I’m in Beijing this week, and on Tuesday I had the distinct privilege of spending time with Xu Yongguang at the Narada Foundation, one of China’s first private foundations. We have written about the emergence of China’s private foundations as well as Narada previously on this blog. I’d recommend reading that post for some background on the landscape of private foundations in China.
One of the values that SVG shares with Narada is a focus on helping Chinese grassroots nonprofits organizations to thrive. Narada sees itself as a “supporting” organization, helping with funding and programs for capacity building for grassroots groups in China, who are often overlooked by the general public and the corporate sector for funding and assistance.
Mr. Xu and I spoke of the current landscape for these small nonprofits and what it will take for the sector to grow. I took notes on some key takeaways from the time, which was rich with insights:
On the relationship between private foundations and NGOs in China. Mr. Xu noted how the development path of private foundations and NGOs in China has been exactly flipped from the West. In the West, private foundations grew out of an existing maturing NGO sector, whereas in China, government foundations appeared first on the scene, even before there were NGOs for them to serve. These government foundations were created to advance the charitable causes of the Chinese government. The flipping of this order still has a large impact on the way foundations in China, both private and governmental, operate today.
Two Criteria for Growth of Grassroots NGOs in China. The first is being able to attract top talent, which has been particularly difficult as there is still a stigma attached to working in the nonprofit sector here. Second, traditionally most charitable efforts have focused on building “hardware” (facilities, infrastructure, things that you can see and touch). However, Mr. Xu believes that the biggest needs now that grassroots NGOs must address are “service” or “software” related, focusing on building and serving needy people, not simply creating infrastructure.
Cultural Barriers to Attracting Talent. Mr. Xu believes that the largest cultural barriers to attracting highly qualified people to the sector is the current importance of wealth and power for China’s young people as they consider different career paths. While these may be true in other developed countries, in China it is especially acute given the lack of economic and political stability that most Chinese families have experienced in the last half-century. Most often, a career in non-profit, however meaningful, will not provide either of those in abundance, and therefore there is a strong cultural aversion to the sector. It often requires a deeply personal experience or a particularly selfless religious worldview to overcome the pull of this cultural undercurrent. Mr. Xu believes that we are seeing the beginnings of this cultural shift now but it will take time.
Overall, I was very encouraged by the time, and we’re looking to collaborating with Narada on a number of fronts going forward!