Grassroots NGOs (most of which are unregistered) can be found in almost every area of China. Yet most of them struggle with critical problems – a lack of financial support, no legal identity (see our previous post), poor communication with government bureaus and public mistrust. Mere training courses (which in themselves are few and far between) are insufficient to meet these issues.
To answer this need, a handful of nonprofit incubators have emerged to foster tomorrow’s influential organizations. Enpai has been the leading incubator since Lv Zhao founded it in 2006. Using the existing model of a business incubator, the Shanghai-based organization’s core service is a one-year systematic training program that provides groups (many who are still in the idea stage) with nonprofit registration guidance, capacity building courses, financial support and government and public relations. The free program also helps organizations develop long-term fundraising strategies.
With sponsorship from the Narada Foundation and the Ford Foundation, Enpai rents a large office where groups have use of professional facilities at a small cost. Several organizations share the same space providing the added benefit of a collaborative atmosphere where they can share information and experiences. Enpai also provides groups with a small stipend to cover their administration costs.
To date Enpai has incubated over 40 NGOs including high profile groups Ciwawa and 1 KG More. In addition to their Shanghai headquarters, Enpai now has branches in Beijing, Chengdu and Shenzhen, all with a long waiting list of NGOs who want to join their program.
Enpai approves less than 30 organizations each year for its program. To be accepted an organization must have a clear, practical and innovative idea that meets a real social need. The qualifications of the founder and team members are also a major consideration. Lv Zhao believes “a first-class team can build a good service model even with a second level idea.”
Enpai Graduate: The Xinggeng Workshop
The Xinggeng Workshop joined Enpai’s incubation program in 2007. Xinggeng helps HIV-infected villagers from Henan Province by teaching them handicraft skills and selling the products they make. Before Xinggeng founder and businessman Zhu Bingzhao started the organization, these individuals worked in the dangerous and sometimes fatal trade of making fireworks.
Before Zhu could get Xinggeng off the ground, he faced practical issues like renting an office and paying salaries as well as how to structure his nonprofit. Zhu was introduced to Enpai and after an interview and observation period, moved his team into the incubator’s Shanghai office space. Over the next 10 months, the office became a handcraft workshop and Enpai staff met with Zhu frequently to ask “What is your vision and mission? What is your management model? How are you establishing your credibility?” The capacity building courses helped Zhu and his team to think through these questions and set up a clear structure and direction.
After completing the incubation, Xinggeng Workshop became one of 16 grassroots NGOs supported by Lenovo and won 150,000 RMB (15,680 USD) in social angel funding. They also had a solid product line and begun serving high-profile customers like DHL.
With Enpai’s success, the concept of an NGO incubator is gaining credibility in China. Some municipal-level governments have invited Enpai to open branches in their cities while others have started their own.
Guangzhou was the first to step forward with Guangzhou NGO Incubating Base (GNIB) at the end of 2009. As a government-sponsored incubator, GNIB’s service is similar to Enpai’s but with more social and governmental resources. The local government gave GNIB use of a 4,000 square meter space. Within two years, 19 grassroots groups have entered their two-year program and two groups have registered as NGOs with the help of funding from local companies in GNIB’s network.
GNIB also created the concept of “social service mass production”. GNIB founder Deng Shixian, said, “Every district and county should have their own NGO incubating system. The government could even provide low-interest loans or setup an NGO start-up fund to encourage more social service.” The Guangzhou Municipal Government agreed and provided GNIB with an additional office space to implement the idea.
NGO incubators have an important role to play in bringing innovation to China’s social sector. As NGO incubators become more accepted by the government, we hope that they will have a louder voice to speak with decision makers on behalf of grassroots NGOs.