An opportunity for Australian NGOs in China

Qian Fang

Abou the author

Qian Fang is a PhD candidate in the Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales. She was a delegate at the 2014 Australia-China Youth Dialogue.

There is no doubt that Australia and China are getting more involved in collaborations in the business sector, diplomatic dialogue as well as cultural exchange. However, Australia-China interactions in the third sector pale beside those in the public and private sector.

Take the Official Development Aid (ODA), for example. Australia has built a bilateral cooperative partnership with Chinese government. Accordingly, Chinese NGOs can apply for financial support to run aid programs with the focus on improving basic humanitarian status through the Direct Aid Program (DAP), which is a flexible, small grants scheme managed by the heads of Australian missions. Funds for each program range from $10,000 to $50,000.

australian landscape for ngo article

Canada, Japan, England, and EU also run similar projects in China. By comparison, Australia's DAP is relatively smaller in terms of disbursal of funds, which implies less official engagement in social welfare in China. It's a similar story for Australian nonprofit organisations’ involvement in China. Numbers show that out of nearly 10,000 international NGOs in China, those based in US account for nearly 40 per cent. No Australia-based NGOs have been listed as the top ten international NGOs in China, a list made by a famous Chinese scholar, WangMing, in NGO study. On the list, those top ten international NGOs mostly come from US, UK, and Japan.

Is it necessary for Australia to explore more collaborative relations in Chinese philanthropic sector, as it does in the other two sectors? As a person-to-person communication platform among Australian and Chinese youth, the Australia China Youth Dialogue takes its exploratory step by setting up philanthropy session into its yearly conference schedule. This year in Beijing, the ACYD committee invited three experts from international NGOs to introduce their working experiences in Chinese philanthropic sector and their insights into civil society in China.

Given the close link between philanthropy and social welfare, there is no doubt that a lively involvement in philanthropic sector in China can serve as a bridge for Australia to better understand its regional and global social policy environment. This is also consistent with China's broader international relevance to Australia.

At a micro level, Australian companies with business links to China also have incentives to carry out corporate philanthropy. These incentives include but are not limited to the following aspects: building their public reputation in Chinese market, enhancing the loyalty and the sense of belonging of the staff members; and improving external competitive environment through corporate philanthropic activities.

As for strategic suggestions for Australian organizations to enter Chinese philanthropic sector, Clare Pearson, one of the speakers in ACYD 2014 Philanthropy Session, shared her experiences of working education programs in China for an international non-profit organisation.

As scholars have already pointed out, the emergence of China's third sector is the result of attempts from the government to open space for NGOs' development and the rise of the economy, whereas the third sector in the West is the result of market and government failure.

Currently, there are some policy signs that suggest the central government has recognised that NGOs complement the government’s role in social service provision. Recently, the Chinese government announced it would end the so-called dual-control policy for NGOs registration, which would make it easier for NGOs to attain legal status.

The rise of the Chinese economy and the subsequent widening wealth gap between the rich and poor has resulted in various social welfare issues. There is consequently a marginalised group of people who rely on the philanthropic sector to ease their sufferings.

According to the official channel, in 2013, there were 54,1000 officially registered social organisations under Ministry of Civil Affairs, with a 8.4 per cent growth rate compared with 2012. Some estimate that the number will double in the next couple of years, given the relaxed political enviroment. Also, there are more social organizations operating with the identity of government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) or companies or even without official registrations. So, when it comes to Chinese NGOs, they refer to a broad range of organizations operating outside the state and market, no matter of their registration status.

Given the preceding two aspects, running social service projects in Chinese philanthropic sector is a worthy entry point for Australian organizations, by which they can receive a more friendly and relaxed policy environment and at the same time display their professions. This suggestion has been verified by researchers. A study conducted by HAN Junkui from Beijing Normal University indicates that 74.5 per cent of international NGOs prefer to build frequent collaborative relationships the with Chinese government. In addition, 93.6 per cent of international NGOs have either occasional or continual working relations with Chinese government.

More specifically, for Australian organisations, it is useful to have an overview about international donor agencies’ strategy in Chinese philanthropy before they make their moves.

A recent study carried out by Chunhui Children China, Half the Sky Foundation and Skoll Foundation shows that international donor agencies prefer innovative philanthropic programs and those resulting in far-reaching social impact. Apart from conventionally financial support, international companies tend to make contributions through diverse approaches. For example, they will send their employees to do voluntary services, or they will provide management consulting support to NGOs. Also, international companies are more willing to choose philanthropic programs that are related to their business domains or those that will contribute to the community those companies belong to.

A story from a Chinese grassroots NGO illustrates well how international organisations can actively participate in an NGO’s development. Established in 1994, Beijing Stars and Rain is China's first non-governmental educational organisation dedicated to serving children with autism, which has built long-term partnership with various international organisations. Visa regularly sends its employees to the volunteer project in Beijing Stars and Rains. The Hilton Beijing Capital Airport hotel provides a venue and materials for autistic youth to develop their basic labor force skills.

However, many Chinese NGOs, especially grassroots NGOs, are now struggling with poor organisational management problems, such as short of expertise in service provision, limited space for staff career development, lack of disclosure mechanism, and so on. This further lowers the accountability to NGOs’ various stakeholders and then negatively affects the public’s willingness to make their donations or contributions. Less external trust and support again worsen NGOs’ development. Helping grassroots organizations to improve their management may break the cycle.

Engaging more in Chinese philanthropy deserves more attention and is a worthy pursuit for Australian organisations looking to engage with China Lending expertise to social service NGOs in management capacity building can be an entry point for Australian organisations to start their journey in Chinese philanthropy.

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