The Chengdu NGO Service Park: an Interview with Xu Qizhi

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On 29th June 2012, the Chengdu NGO Service Park (成都公益组织服务园) was launched. Initiated by the government, the Service Park introduced the Non-Profit Incubator (NPI) (恩派) model, and acts as an integrated support network for NGOs, social workers and public welfare projects. It provides incubation, capacity building and community outreach services for NGOs at different developmental stages. At present, the Service Park has recruited an initial group of 15 organizations, and is providing project promotion and community outreach services to meet the needs of 14 more mature organizations (in mid-November, the Service Park announced a second round of recruitment). During the opening ceremony, many NGOs put up displays, and experts and scholars involved in the study and promotion of non-profit organizations from Mainland China and Taiwan in attendance affirmed and expressed their hopes for the Service Park’s innovative model. In addition, as part of the package, the Chengdu municipal government has provided 380 million yuan to set up the Chengdu Social Organization Development Foundation (成都市社会组织发展基金会), which will provide financial support to the organizations in the Service Park. As an entity initiated by the government and planned by academics and the community, and backed by the government’s resolute and innovative thinking, what are the similarities and differences of the Service Park compared with the previous NPI incubator model? What new problems will its operation encounter?

On October 29, China Development Brief interviewed the Service Park’s Advisor Xu Qizhi. Xu, who comes from Taiwan, studied under the well-known public sector authority and founder of the Third Sector Research Center at the National Chengchi University of Taiwan (台湾政治大学), Professor Mingxiu Jiang, in 1996. In 2006, Xu began his Ph.D. at Shanghai Jiaotong University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Outside of his academic background, Xu’s diverse experience also includes establishing an NGO incubation enterprise with Jiang and others in Taiwan in 2001. His affinity for NPI began as a result of his research on social enterprises. Xu helped to develop training courses and set up the Social Entrepreneurs College (社会创业家学 院) in Shanghai’s NPI in 2010. He left in September 2011 upon its completion. As part of Chengdu’s planning to promote social organization, Xu became the “designer” of the Service Park, and led its implementation. With his Taiwanese background and diverse perspectives, this outsider “sage” had a good grasp of the local situation. He has observed the implementation of the NGO incubator concept in Chengdu, and shared his thoughts on the structure, positioning and rationale behind the Service Park, as well as his experiences in working with the government.

CDB: What was the context under which the Service Park was established? How did you get involved in the framework design and preparation process?

Xu: NGO incubators have been popping up all over the country in recent years, and Chengdu’s exploration in this area was also relatively early. In 2010, the Jinjiang District set up a NGO incubator (the Jinjiang Citizen Service Center, 锦江区市民服务中心), resulting in Chengdu having two incubators at the district level [Editor’s Note: The other incubator is NPI’s Chengdu office.]. In 2011, Chengdu wanted to expand the incubator pilot, so they began searching for people with relevant experience across the country. In September 2011, I had just left NPI and travelling around the country giving lectures. The current Director of the Service Park and a few others contacted me, and after much discussion, I formally joined in for its preparation in February of this year. I provided them with proposals, ideas and advice. Since helping to create the Social Entrepreneurs College, I had begun to summarize my experiences with NPI, which came into play with the implementation of the preparations for the Service Park.

CDB: What are the profiles of the organizations in the Service Park currently? What are the similarities and differences between the NPI model in terms of the positioning, framework design and specific operations of the Service Park?

Xu: There are a total of 15 organizations in the first group. They are involved in psychological counseling, book clubs, education and Youth leadership development, elderly people, people with disabilities and other fields. The standard of Chengdu’s NGOs is not considered high, so we had to consider our capabilities and resources in preparation for completing incubation within the year to bring Chengdu’s level up to standard. Many of the organizations in the Service Park are already registered. With high-tech zones doing the same (inviting NGOs to their zones to register and provide services), we were easily able to get on board. Out of the 15 organizations, eight are from other provinces, and the remaining seven are from within the province. Four of the organizations from outside the province were involved in the relief and reconstruction efforts in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake. They are now facing the challenge of transitioning from reliance on foreign resources to local resources, and usually have a relatively higher starting point. The remaining four organizations are those that I felt were outstanding, and I asked them to apply to join us.

One example is Shanghai’s World of Art Brut Culture (WABC), which can raise funds by itself. They see Chengdu as a research and development center for organizational innovation where we provide intellectual resources. These organizations will eventually be introduced into the community. Another organization is “Dialogue in the Dark (China)”. I did a good deal of cajoling to bring them in, hoping that these more experienced organizations will help promote the development of Chengdu’s social organizations.

In addition, we also have 14 community service partner organizations. The park does not provide incubation services to them, but rather community initiation. An example is the first public welfare project promotion event (Shuangliu session), which was very successful. In the future, more exchange activities will be held, as well as efforts to bring in more organizations from other provinces into Chengdu. Of course, the second and third groups of organizations may not be as well-known as the first, so we’ll need to strengthen our role. To put it realistically, the Service Park is a GONGO, linking up grassroots organizations with community, street committee and other government resources so that they can enter the community to work.

The Service Park has positioned itself as an incubator, capacity builder and community initiator. The aspect that is purely based on the NPI model is the incubator. However, we have our own innovations. The NPI incubator is project-based, thus focusing on more detailed examinations of those projects. Our area of focus is on building the abilities of the team, hoping that the team will have the ability to bring in resources for professional and sustainable operations after their incubation period. Even though the processes and models are based on NPI, the orientation is different.

The Service Park’s operations include recruiting 15 organizations every three months, with the goal of incubating 60 organizations a year, which corresponds to the total number of organizations incubated by the Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Chengdu offices of NPI. We provide integrated administrative support, including venues, office space, funding, capacity building and policy support. Similar to businesses, each organization receives a startup fund (up to a maximum of 50,000 yuan), which they can use autonomously in cooperation with us. Each organization receives a subsidy of 5,000 yuan a month, which is mainly to support staff salaries, and up to 100, 000 yuan of project funds at the end of incubation.

The incubation period was originally planned to be from three months to a year, depending on the stage of development and the organization’s needs. However, there were some who felt that the three-month period was too difficult to achieve, and thus, the first group were all approved for a one-year incubation period. Registered and unregistered institutions are both welcome. An example is a mature institution like the Shenzhen Canyou (残友), which we hope can replicate its model from Shenzhen headquarters to the China’s western areas [Editor’s Note: Canyou is an IT company staffed by people with disabilities. It is seen by many to be one of China’s most successful social enterprises. See “Friends of the Disabled: A High-tech Enterprise for People with Disabilities”]. Canyou’s purpose in coming to Chengdu was not for team support, but to establish good ties with the local government and other resources in the city. Our appeal for this organization lies in our research and training resources such as our international and domestic experts, scholars and trainers.

Actually, NPI currently faces a number of challenges in its development direction and continued innovation. There is quite a bit of internal disagreement on whether they should do more longer-term incubatation, or to withdraw support once the results are seen. Through the Service Park’s operations, I hope to deepen the level of incubation, and to explore other possibilities for the development of incubators in China.

The framework we designed is quite stringent. Originally, Chengdu allocated 500 million yuan to set up the Service Park. External consultants and experts recommended that there should be a separate fund set up to manage the money. As a non-governmental, intermediary, support organization, the Service Park takes into account both government policy and community needs, coming up with projects with partners and applying for funding for annual projects. Since the Service Park has assumed the responsibility of reviewing project applications, the Chengdu Social Organization Development Foundation can focus on the management of funds. At present, the Foundation supports the following areas: projects in the Service Park, incubation projects targeting youth in the District Communist Youth League’s Innovation Centre, and the Jinjiang District Social Organization Development Foundation.

CDB: Are there any differences in the development space and policy environment for NGOs in interior regions such as Chengdu, compared to coastal areas such as Shanghai? What are the challenges and difficulties faced in implementing the incubation model here?

Xu: An incubator plays of a resource platform, bringing together the resources from the government, private enterprises and NGOs, and coordinating the interests of all the parties involved. We need to convert the concepts of capable grassroots NGOs into language and practices accepted by the government and private enterprises. We also need to translate the corporate lingo into language accepted by grassroots NGOs, and ensure that everyone is satisfied. This is very challenging.

In my academic work, I’ve done a few comparisons of Chengdu and Shanghai. The advantage of Chengdu is that due to the earthquake in 2008, all parties have established a consensus regarding public benefit work. Local businesses and government are as supportive of public benefit work as grassroots organizations. This change is very obvious. Like the September 21, 1999 earthquake in Taiwan which brought about a number of social changes in Taiwan, similar changes have occurred in Chengdu.

In the process of setting up the Service Park, the majority of the problems appeared in working with the local government and party offices (specifically the municipal Propaganda Department which is under the local Party Committee). NGOs in Taiwan have been developing at least 30 years longer than in Shanghai. Comparing Chengdu and Shanghai, the understanding of the public benefit in Chengdu lags by at least five years, and this includes the government, community and private enterprises. Objectively, the government lags behind slightly more. When proposing an idea to the governments in Shanghai and Beijing, I don’t need to put in much effort. However, in Chengdu, I have to put in a great deal. Shanghai is more relaxed, so even if they don’t agree, they may let you try. Although the Service Park is registered as a NGO, the government’s influence is still very large. This is unimaginable in Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen. The difference in the extent of [government] control between these areas is similar to the difference in their geographical distance. Of course, the Service Park concept, from a framework and design perspective, is already considered quite open-minded. During its launching ceremony, many experts mentioned that it is ahead of its time by 5-10 years. This poses a huge challenge to the Chengdu municipal government. Despite appearing to be very innovative, their awareness and understanding is still lower than governments in coastal areas. Shanghai has a more open system but less awareness, whereas Chengdu is the exact opposite.

CDB: NPI operates its incubator independently as a NGO, while the Service Park is government-led. Are there any shortcomings in the Service Park’s development when compared with your original expectations? Can you evaluate your role in the Service Park?

Xu: It’s not so easy to grade I think. But if I must, I definitely didn’t pass. Within the government system, I have to go around in circles whenever I want to do something. Even though my opinions are implemented more than 90% of the time, and quite smoothly I must say, it takes a lot of energy and time. I must acknowledge that they are supportive, but there is still a large gap between my expectations and the reality, which may be because my expectations were too high. After leaving NPI in September, the Chengdu government contacted me but I refused them. In October, I came to Chengdu to teach. I arrived the day before and we talked all evening, and then next day, they tried to convince me all day. Finally, I proposed certain requirements, foremost of which was autonomy, hoping to get them to give up. Of course, I fully understand that they are part of the [government] system, and so no individual can make decisions by themselves. Privately, they are very supportive and acknowledging of me.

In terms of staffing, I asked three people from Taiwan, Shanghai and Chengdu grassroots organizations to join me when I came over. Including myself, we totaled four. The ones from Taiwan and Chengdu have already left, leaving the one from Shanghai. The original plan was to take the standard route to recruiting, advertising to attract talented people from all over the country. However, the current situation is that the support is in place, and the staff has been allocated to us. The Director of the Service Park is the Director of the City Youth Palace (青少年宫), and the staff comes from the city’s Social Construction Office (社会建设办公室) and the Youth Palace. [Editor’s Note: The point Xu is making here is that the Director and other staff are coming from the party-state system and so have little familiarity with NGOs. The Youth Palace is part of the Communist Youth League system and the Social Construction Office is also under the local Party system]. This has brought difficulties, and training and other services are unable to proceed smoothly. Some of the recruited institutions are very experienced, and thus need to be provided with professional support. However, the staff provided are novices in terms of their knowledge of civil society and working capabilities, and we need to start from the very basics.

CDB: As a resource support platform, does the Service Park have plans for other programs and activities?

Xu: We hope do something to catalyze the linking up of grassroots organizations. Two weeks ago, there were already 17 hub institutions involved in the preparation and they had reached a consensus to hold a public benefit CEOs salon every month. There will be no fixed theme, and everyone will meet to communicate, share ideas and support each other. In order to recommend reliable NGOs to the government and private enterprises, and to have third party supervision, we have to start from the linking up of social networks. At the same time, we also want to use this platform to understand the needs of the government, private enterprises and the media. Currently, the public benefit CEO salon has decided to hold a Joint Annual Meeting of Chengdu NGOs on January 11, 2013. In addition to being a landmark event to show unity, this also paves the way for future cooperation.


In Brief

Fu Tao interviews the Advisor for the new Chengdu NGO Service Park, a platform established by local party and government departments to provide incubation services to fledgling NGOs.
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