Summary of the CDB Report on Frontline Project Officers in Private Foundations

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China Development Brief released the “Chinese Private Foundation Frontline Project Officers Research Report” at the 7th annual meeting of the China Private Foundation Forum (CPFF) on November 30th. The report’s findings indicate that frontline project officers in private foundations share many of the typical characteristics of all workers in the public welfare sector. These include the fact that women constitute the majority of the workforce, and many see their job as their career. Frontline project officers also have some distinguishing features though, such as good educational backgrounds, high incomes, and not being deterred by the lack of public recognition. They may have questions regarding the direction of their career development but unlike typical public welfare sector workers, they focus more on personal growth, the improvement of their professional skills and self-realization. They also have a strong desire to see reforms in the management system and the policies of private foundations.


Basic profile

More than half of the officers are women born in the 1980s

Out of the 124 project officers from 102 private foundations surveyed, 70 were female, making up 56.45% of the total. Within the “cooperative foundation camp” (a training project for frontline officers that we followed and researched), there are 20 female trainees (students) out of a total of 30 people. This data shows that even within private foundations there is a clear majority of female employees. However, the report shows that among the 30 people in the camp, only 2 were familiar with gender-related social issues. Due to the lack of this knowledge, researchers also found that there were cases where the project officers had difficulty solving some frontline issues.

In terms of age distribution among the project officers, the report shows that 56.45% of the officers were born in the 80s, and 8.06% were born in the 90s. Together they make up 64.51%, or close to 2/3 of all project officers.

Most are well educated, and have held their jobs for less than five years

The report finds that more than half of the project officers (54.84%) have a bachelor’s degree as their highest qualification. The number reaches as high as 86.29% if we include masters and doctorate’s degree holders. Another 10.48% of the officers hold a college diploma. Only 3.23% of the project officers have a high school diploma or below.

Out of the project officers, most have been employed for 2-5 years (46.77%) in their foundation. Another 34.68% of the project officers have worked in their foundation for less than 2 years. In total, over 4/5 or 81.45% of project officers have worked in their foundation for less than 5 years.

Among the employed project officers, 57.26% see their work in foundations as their career.

80% of the paid project officers have incomes equal to or greater than the average income

More than a quarter (26.61%) of the project officers working at foundations are not paid. Out of the 91 paid officers surveyed, 51 (56.04%) have an income equal to the average income of their respective cities. Another 21 officers (23.08%) have an income at least 30% higher than the average income of their respective cities. In combination, these two groups total up to almost 80% of the paid officers surveyed.


Private foundations’ internal administration and decision-making

The Participation of project officers is limited to the project level

Out of the 124 project officers surveyed, 122 of them (98.39%) believe that frontline personnel should have the right to participate in decision-making involving the foundation’s structure and projects. In reality however, most project officers are only involved in specific projects. Only 43.55% and 39.52% participate in their foundations’ strategic policy formation and management, respectively.

More than 60% of project officers have difficulty communicating with decision-makers

The report shows that only 39.52% of the project officers claim that as of now, they have no communication problems with their foundation’s decision makers. What is the main cause of the lack of effective communication between the other 60% of the project officers and the decision-makers? 41.13% of the project officers claim it is due to their own skills and views. They believe that project officers and-decision makers have differences in their views and skills. 39.52% of the project officers believe it has to do with the style of management within the foundations. Finally, the other 20.16% of the project officers think that the operations within the foundations lack standardization, transparency and procedure.


Career development and training expectations

90% of project officers have doubts regarding their career development and job prospects

When it comes to personal career development, only 9.68% of the interviewees claimed to not have any questions or doubts regarding their careers. Close to 60% (58.06%) believe that they lack professional training in project management or in evaluation. Almost half (48.39%) think that it is very difficult for them to see the broader views of the public welfare sector or analyze topics related to public welfare. 41.13% of the public officers see a lack of career advancement within the sector. A third (33.06%) of the officers feel there is a lack of platforms to allow frontline project officers to share and communicate among themselves. Apart from this, 12.9% say it is difficult to achieve self-actualization and a small portion (6.45%) says that they are troubled with the lack of support and understanding from their families and the public.

The training currently available within the industry is not up to par

Participation in training is a crucial part of the career development of project officers, but the report finds that the current training within the industry is not up to par. The following is a report on the training of project officers:

  • Over the past two years almost one third (27.42%) of the project officers have never participated in any professional skills trainings inside or outside of their workplace
  • Among the 90 officers who participated in training, only 58.89% expressed satisfaction with it
  • 84% of the project officers said they were too busy to attend trainings; 34.68% of the project officers claimed that they have attended similar trainings in the past but found them to be ineffective
  • 48% of the project officers believe that it would be a much better learning experience if they could visit mature and leading organizations within the industry and learn from their first hand experiences
  • 71% of the project officers are more interested in lectures given by experienced professionals and managers in the field of public welfare than lectures given by other trainers


Compensation satisfaction and job change plans

Half of project officers are not satisfied with their current compensation

Compensation is a key topic in the public welfare sector. In the report project officers who are unsatisfied with their salary slightly outnumbered those who are satisfied, by 63 to 61.

87% of project officers wish for a raise

When asked a question regarding a salary raise, only seven people (5.65%) said they were satisfied with their current salary and do not need a raise. Nine project officers (7.26%) chose “other reasons”, such as not receiving a salary from their foundation, the pay not mattering or never having thought about salary at all. Other than the two groups of people mentioned above, who constitute only 12.91% of the total sample, the remaining 87.09% are all hoping for a pay raise.

Only 20% of project officers are sure that they will receive a pay raise within a year

Even though there is hope of having a pay raise, 46.77% of the project officers stated that they do not know whether there will be one in the comping year within their foundations. A clear compensation policy is one of the signs of transparency within the internal administration of foundations. Another 32.26% of the officers are certain they will not receive a raise. Only 27.97% are positive that there will be a raise.

Over 80% of project officers are not planning on changing jobs

When questioned on whether they have plans to change jobs, most of the officers claim that they have not made any. Only 20 of those surveyed (16.13%) are planning to change their jobs. Out of these 20. 11 said that they were leaving because the salary is too low, nine officers claimed not to agree with the management style in their foundation, six people said it is difficult to start work and another six said it is too stressful and there is a lack of engagement. Only three want to leave because of lack of support from their families.


See full report in Chinese here.


Appendix: changes project officers wish to see in the administration of their foundations and the development of the sector

The report gathered responses from more than 30 frontline officers via open-ended questions.

In terms of participation in decision-making and administrations within the foundation, project officers are hoping there will be a more comprehensive foundation system and that the project officers will have more autonomy. More specific recommendations include: “optimizing regulations, strict implementation of management rules”, “creating a clear communication channel and platform”, “adopting a flat organizational structure, granting the implementer sufficient authority once a decision has been made, and increasing communication to avoid conflicts”, “one person having the power to approve and veto a project hinders the development of the organization”, “hope the frontline workers can have more autonomy”, “working groups and the decision-makers do not share the same clear view of the organization’s goal and the definition of their authority. Clear divisions in organizational management and related responsibilities has a significant impact on operations” and “letting the project officers get involved in decision-making as it helps with operations, support and evaluations, leading to better results”.

In regards to the operation of foundations and the development of the sector, the project officers made some suggestions. Some pointed out the current problems and difficulties faced by private foundations. Observations include “it is difficult to raise money for the foundation”, “the different treatment of private and public foundations hinders the development of foundations”, “in the public welfare sector, there need to be clear sponsorship definitions for the foundations and professional skills need to be upgraded”.

There were further suggestions from the project officers regarding the problems that are present in the sector. The suggestions included “more support from government policies”, “operation-based foundations should transform into financial aid foundations depending on their capability and strategy”, “the government should support the foundations by exempting them from paying any tax on income”, “foundations should make a plan to recognize talent within the sector through a formal certification program, and provide appropriate subsidies depending on the level of certification”, “increasing employees’ salary and establishing a regional guideline for compensation” and “launching skill based trainings for private foundation employees as well as providing support, specifically in terms of tools and knowledge-base sharing in order to improve the implementation of projects and the related support”.

One project officer wrote, “The current “Regulation for the Management of Foundations (基金会管理条例)” mandates that you may not allocate more than 10% of total expenditure on staff compensation and administrative overheads. This is clearly impractical for small foundations with a total fund of up to several million dollars.” He believes that this regulation is hindering foundations’ development and wants changes to be implemented.


In Brief

Guo Ting delivered a report on CDB’s six-month project- Frontline Voices, revealing five core findings on project officers’ basic profile, their participation in foundations’ decision making process, their views towards grant-making and operation, their career development and training expectations, and their compensation satisfaction and future plans.
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