November 10th, 2011 | Global Times Charity on the cheap
Zheng Xiaojie loves to tell heartwarming success stories about her work with the blind.
At the top of the list is how Zheng and her staff at Beijing Hongdandan Education & Culture Exchange Center helped Dong Lina become the first visually impaired person to study at Communication University of China.
The NGO taught the 27-year-old how to read Braille and provided her with spoke-word recordings of some of her text books, but mostly encouraged her to have ambition and confidence that she could succeed.
Beijing-based Hongdandan has brought light into the lives of some 10,000 blind people since its founding in 2003 (China has more than 12 million people living with visual impairment).
Hongdandan’s staff of nine produce audio books, cultivate and coordinate a network of 1,000 volunteers, design and implement programs, run a special cinema, pay rent on cramped office space and accurately account for every yuan it receives in grants and donations.
1 million NGOs
The problem is there’s very little left to pay for the work that must get done.
Zheng, who is 50 and has run the center since it opened, earns less than most college grads just entering the job market. She brings home just 2,500 yuan ($394) a month.
“Every month is a challenge to pay my team on time,” said Zheng, who relies on donations mainly from domestic enterprises to keep her organization going. Zheng’s team members earn just 1,500 to 1,900 yuan a month.
Zheng’s troubles are shared by many in China’s NGO, non-profit community. There are an estimated 1 million grassroots NGOs in China.
A report jointly issued by four research, consulting and charity organizations found that almost 90 percent of NGO employees earn less than 5,000 yuan a month. It also found that 60 percent of NGOs are losing their best talent who say they can’t afford to work in the non-profit sector.
“If the trend continues, it will be harder to find people to work for these non-profit organizations in China,” said Liu Zhouhong, vice secretary general of the Narada Foundation, which co-authored the report with Horizon Consulting, Liu Hongru Financial Education Foundation and Tencent Charity Channel. Their survey of 5,500 NGOs found that nearly 20 percent of NGO staff earned less than 1,000 yuan a month or had no regular salary.
Last month, Liu Zhenjun, the head of an NGO in Yunnan Province, tried to mount an online campaign to draw attention to the low pay of employees of non-profits. He called for a one-day work stoppage by staff of all NGOs with the ultimate goal of raising awareness of the good work and essential services they provide.
“In the face of high inflation and rocketing housing prices, our colleagues have gradually become a disadvantage, marginalized group in society,” wrote Liu in an article published on the website NGOCN in June this year.
Liu picked November 1, which fell on a Monday, as the day for NGO staff to stop work. The first day of the week, and the first day of the 11th month of 2011 are written in numerals with six ones. The word one in Chinese rhymes with the word “want.” Along with increased pay Liu wants his colleagues to be better respected by society and he wants to attract better people to the sector.
Liu’s online threat of a work stoppage got some support but also drew harsh criticism.
“Non-profit is about what you can give, not what you can take,” an Internet user called “Coffee with sugar” wrote on her Weibo. Another writer declared that a “non-profit career is for rich people who have nothing better to do.”
“NGOs provide people and communities with professional services. Those who are engaged by them deserve a decent life,” said Deng Guosheng, a professor with the School of Public Policy and Management of Tsinghua University.
Deng’s research into the sector shows that China’s NGOs can be divided into at least two distinct camps. Government supported NGOs which carry out large humanitarian or social service projects often on national scale are relatively well funded. The country’s 1 million independent grassroots NGOs on the other hand need only consist of three people and sometimes cater to a narrow cause or effort.
Government-sponsored NGOs usually have far more resources than grassroots NGOs which mainly rely on donations or short-term government contracts.
Deng says the millions 0f people who work for NGOs and non-profits are undervalued and underappreciated.
“Many donors simply ignore the fact that NGOs have real operating and labor costs, and are not willing to pay for them,” said Deng adding that many philanthropists are insisting that no more than 5 percent of their donation be spent on administrative costs. This is affecting the NGOs’ ability to effectively manage much needed humanitarian projects, said Deng.
The NGO nonprofit sector has a number of critics who say too many are poorly run and fail to produce results.
“The overall quality of China’s NGOs needs to be improved,” said Wang Zhenyao, the Dean of One Foundation Philanthropy Research Institute of Beijing Normal University, and former director of the Philanthropic Promotions Department of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
Executing projects exactly as planned and managing money is not always the strong suite of many grassroots NGOs. “The Red Cross Society of China offered 20 million yuan to projects that supported reconstruction efforts following the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, but very few NGOs were qualified,” Deng wrote in one of his recent essays.
Many NGO leaders complain that it’s difficult to raise service standards if they can’t afford to recruit outstanding people and pay a decent salary that will keep them in the job.
Shi Fumao is the director of the Beijing Legal Aid Station for Migrant Workers, one of the city’s biggest NGOs. His 21-member team help the huge army of migrant workers solve 1,600 labor disputes a year.
Keeping employees happy
“It’s hard for us to attract very talented people to work here, our salary is far from attractive,” said Shi, adding that new college graduates are paid around 2,000 yuan a month, while a grad with a Master’s earns around 3,000 yuan a month.
“We’re not doing this type of work for the money, but NGO staff still need to be able to survive in big cities,” said Shi.
“The professional social services provided by NGOs need to be bought. They don’t come free,” Wang Zhenyao with the Philanthropy Research Institute told the Global Times.
“The public’s misunderstanding in this regard could have a serious negative impact on the healthy development of China’s philanthropic efforts,” Wang added.
Zheng Xiaojie has realized she can’t afford to wait for government grants and private donations to flow into Hongdandan. Over the past eight years Hongdandan has only received one project grant of 56,000 yuan from the Beijing municipal government. She says relying on government handouts “is too little to keep an NGO going,” said Zheng, who has yet to receive the cash from the Beijing government.
Like many NGOs Zheng’s work with the people she serves is being distracted by a never-ending need to raise funds.
She is now investing her time and energy into developing products like audio tapes that she might be able to sell to other NGOs that provide services to the blind. She promises the revenue will be ploughed back into Hongdandan.
“People will start coming to us for services, and when I prove we’re making a contribution to society I think the government will definitely support us,” Zheng said, who has promised to give her team a raise. “They deserve it. Working for an NGO means you not only contribute your time and wisdom but your emotions as well.”
Worth more than money
Despite the low wages, most people working for an NGO contacted by the Global Times say they are happy with what they are doing. “You should be prepared to discount your salary expectations by 30 percent as working in this sector brings you more honor and a greater sense of achievement than many other jobs. It’s just more meaningful,” said He Shuzhong, the founder of Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center.
Zheng agrees working with people in need is gratifying and helping them succeed keeps her motivated
“Just thinking that there will be more blind people like Lina going to universities with other sighted students, using the audio books we made to them, makes me feel very happy and exited, and that’s just about enough for me,” said Zheng.
By Feng Shu