This is part two of CDB’s interview with Education in Sight’s Yang Jin. You can read part one here.
The last couple of years have been difficult for Education in Sight. Andrew Shirman, one of the charity’s founders, decided to leave for personal reasons and move back to the United States. In addition, the Covid-19 outbreak in late 2019 brought all the organization’s programs to a halt. And even after the pandemic had peaked in China, fresh outbreaks in Yunnan Province during the past two summers interrupted work and the opening of new projects. An earthquake which struck Yangbi in May further disrupted one of its programs.
“I had thought 2020 would be a key year for Education in Sight,” said Yang Jin, the organization’s secretary-general. “In terms of our field programs, we had already managed to connect with several towns in Yunnan and had signed contracts to provide services to them. But the closure of schools during the pandemic meant that the work had to cease. “Honestly speaking, there were times when I thought that the organization might not survive.”
However, Education in Sight has survived and its programs have managed to run normally this year – not that its staff were idle during the pandemic. Some internal changes have taken place and the team has come up with a number of creative ideas.
“For the first time in our history, we have got six people in the office!” Yang proclaimed. “So this year we have been focusing on teambuilding and staff training. We have arranged courses on program management and professional optometry skills. Five of our staff are now able to work as opticians in the field.”
In terms of programs, Education in Sight has had a few breakthroughs too. With going into schools not an option anymore, Yang and her team decided to concentrate on children and the elderly in urban communities. After applying for the charity’s first government purchase service program, the organization was able to set up a small community center named “Love Eyes House” in a neighbourhood of Kunming’s Airport Economic Development Zone, providing advice on eyecare and the importance of regular check-ups and organizing workshops to help both children and their parents understand how to look after their eyes and deal with vision problems.
“Sometimes, charities are put off from applying for service programs, as the process can be tedious. But we hope it can make our services known to the government, and help us to advocate for more attention to be paid to vision problems in children. We also would like the government to provide more support to organizations and programs focusing on this issue.”
In addition to programs supported by government funding, Education in Sight has also applied to operate service programs run by other organizations aiming to help protect children’s vision. Years of experience in rural Yunnan has enabled its staff to develop the charity’s promotion materials, something they now help other organizations with. Education in Sight has also helped train workers from other charities, and has trained school staff, healthcare professionals and opticians in Yunnan for a while. In Yang’s opinion, the charity can’t hope to meet the huge demand for glasses, hence it is vital to educate both children and their parents or guardians and search for local partners. “We can provide a child with a pair of glasses for free, but after we leave, they will need to go for regular check-ups and change their glasses once every few years. So children have to get support from local organizations as well as their family members.”
Yang’s work over the past seven years has kept her very busy, but her level of engagement has given her a deep sense of what is required when running a charitable program. She feels that there is considerable crossover between the charity and private sectors and that many of the skills she picked up in business have proven useful in her current role. “Ideally, charitable organizations should be more productive and have better quality management teams. So it would be good to see more people from business backgrounds sharing their skills and experiences.”
The consequences of poor management and human resources issues have harmed many charitable organizations – and staff turnover is often high. Attracting and retaining talent remains a real problem in the sector.
Currently, Education in Sight has the largest full-time team it has ever had – and the organization wants to keep it that way. “We sometimes invite consultants and experienced managers to give us training and recommendations on current programs and team development,” said Yang. “The most important question is ‘who are we serving?’ It is common to have multiple stakeholders in one program, but we need to be clear who the key service recipients are throughout the program. In this area, charitable organizations have much to learn from the private sector.”
However, when it comes to fundraising, there is less to learn from business. Raising money remains problematic for most Chinese charities, and Education in Sight is no exception. As an organization that is not eligible to raise public funds, it cannot collect money like a registered company. To meet its funding needs, it has to rely on donations from foundations or promote its programs under organizations that have permission to hold public fundraising events. But with more corporate foundations now running their own programs, donations are often channelled into those programs first. Events such as the 9/9 Charity Day are helpful, but Yang revealed that it has become more difficult in recent years for small organizations to receive funds from the initiative – something which she expects to change in the future. For now, the organization must rely on online donations and private companies for the bulk of its funding.
For Education in Sight, the lingering effects of the pandemic present the charity with an uncertain future.
“In the coming two or three years, we will continue providing children with free glasses. As most of our programs are in Yunnan, next year we hope to expand our services to neighboring provinces, perhaps even to suburban Beijing. Considering the services we provide, we will try to extend our support from correcting refractive errors to helping children with amblyopia, cataracts and strabismus, as well as arranging surgery for those who need it. We understand that this extension of services will require us to spend more time on different individual cases and so our team has to be more professional and efficient.”
Meanwhile, the team at Education in Sight is keen to share their experiences and knowledge with others working in the sector. “There are many organizations working to help protect children’s eyes in China. If they’re interested in running eye protection programs and think our model can serve as a guide for them, we are more than happy to share what we have in the form of training, resources and discussions.”
Yang believes that now is the time to work harder to promote the organization’s programs and find other charities to help with its work, ideally through media coverage. “We need to find partners to help us ensure that vision problems in rural children are getting noticed and all children get the eyecare that they need.”