Recently, I was invited by one of SVG's nonprofit partners to be part of the live studio taping of the popular Chinese show "No Free Lunch" which airs on the Shanghai television station here. If you watch carefully, I make a brief cameo in the audience at about 23:18, wearing black and sitting with one of our SVG donors! The format of the talk show usually targets young Chinese entrepreneurs in a sort of wacky version of American Idol in which contestants are judged on their business models rather than musical ability. In each episode, two contestants go head to head on their particular revenue model and strategy, all while critiqued by a committee of judges led by the "The Boss," an influential entrepreneur in the business world. The committee of judges vote for their choice, but, in the end, the final winner is determined by the Boss. I have long been a big fan of "No Free Lunch" because I really appreciate the sharp and challenging questions raised by the team of judges, especially as I am also working in a startup.
Starting in July this year, "No Free Lunch" launched a series featuring the leaders and pioneers of China's grassroots NGOs and social enterprises. The series was actually a part of the "Shanghai Venture Philanthropy Competition on Community Service" sponsored by the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau and Nonprofit Incubator (NPI) in order to encourage creative nonprofit projects in Shanghai. The candidate organizations must be registered nonprofit organizations in Shanghai serving underprivileged groups in the city. The competition is divided into four rounds. The contestants are competing for cash awards from RMB50,000 (US$7,300) to RMB200,000 (US$29,400) donated by the Shanghai Charity Federation, as well as organizational capacity building consulting services from NPI. The final two winners in each round get to present their case on national television. With relatively large awards by Chinese NGO standards, the competition promised to be fierce; however, I was more curious to know what kind of questions the judges would raise since this was the first time that the contestants were not business professionals but nonprofit leaders.
The first two organizations appearing in the first round of "No Free Lunch" were Qing Cong Quan Training Center for Children with Autism (QCQ; profiled in our January 2008 newsletter) and Jiuqian Volunteer Center (Jiuqian) offering various after-school training curricula for migrant children in Shanghai. Both of these organizations are serving children in Shanghai and are SVG's NGO partners. Ms. Chen Jie and Mr. Zhang Yichao, the founders of these two organizations battled it out on the show. Winners are invited to have dinner with Mr. Chen Guangbiao (the episode's Boss), one of the top philanthropists in China. As the CEO of a private enterprise in China, Chen Guangbiao's company donated US$26.5 million to charities in China in 2007.
The TV competition was divided into two sections with the committee of judges voting twice each section. The judges were business leaders from different backgrounds, such as consulting and advertising. In this episode, the program producers especially invited experts from the nonprofit sector, such as Simon Lv, Director of NPI, to add more credentials to the team of judges. QCQ defeated Jiuqian in both rounds with scores of 3:2 and 4:1. One judge changed his mind in the second section and explained that his main reason for voting for QCQ was that the organization is ready to scale its existing capacity and therefore it would create more value for Chen Jie to have lunch with the Boss. On top of the considerable respect the judges and the Boss showed to the two founders, they all raised some very challenging questions, about the organizations' sustanability, scalability and impact.
The judges also evaluated the leadership abilities of Chen Jie and Zhang Yichao to see whether they were qualified to lead nonprofit organizations. One of the judges mentioned that those who were devoted to social causes shared some similar characteristics: sensitive to the needs of others; easily identify with people; and tend to feel self-motivated when helping others. In our experience with Chen Jie and Zhang Yichao, who both quit promising careers to start their own organizations, they encompass all these characteristics which makes them well suited to nonprofit work. Nevertheless, the judges were unanimous that, of the two, Chen Jie was more enthusiastic and influential as a leader. If the challenge for Jiuqian is for Zhang Yichao to turn his personal dream into an encompassing vision shared by the staff, QCQ's next step will be how to scale up and increase its impact.
The Boss still had the final decision; however, and surprisingly the award went to Jiuqian, though four of the five committee members voted for QCQ in the second round. The Boss, Chen Guangbiao, commented that though QCQ was more mature in terms of strategic development and was ready for further expansion, the problem Jiuqian was trying to solve was more urgent, especially during the economic downturn this year. For me, it really doesn't matter who won because the process itself provided the two organizations with a great opportunity to present their organizations and a platform to inform Chinese people about grassroots NGOs in China.
Some other personal observations from this competition:
- Chinese have a growing respect for young NGO leaders, and their attitude towards charity is very positive. Afterwards, some judges said that they felt inspired by the work of Chen Jie and Zhang Yichao and learned a lot from them.
- More and more people are beginning to realize that charity is no longer merely an emotional act of love, but it is a social sector which needs professionalism. Of course, love and compassion are essential to charity work, but these alone will not create effective organizations with high impact.
In short, with support from the media and the government and the increasing social awareness among the general public, the future of China's grassroots NGOs is very promising. I cannot wait to watch see how other NGOs fare on future episodes of "No Free Lunch!"