Earlier this year, SVG revisited many NPOs in Western China to evaluate the progress of a grant management program launched in 2013. My colleague and I went to one of the more developed cities in Western China, Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu. Over the course of one week, we visited the leaders of several local grassroots nonprofit organizations that were all at varying stages of growth. We met several extraordinary individuals with talent and drive. While there are definite challenges and barriers for these organizations, my strongest impression of the current landscape of western China’s social sector is the dynamic individuals involved in the industry and the talent present in driving these organizations forward.
Inspirational leaders in western China
While interviewing the many people involved in the social sector in western China, I met two individuals whose stories and work left a strong impression on me.
Bai Sheng Yi founded the Gansu Xing Bang Social Work Serving Center. Previously a government employee, Bai has been a leader within the social services industry for over 10 years and has developed a reputation for his vast experience working directly with impoverished individuals and his focus on poverty alleviation. In China, employment in the government is highly coveted as these positions are typically very stable so it is extremely rare for someone to leave a career in government for a potentially unstable position with low compensation. Over the years of working in social services, Bai’s organization has helped thousands of people rise out of poverty and has help to build and empower local social organizations in the western region of China.
Ma Cheng Qi, originally from western China, received his education at a prestigious university in the eastern part of China. While he could have remained on the east coast of China earning a high income at a white-collar job, he chose to return to his hometown and help local residents through community cultural development. Ma works with the Xihu Center for Cultural Community Development and implements many programs to support and empower the local community including a literacy program.
There are many skilled and talented individuals who, while could have had lucrative careers in other industries, chose to work in the social sector. Their long-term commitment and passion for this sector have been positive forces in improving communities across this country. While these individuals are committed and focused, they remark that if the talent currently in the social sector is not properly fostered, many of these NPOs will ultimately be taking a step backwards.
The challenges to fostering talent
Western China faces many of the same challenges as other areas in China such as a high turnover rate, underdeveloped skills and training, lack of trained practitioners especially those trained in public service. The Narada Foundation’s Development and Demand of Philanthropy Talents Research Report looks at the reason why leaders in different industries rarely work in the social sector.
- Often times, the growth of an organization is reliant on the founder. The reputation of the organization is directly linked to that of the founder’s. The leader of these nonprofit organizations often executes the bulk of the work such as fundraising, program management, and internal capacity building. Therefore, it is difficult for the organization to grow. If the leader is no longer at the NPO, the organization often times folds.
- Organizations do not have the bandwidth or lack the long-term thinking to invest in the growth of their employees. These NPOs generally start with a staff of only 2-3 individuals so each person is responsible for at least two departments and with the lack of career development, there is a high turnover rate.
Foundations, universities and NPOs have identified these issues and understand that the talent already within the social sector is not being cultivated. If this remains the case, it will have a detrimental impact on the growth of the sector. Research shows there are three ways of overcoming this challenge:
- Higher education system – Kang Xiaoguang, the Director of the People’s University NPO Research Center, stated at the ‘Path to Solving the Public Welfare Talent Issue’ forum that there needs to be an increased emphasis on specialty training and talent cultivation. The public welfare field should be made more attractive for recent graduates and so more promising individuals become interested in focusing their efforts on the social sector.  According to the Ministry of Education, 211 new social work undergraduate programs were established between 2000 and 2007. Student enrollment in such programs has grown from 1,000 in the early 1990s to roughly 10,000 students. By the end of 2007, there were roughly 10,000 students graduating from these programs (Chang, 2010). In June of 2014, the Guanghua School of Management in Beijing University began offering a Master's degree in social work management which focuses on training individuals at the senior management level currently working in China’s social sector.
- Growth through foundations – The Narada Foundation hosts the Gingko Fellowship Program, which provides professional development and cultivates leadership skills over the long-term. Most fellows are leaders or founders of grassroots NPOs, scholars, or media professionals. The aim of this program is to gather potential future leaders of China’s NPOs and provide the support these individuals need to grow the social sector.  The Shanghai Soong Qing Ling Foundation has partnered with the Beijing Normal University to design a charity and social service curriculum for the undergraduate program. The university’s Charity Education Center is the first to establish an undergraduate degree in charitable services. In addition, professionals in the field can also earn a degree in higher education. The curriculum for both courses provides a combination of theory and practical courses and regularly hosts well-known business leaders in the public sector and other key note speakers with extensive work experience and established career path.
- Internal growth within organizations – Longstanding NPOs in China have begun to work with newer organizations working with the same group of beneficiaries to develop a sort of mentorship relationship. For example, HANDA in Guangzhou has been working with individuals recovering from leprosy for the past 17 years. During this time, they have developed an effective and efficient internal infrastructure for its organization, which works to concretely meet the needs of the individuals they assist. They have a well-organized staff, solid project management, and a financial system with checks and balances. Because of these attributes, HANDA has been recognized by the other organizations, governmental entities, and the general public. Due to this reputation, HANDA began a training program for other local NPOs.
Contributed by Lumi Zhu