly adapted to daily work in the foundation.

Among all the projects that she has worked on for her foundation, V is most satisfied with a school library project she once carried out. At first the project was limited to receiving donations of ‘hardware’, and many of the books were just lying on the shelves, collecting dust. However the foundation later designed the Reading Bank Plan, according to which every child would be granted a small wish every time they read ten books and provided matching reading notes. The project also included an annual evaluation of the teachers who serve in the library, in order to encourage their participation and thus give rise to a positive cycle. V enjoys the sense of achievement she has got from working in foundation Y.

With Change come Doubts and Expectations

​Foundation Y is currently in transition. The founder hopes that it can become a private family foundation and break off from its original enterprise and industry. He canceled the original registration and re-registered it as a new foundation, focusing on culture, the arts, education, social innovation, poverty alleviation and disaster relief. V and her colleagues have just transferred in mass to the new foundation.

V has now worked in foundation Y for three years. Since the transition the foundation has had more capital and resources, and focuses on local community development in Shunde, Foshan. Since V is from Foshan herself, she is very excited about the foundation’s future.

Even though she is confident of her own expertise, V still has some concerns about the transition. Foundation Y has gone from being an operational foundation, which conducts its own projects, to a grant-making foundation, which has higher demands on program officers regarding their understanding of problems and their choice of partners. Compared to her previous work, like distributing scholarships and donating books for libraries, the new work generates a lot more pressure.

​ ​“Having an operational foundation requires discovering problems and finding the solutions on your own. This is relatively simple. Now we have to push our partners to find the problems themselves and employ their own expertise to solve them. This is a more difficult process.” This is V’s view of the differences between operational and grant-making foundations.

“Since we, the foundation, hold the money and the ‘power’, some of our grant-receiving partners strive to always follow our advice. Yet I believe that since they are the on the front-line, they have a better awareness of the existing local problems. Our advice may not be practical sometimes.” V feels a bit puzzled when she works and builds up a relationship with her partners. Most of these young teams are enthusiastic and have plenty of ideas. But they lack insight into social problems. V wants to avoid turning grant-making into simple service purchase. Enhancing partners’ initiative and capacity should be one of the priorities for a grant-making officer. Apart from funding, resource development and capacity building are vital as well. V is currently still exploring methods to cope with the changes and new requirements. She believes that seeking help from within the sector is an effective method. She and her fellow project officers are in urgent need of training, learning tours and exchange, yet there are not many such opportunities in practice.

Calling for a Sector Supporting Platform

In preparation for Y’s transition, V visited several foundations in different cities during 2014. Due to her haste she could only acquire some basic information, without having any in-depth discussions. The China Private Foundation Forum conducted training for front-line project officers for the first time this year. V did not sign up in order to take care of her little baby. But V’s colleague’s application to participate in the training was rejected by the foundation due to her heavy workload. It is also because of the heavy workload that communication between project officers is superficial. V believes that foundation project officers have a common need for a platform within the foundation sector where senior officers can share their experiences and provide guidance.

Many assume that foundations have sufficient resources and manpower for a professional division of labor. But this is hardly the case in reality. In foundation Y, project officers are conducting administrative/media tasks alongside project management, supervision and evaluation. Due to these trivial administrative tasks, project officers cannot find the time to simplify the application forms, establish an evaluation system or conduct other essential work. This has also affected internal communication within the foundation.

Communication and Decision-making

Regarding project officer’s participation in decision-making, V gives a 3.5/5.0 score to her own foundation. There are two regular meetings of all the employees each year, where they discuss the problems facing the organization and future plans. Project officers can put forward their suggestions in these meetings. V’s suggestion on narrowing the scope of the foundation’s focus for the three-year transition plan was made in one of these meetings and later adopted. However, in daily operations, project officer’s participation in decision-making is quite limited. As V laments, the secretary general often works on a major project in a different location from the project officers. Communication with him is maintained mainly through phone calls and emails, to which he cannot promptly respond.

Generally, differences in vision and in the understanding of front line information can lead to disagreements between the management (the secretary general) and the project officers. Following is an example V gives. One of the foundation’s local funding projects was entering its second year, and the project officers, based on their first-hand experience, wanted to continue using the mechanism employed during the first year: foundation Y, as the host, publicly invites its partner and manages it, evaluating the outcome of projects and fixing problems. But the secretary general had more ambitious ideas and insisted to help the partner organization establish a new foundation in order to attract more resources from different channels and support more NGOs. However, when faced with realities such as the underdevelopment of the local NGO sector and the high communication costs with the government, the plan was scrapped. Thus, foundation Y eventually decided to go back to using the original mechanism. It can be seen how, due to disagreements on the approach to follow, the front-line project officers’ suggestions were not initially adopted and the project deviated from its path.

“Our leader (the secretary general) is rather circumspect and serious. Thus, communication with him is smooth if he is in a good mood. If not, we do not dare to express our ideas. This has affected the morale of the team, made up mainly of young team members who need a stimulating environment and encouragement.” Very often the results of communication with him are not satisfactory. It is not uncommon that the secretary general disagrees on things that all the project officers agree upon. From V’s point of view, the hurdle lies in his personal character.

​Foundation Y has sufficiently empowered the project officers in project implementation. The secretary general however sometimes asks the project officers to modify their project proposal according to his thoughts. V reckons that if the organization employed a project-based responsibility system and a more horizontal management mechanism, there would be more opportunities for conversations on an equal footing between the secretary general and the project officers.

The salary is an important factor for foundation project officers. Foundations often offer above-average salaries for the NGO sector, with a regular annual rise. V is quite satisfied in this regard. But this year there is a difference: she has just returned to her full-time position from maternity leave. “Due to the change in the time and effort I put into this position, the foundation believes that I contribute less than before.” Therefore, this year’s annual salary rise will be slightly lower. V is not entirely happy about this, but it hasn’t affected her general feelings towards the job.

Regarding future development, V does not have a clear long-term plan yet. However, she is very interested in the integration of Africans into the local community in the area between Guangzhou and Foshan. Foundation Y will not address this issue because it does not fit in with its mission. Thus, once she has gained sufficient experience and resources, V would like to establish her own social enterprise in order to deal with this social problem.


In Brief

After gaining her degree in Sweden, a Chinese girl followed her passion for the NGO sector and joined a private foundation in China. She tells us about the doubts and expectations she went through while the foundation shifted from operating projects itself to providing grants.
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