Clarity around growth factors for organisational development
Generally accepted best practices on organisational development abound in the literature, but few available resources reflect the unique context in which Chinese civil society organisations operate today. CSSP’s experience contributes lessons from our own case studies that reflect the contextual idiosyncrasies that have such an influence on China’s social sector actors.
Characteristics of organisational development include: pursuing one’s own mission, effectively designing and implementing one’s own projects, and finally, expanding that foundation in either scale—the size and/or number of locations in which your project operates—or scope—the range of interventions/products offered within a particular sector.
The lack of support for organisational development perpetuates a cycle of risk avoidance, as both organisations and donors are unable to meet opportunities because they do not internally have a culture of positive risk taking. When taking risks is allowed, and when the grantee is well-equipped to execute, amazing things can happen. High-quality development can be accelerated. We saw in several instances that it was the grants to discrete crucial elements of an organisation’s strategy that no one else besides the Legatum Foundation would fund that really launched them into their futures.
Raising the perceived legitimacy of grassroots work in China depends on the abilities of organisations like our partners to tell their stories in an effective, transparent way that is both engaging and compelling. In order to do this, they should not focus first on marketing, but on implementing quality data management and learning systems, then utilizing that content to power their social media, marketing, and public relations campaigns as well as produce quality reporting.
What we have learned in CSSP is that customised, diverse, and long-term strategies to realise organisational development are the most effective. If the organisation is self aware (and has a culture of monitoring, evaluation, learning, revising, and refining), then most often they already know what they need to move to the next level of reach and effectiveness. What they need from a donor is the financial support that permits them to take action.
Involvement and ongoing coaching are more important and more likely to cause real and lasting change than theoretical or even practical skills training. While CSSP provided capacity building training, and did receive positive feedback on that training, it was the investments in very specifically targeted needs that seemed to reap the greatest rewards.
During the project period, some partners made adjustments to their original design. The Legatum Foundation’s investment has allowed them to identify their key strengths and thus shift or pivot strategy successfully.
Recognition by local governments, media, and the public has increased for most partners since the beginning of CSSP, due in large part to the expansion of their work or the relevance to currently popular topics, of which philanthropy, volunteerism, and social services are a few. Increased attention has helped several partners secure additional funding from external sources, contributing to improved stability to carry out strategic plans. Some partners won direct financial support or subsidized office space from the government, which is quite rare. One partner not only secured funding from the local provincial government but also received permission to accept donations and an exemption from paying taxes on those donations. Though these are common allowances in many countries, they are extremely rare in China.
In 2012, CSSP expanded beyond Beijing and Shanghai to include projects located in Guangdong province and its capital city, Guangzhou. Many policy changes previously thought impossible have been enacted here in recent years. The central government of China has slowly shifted its attitude and strategy toward the NGO sector, combining caution with selective support. Guangzhou was chosen as a trial city for policy changes, making it a hotbed for social sector activity.
Our NGO partners have also influenced this more positive operating environment. They have aligned with other influential NGOs to push forward favorable changes in the province’s NGO management guidelines and government procurement ventures. The adopted policies were regarded as a milestone.
One partner had success in helping government officials gain a better understanding of people with special needs, and has won favorable policies for more equitable access to opportunities such as secondary education and vocational training. Although not resulting in a direct influence, several partners have tried to bring local government’s attention to the needs of grassroots service providers through annual conferences, personal networking and sharing, and cooperation. They believe Guangzhou’s success can be replicated elsewhere through their continuous effort.
Dissemination of ideas in the information age
Civil society organisations have been trying to create and replicate successful models for a long time. Replication is difficult but China’s interconnectedness has increased the availability of resources and the accessibility of models and best practices to degrees that do not exist in many of the other strategic initiatives supported by the Legatum Foundation. Many CSSP implementing partners are leaders in their sectors and, therefore, have a wealth of knowledge to share with less developed organisations or with other stakeholders, such as nonprofit professionals, families, beneficiaries, policy experts, advocates, or the public.
While traditional ways of sharing information, such as creating manuals and offering in-person trainings, are still viable, the utilization of technology to reach wider and farther audiences is a key achievement of the programme. Over 45 percent of mainland Chinese people were online at the start of 2014, according to the state-affiliated research organisation China Internet Network Information Center. The growing number of connected citizens has changed China in countless ways. In the social sector, technology has created the platform that is enabling even the smallest NPOs or volunteer associations to access resources. These resources ranged from international standards for best practices in community development, to sector news and updates to support forums, to instructional videos and live-streaming trainings. As in all other facets of society, technology is offering the social sector opportunities to accelerate development and engage stakeholders in new and innovative ways.
For a few of our partners, creating toolkits, curriculums, and instructional videos has allowed them to reach audiences across China while also promoting their own legitimacy and brand. This has resulted in new partnerships with donors, new collaboration opportunities with other organisations in the sector, and opportunities to expand to new geographies, all within a very short timeframe.
Peer support and horizontal collaboration
As early as 2012, we learned that pioneering organisations in China are some of the most capable trainers and coaches in the country. Though government actors, foundations, and academics are often the ones delivering content on organisational effectiveness because they are the ones with the resources available to offer such trainings, it is the practitioners who have the know-how.
Though many leading organisations do participate in training less mature organisations, the practice is not widespread for two reasons. Firstly, organisation leaders— the ones who have the experience needed to conduct the training, mentorship, or coaching—are often overextended with the demands of their own organisations and do not have much time to share. The second reason is the underlying cause for many of the sector’s growth challenges: the lack of financial resources. Trainees do not have enough to pay for training. Trainers are barely able to keep their own organisations running, therefore any resources directed to train others is literally funding out of their own pockets.
As a result, the programme’s premise of funding pioneers to offer support to other sector actors was a key piece of the CSSP strategy, and had an enormous bearing on the initiative’s success. One-half of our partners equipped peer organisations through experience-sharing, toolkit and curriculum distribution, onsite visits, and resource recommendations. Several partners have even helped establish smaller organisations or volunteer groups.
Throughout the initiative, replicating effective models has been a key strategic objective. Replication has taken a variety of forms across our 14 partner projects. At the light-touch end of the continuum are interventions of a few trainings or the sharing of a handbook. Total in-depth interventions include franchising—which essentially entails adopting a smaller organisation in another city, implementing the model there, and taking financial responsibility for its operations—and replication, which involves starting a new branch in a new location.
Clarity around growth factors for organisational development
We note that achieving a level of clarity on growth factors was a key success of CSSP, though we also list it as a challenge in that there is much to be discovered, particularly as the sector is rapidly changing.
Assuming that most nonprofit organisations in China can be assigned to one of three stages of organisational development—emerging, growth, and maturity—we have been challenged to clarify what exactly it takes to move organisations along the continuum in China.
CSSP has shown that organisations must balance vision with execution. This is particularly true in China for a number of reasons. First, it is often the case that one or two strong leaders within an organisation can carry most of the decision-making power as well as the responsibility for forming a strategic vision and managing implementation. Culture and experience reinforce the top-down structure; leaders are typically one of few people within an organisation that have specialised experience.
When a disproportionate burden is placed with one person, the organisation’s ability to execute the vision can easily become lost. Lower-level staff become disconnected from decisions and their rationale. Thus, strong team communication and alignment is of critical importance, from volunteers to entry-level employees to middle management to those in leadership.
We have also found that projects which attempt scale and scope expansion are a higher risk. Success is achievable but flexibility on timeline and implementation approach is very important. Assessing the merit of a granted project according to the original project plan and benchmarks is of some value, but only if that assessment includes also taking the long view and accepting that good projects finished a few months past schedule can still be counted as successful.
We know that our experience will continue to contribute to our understanding of the growth factors most critically important to China’s social sector organizations. As we learn more, we can continuously apply that knowledge to our granting strategy in order to refine it over time.
Recruiting and retaining qualified staff
Social sector organisations have a difficult time recruiting for leadership positions and lower-level staff alike. With a booming economy and rapidly rising for-profit salaries in the last decade, China’s young professionals do not often turn to the relatively low wages and difficult work of social sector careers.
Recruiting for leadership positions is particularly difficult, with vacancies remaining open for months at a time. The highly limited pool of prospects is a result of few experienced professionals in the sector. A major lesson learned in 2013 was that organisations seeking to fill an executive director-level position should be considered even higher risk in China (regardless of strong board leadership) due to the difficulty in filling those positions in a timely manner.
Financial sustainability is difficult to achieve in China. Foreign funding has dropped as the country’s income has risen. Domestic funding is generally highly restrictive and is sometimes characterised by nepotism, trend-following, and generalised mistrust. Though many of our partners have found new and more varied sources of funding since CSSP began, the challenge remains for them to build relationships with donors like the Legatum Foundation who understand strategic investment in sector and organisational development, beyond just direct service to beneficiaries.
Ideal or not, external stakeholder relationships in China largely determine the long-term sustainability of nonprofit organisations. The downsides to this include the amount of internal resources it takes to initiate and maintain relationships with government officials, foundations, private-sector actors, and other nonprofits, as well as the space these relationships create for conflicts of interest and ’mission creep’.