The digitalization of grassroots NGOs in China: opportunities and challenges in the post-COVID era

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According to the National Social Service Statistical Data, the number of registered NGOs in China had reached 893,206 by the third quarter of 2022. Behind this huge number, however, there are many organizations that cannot register in China and have few accurate details on record.

In recent years, particularly after the issue of the nationwide Charity Law in March 2016, obtaining official registration for NGOs has become increasingly difficult, especially for those with “mobilization potential”. These “unauthorized” NGOs are known as grassroots NGOs. Without legal registration under the Ministry of Civil Affairs, “They were either completely unregistered, registered as for-profit businesses, registered in Hong Kong, or claim sponsorship “under another organization”, as stated by Spires, Tao and Chan.

Compared to registered NGOs, which are regulated by supervisory agencies and often help to relieve the burden of providing public services from the state, grassroots NGOs have more agency to decide on their own projects and are under less scrutiny. However, from another perspective, this “improper” status makes it difficult to receive financial support and be seen as legitimate.

Despite this dilemma, digitization has given grassroots NGOs opportunities to address the lack of resources. It is not new for organizations to use the internet to attract members, expand outreach, and facilitate the flow of information and resources across regions. In fact, according to Spires, Tao and Chan, the rise of Chinese grassroots NGOs was initially linked to the prevalence of the internet in the 2000s, where online communities with common goals transformed into organizations with physical offices and formal staff.

What is new, is that more and more purely online organizations have emerged with the evolution of mobile internet. And following the COVID-19 pandemic, remote working has become more common. According to a report on China’s internet users, the number of people working online had reached 540 million in 2022. Internet giants, such as Tencent and Alibaba, also offer various platforms and digital solutions to make remote work and team management feasible and convenient. This context has provided great opportunities and scenarios for grassroots organizations to experiment with online operations.

Organization X (name withheld) is a Chinese grassroots NGO that focuses on gender diversity advocacy and rights for women and sexual minorities. The organization was registered as a business in 2019. The organization’s work includes interviews and story writing, organizing community events, and educating the public on sexual minorities. All advocacy relies on three WeChat accounts, with a separate focus on transgender, asexual, and feminist issues. From employment, training and capacity building, to content production, community operations, event organization and fundraising, the organization does all its work online.

The online model has helped it to cut costs. According to Organization X’s financial report, its monthly costs mainly include employee salaries and software membership fees, without the expense of rent, office maintenance and utilities. Additionally, holding all activities online can reduce financial losses caused by Covid-19. During the pandemic, offline activities were severely restricted, and many organizations experienced having their events cancelled by venues. Online activities without space restrictions helped to ensure that the organization was able to operate its events smoothly, even during lockdowns. Besides reducing costs, digital platforms also expanded online fundraising channels for grassroots organizations and enabled them to sell souvenirs through online shops, which helped to supplement the income of those who lack access to traditional methods of fundraising.

However, managing a grassroots NGO purely online also poses several challenges — the foremost of which is that it is difficult to establish a robust personnel management system for an online team. The leader of Organization X mentioned a writer who failed to submit an article by the deadline and seemed to simply “vanish”.

Furthermore, grassroots organizations have a high level of personnel mobility. According to Spires, Tao and Chan, around a third of grassroots organizations in their sample are operated almost entirely by volunteers. While hiring volunteers can reduce costs, it also comes with a high risk of personnel turnover. According to a volunteer who works remotely for a SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression) advocacy project, “volunteering online has made it more convenient for us to take on this job, but also easier for us to leave.” Without a guarantee of a fixed and professional member base, it is difficult to ensure that work is of a consistent and professional quality.

Second, organizations that operate entirely online are usually advocacy-oriented rather than service-oriented and are thus competing for attention with the rest of the internet in an era of information overload. Without enough professional members and continuous investment, it is difficult to make content stand out, therefore limiting advocacy effects.

Finally, while many cite the essential roles of online fundraising events, especially 99 Charity Day, in making small NGOs financially viable in China, according to Song, Lee, and Han, only officially registered NGOs can attend such events. Furthermore, the complex participation rules of 99 Charity Day are difficult for small organizations to navigate, resulting in fundraising opportunities mostly occupied by mature and large NGOs. Song, Lee, and Han also found that the public tends to trust and donate to organizations with government backgrounds, which further squeezes the online fundraising space for grassroots organizations.

Consequently, Organization X relies heavily on monthly donations as its primary source of funding. According to the charity entry, monthly donations refers to people donating money to designated charity organizations or projects through automatic monthly payments, which is characterized by convenience, small amounts, and continuity. Many platforms, such as Lingxi and Jinshuju, have provided digital tools to manage organizations’ monthly donation income.

However, finding and keeping a long-term donor requires significant effort. According to the leader of Organization X, their monthly donors are primarily community insiders and those who share their values. To secure these donations, the organization needs to invest substantial time in building and maintaining relationships with community members and persuading them to donate, which is challenging for a team already short of hands. Furthermore, according to the Charity Law, organizations or individuals without the required permissions are not allowed to conduct public fundraising. Grassroots organizations may therefore confront legal risks when accepting monthly donations.

So what are the next steps for online grassroots NGOs? Currently, Organization X is considering a transformation. “We want to change from text-based advocacy to a multi-platform outreach strategy through mediums such as podcasts and short videos, to increase our impact.” In addition, with the end of the zero-Covid policy, offline public spaces are regaining their vitality. Organization X is trying to launch an offline pad mutual aid project to raise awareness about period poverty. This move may indicate that at the current stage, online advocacy organizations still need to combine offline and practical services to gain influence. However, acquiring funding and physical spaces for offline activities remains a challenge for many grassroots organizations.

Bi Yidan is reading gender studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She was formerly an intern at CDB.

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