Floating bridges: the disadvantaged position of fund-granting officers

中文 English

Editor’s note: The author of this article, Nan Yizhi, already calls herself an “auntie”, but in my view, she is still young and full of vigor. Although she is young, she looks at problems with the eye of someone highly experienced. People in charity circles usually think that grant-making officers are in a privileged position, but she points out that because of the immaturity of fund projects and the governance problems of the foundations, these officers, like every link in the chain of the charity circle, are constrained by this imperfect industry, its institutional problems and its environment.

My choice of title may seem a bit pretentious. If the ones who hold the money are in a disadvantaged position, then what about those on the other side? But fund officials are indeed on the disadvantaged side. In order to prove this, first of all, we have to explain what fund officials do. In short, fund officials’ work is to help foundations find, nurture and invest in suitable projects. From the point of view of those being financed, we bring the resources, and especially the money. From the angle of the foundations, we are the ones who achieve their social ideals. From the point of view of society as a whole, we are bridges connecting projects and funds.

It is hard to be a bridge, especially when the land on both ends of the bridge is not stable. As a fund official, on my left bank there are limited mature and effective projects. Therefore, a large amount of resources and time has to be devoted to nurturing a promising agency. On my right bank, the goals and visions of the grant-making foundations are still unclear. So fund officials’ work is always stuck in probing basic regulations. In my mind, our work is still quite far from reaching a clear direction in terms of social values.

The vicious circles on the ”left bank”

First let’s talk about the left bank of the bridge.

When I mention the term ”project”, I mean a specific solution to a certain social problem. As a fund official with two years experience, I hope to help certain groups to improve their current or future living conditions by supporting certain projects. More specifically, I am serving in an educational foundation, so the projects I am looking for are the ones that could use different ways to help fulfill the potential of disadvantaged groups. The projects may help them build up capacity and technology, so that in the future the quality of these groups’ life can be improved.

Hence, all my expectations towards the projects are based on the effect of the services they provide. When you judge whether a project is good or not, the core standard doesn’t lie in the activities or the form in which they are conducted. Rather, what really matters is whether it can meet the recipients’ needs and bring beneficial change. Take the most commonly-seen educational charity project, the reading project, as an example. Though the specific method of implementation varies from building a library in the countryside to helping rural teachers conduct reading courses, I always ask the project executive team two questions: first of all, what kind of improvements do you hope to give the kids through all these efforts? Secondly, why do you suppose that your methods can reach the expected goals?

Sometimes it is hard to get the project executive team to answer these two questions directly. I don’t want to get trapped in the debate on whether reading is the end or the means of study. What I really want to say is that, although more and more agencies and individuals are wholeheartedly promoting reading, agencies which can really explain reading’s value to children from the angle of scientific theory or actual facts are scarce.

In fact, I still hear many people say that they are promoting reading because children read too little, or that they are doing it for the good of the children because they find rural kids to be deserving of pity. But my challenges are: why is it so bad not to read that much? How and to what extent do you define “good” for kids? “Kids in rural areas are deserving of pity” is only the subjective judgment we outsiders make, but what are the children’s demands behind all this “pitifulness”?

I still remember once when I paid a visit to an agency, and I asked similar questions to find out the motives behind a project. I was told that this particular rural school had only one projector in the whole school, and it didn’t even have a laser pointer. In spite of all my understanding and sympathy, I had to say that it was an irrelevant answer. Besides the fact that projectors and laser pointers are not necessary conditions for improving educational quality, they also don’t reflect the real difficulties rural kids face. What lies behind this answer is the fact that they focus only on depicting ”poverty”. Neither the demands nor the potentials of the kids were taken into consideration by the project designers.

These sorts of situations are not uncommon, and they reflect the vicious circle that the public welfare sector has been working hard to break out of: we have been limited by the miserable surface of “poverty”, ”difficulties” and ”disasters”. But we don’t search for the strength and vision to break thoroughly through this surface. Unfortunately, if the goals and visions of charitable organizations are confined to the appearance of poverty and disaster, then the solutions provided will only be ineffective solutions attempted, or the act of quenching one’s thirst by thinking of plums.

The consequent result of this vicious circle is the core challenge which project officers are dealing with: really effective charity projects are still scarce. Less is more, so when they find promising projects and reliable project teams, funding officials truly feel like they’ve found a treasure! But this kind of mentality makes it hard for the fund management to reach the expectations of the foundations, because a good project will never be in need of money. It might be hard to imagine, but the specific difficulties funding officials can face even include the following: finding it hard to acquire accurate information regarding the bank account where the money should be deposited, and being unable to hand in reports because of their partners’ postponements.

But in most cases, as fund officials in pure grant-making foundations, we don’t face any pressure to raise funds. In other words, we don’t face any pressure to survive. Besides being distressed by the lack of good projects, what affects funding officials and grant-making foundations the most are the industry’s standards and the foundation’s internal challenges. So now we move to the “right bank” of the bridge.

Challenges from the “right bank”

Of course, on our name cards you will usually find the words ”project official” or “funding official”. However, we are not real officials. Most funding officials have very limited decision-making powers. Even though funding officials spend lots of time everyday talking about project design with different organizations, and in spite of the fact that they are the representatives who know NGOs best, our rights are limited to recommending a project to the board or the person in charge. Needless to say, the independence of mainland Chinese foundations and the legal requirements they face have also brought considerable limitations to sponsorship work.

First of all, the current laws and regulations contain requirements on how foundations should spend their money. For example, the payments which public fund-raising foundations make to support projects are regulated to be no less than 70% of their total revenue of the previous year, while non-public fund-raising foundations have to spend no less than 8% of the previous year’s account balance. These regulations force the fund officials to spend certain amounts of money. Even if there are no legislative regulations, the board of directors or the founders will have certain requirements regarding a foundation’s yearly expenditure in grants. But as I have just mentioned, good projects are scarce. Funding officials who want to spend money on the most preferable projects have to lower their project management standards and compromise on the executive teams. In private discussions between funding officials, there is no shortage of stories regarding good projects implemented by teams that refuse to comply with the requirements of the foundations.

Secondly, leaving aside the immaturity of those who execute the projects, the internal governance of foundations is not that satisfactory either. The improper pressure to spend money is just one aspect. Sometimes, fund officials may spend money on ineffective projects because of the uncertain targets of their foundations, or because of irrelevant targets such as brand marketing.

In terms of project management, the funding officials may be in a dilemma too. Taking the project reports as an example, funding officials have to hand in their project reports to higher authorities. However, if we invest in a small project for only 30000 Yuan a year, the recipient side may find it hard to provide frequent project and financial reports due to the small amount of resources involved. Even if the funding officials understand the situation clearly, they are still forced to press these requirements on the recipient organizations. The wide gap between the system’s requirements and the reality has caused increasing problems for grant-making officials.

This doesn’t mean there is no way out. Once I visited a small foundation in Hong Kong and I was really impressed by their work methods: they didn’t require fund recipients who only received small amounts to hand in frequent reports. Instead, they came to understand the projects’ conditions and help the recipients to build their capacity of project management. I do appreciate their efforts because they actually increase their own workload. Since this foundation has to raise funds from the public and other foundations, they need reports to prove their work from the recipients much more than we do. In Mainland China, on the other hand, most of the foundations make their own demands the priority. So grant-making officials always need to try and balance the requirements of their foundations and the NGOs’ particularities.

All these inner governance problems and the troubles brought about by the legal requirements are just the surface of the problem. What really restrains the development of foundations and the optimization of projects is the unclear and uncertain attitude we hold towards social problems. Previously, when I worked in project execution, I often refused to discuss so-called “values”. I paid more attention to doing something practical, and tried my best to avoid all kinds of empty talk. But now I realize that people who are doing something practical may focus on the present, but grant-oriented foundations should be concerned more about the long term. Usually a foundation will support several to several dozen projects of different scales. The standards and requirements they have for these projects should be set on the basis of the foundation’s vision and goals.

Looking at the problems with the project reports we mentioned earlier, if the greater goal of the foundations is to promote the development of the industry, then having strict requirements on NGO’s financial reports and other follow-ups is one of the ways to help grassroots organizations improve their work and management procedures. No matter how large the grants are, these requirements are within reason. If on the other hand the major goal of a foundation is to solve a certain social problem, then their funding officials could curtail their requirements on financial or other reports when they cooperate with the parties that carry out the projects. Instead, they could put more emphasis on the experience of the recipients. The small Hong Kong foundation I mentioned above understand quite clearly that its goal is women’s rights, so it puts all its emphasis on strengthening the knowledge and principles of grassroots women’s rights groups, rather than on their ability to write reports or manage funds.

The same principle can also be applied to the overall budget control of foundations, human resources management and other inner governance and project management problems. When funding officials are hesitating about the quantity and quality of reports, they should turn back and ask their leaders or their leader’s leader: what are our working goals? What is the social progress that we expect to see after all this work?

I think my arguments have been clear enough up to now. The grant-making officials of foundations, similar to every part of the philanthropic sector, are also restrained by the sector’s problems and the limitations of its system. Even though we have a certain amount of resources at our disposal, we can’t get out of the limitations of the whole system. We are only a bridge, and all our capacity depends on the support we get from both sides. If the two sides are unstable, then we are like water without a source, a tree without roots, and we can rightfully call ourselves the real disadvantaged group.

【来自基金会的TA】浮动的桥:弱势的基金会资助官员

2015-11-05 15:47:53  来源:中国发展简报  作者:南夷知

       编者的话 到本期,已是连续第四弹匿名吐槽。作为第四位蒙面出场的女侠,南夷知自称公益圈的阿姨,可在编者阿姨看来,依然是朝气蓬勃的90后。虽然年少,看问题却老道:行业中人往往以为资助官员是强势群体,而南女侠指出,由于大多数公益项目的急浅粗和基金会治理的不自主不清晰不心怀长远,资助官员其实和公益链条上的每一环一样,都受困于这个发展尚不完善的行业、制度和环境。

 

这真是一个矫情的标题。如果给钱的都弱势,还有谁强势呢?、

可资助官员真的很弱势。

如果你了解基金会普遍的工作流程和中国公益行业的现状,你就会明白,这是一个坦白的表述。要证明这一点,首先得说明,资助官员是做什么的。

       简而言之,资助官员的工作就是为基金会寻找、培养、投资合适的项目。从项目方的角度来看,我们是带来资源,特别是金钱的送财童子;从基金会的角度出发,我们是实现基金会社会理想的对外抓手;而从社会的角度观察,我们就是连接项目和资金的那座桥

       做一座桥不容易,特别是当桥两边的陆地都不稳定,都在漂浮的时候。作为一个资助官员,我的左岸,成熟有效的项目有限,培养有前途的机构需要耗费大量的人力和时间;我的右岸,资助型基金会的目标愿景尚不清晰,资助官员的工作往往困于基本规则的摸索,远达不到明确的社会价值指向。

 

怪圈林立的左岸

先说左岸的事情。

当我们定义“项目”时,以一个有两年经验的“资浅”资助官员的视角来看,项目就是“对某一社会问题的具体的解决方案”我们希望通过支持项目,帮助某一特定群体获得成长,改善他们现在或者未来的生存状态更具体地说,比如我所服务的是一家支持教育的基金会,那我寻找的就是能通过不同方式,让我们关注的弱势群体可以发挥自身潜力,获得能力和技术,从而在未来改善、提升其生活质量的项目。

因此,我对所支持项目的预期都是以服务效果为基础的。当评价一个项目优劣的时候,机构做什么活动,以什么形式进行服务并不是核心的标准。能否满足受众需求并为其带来有益的改变才至关重要。以最常见的教育公益项目——阅读推广为例,虽然具体的执行方法各异:或者在偏远农村建立图书馆并送去图书,或者帮助农村老师开展阅读课程,或者通过社区中心开展阅读活动……但是在最终的落脚点,我一定会问项目方的两个问题是:第一,我们通过这诸多的努力,到底希望这些孩子的生活有什么样的改善?你对他们未来的性格、能力、生活状态有哪些预期呢?第二,为什么我们的方法能达到我们预期的目标呢?

这两个问题,有时候很难得到项目执行者的正面回答。我并不想陷入阅读到底是手段还是目标的辩论之中,我想说的是,虽然越来越多的机构和个人笃定地进行阅读推广的工作,但是能够真正从科学理论或者现象事实角度阐明阅读对儿童发展价值的机构并不多

事实上,我依然会听到很多人说:我们做阅读是因为孩子读书太少,我们做阅读是为了孩子好,我们做阅读是因为农村的孩子太可怜。我曾经很多次地追问:读书太少一定不好吗?您希望的“孩子好”是什么程度、什么类型的“好”?农村孩子可怜,是我们外人的主观判断,“可怜”背后的需求到底是什么?

还记得有一次访问一家机构,在问起类似问题以了解项目动机的时候,他们向我描述了一所农村学校只有一个投影仪,甚至没有遥控翻页笔的窘况。在理解和同情之外,我不得不说这是一个答非所问的回答。抛开投影仪和翻页笔既不是提升教育质量的充分必要条件,也不能真正反映乡村儿童的实际困难不谈,项目执行者给出这个答案背后的思路,只是想绘画“贫穷”——个中没有孩子的诉求,更没有孩子们的未来

这种情形并不鲜见,真实体现了时下公益圈一直苦苦想要脱离的怪圈:我们太关注“穷”、“苦”、“差”的凄惨表象,以至于只急于逃离这表象下的阴影,却没有去寻求彻底打碎这表象的力量和视野。不幸的是,公益机构的工作目标和视角,如果被贫困、灾难的表象限制,那提供的解决方案也只能是隔靴搔痒,甚至望梅止渴。

而公益怪圈的终极结果,正是资助官员目前遇到的核心挑战:真正有效的公益项目,依然是稀缺资源。物以稀为贵,所以在有实效和潜力的项目面前,在靠谱的团队面前,资助官员真的会抱有“捡到宝”的心态,而这种心态,让资助官员对项目的管理难以达到基金会的预期——因为好的项目,会“不差钱”。公益机构可能很难想象,资助官员经常面临的具体困难甚至包括:难以获取准确的接收银行汇款的账户信息、因为合作伙伴的推延而无法按时上交项目报告等等

但是,无论如何,作为纯粹的资助官员,我们没有募款压力,换言之,我们没有断炊的生存焦虑。所以除了苦恼于好项目匮乏的问题之外,对资助官员以及资助型基金会影响更大的是行业标准以及机构内部的挑战,也就是之前所讲的“右岸”的事情。

 

来自右岸的挑战

没错,我们的名片上往往印着“项目官员”或者“资助官员”。但是,我们不是真的“官员”,大多数“资助官员”决策的权利非常有限。哪怕资助官员每天花费大量的时间和不同机构讨论项目设计,哪怕资助官员是最了解NGO的资方代表,我们的权限只限于向理事会或者负责人推荐某一个项目。更不必说,大陆基金会的独立性和相关法规的要求给资助工作也带来相当大的局限。

首先,现行法规对基金会的花钱是有要求的,例如:公募基金会每年用于章程规定的公益事业支出不得低于上一年总收入的70%。而非公募基金会面临不得低于上一年资金余额的8%的支出要求。这就导致了资助官员身上必然面临的花钱压力。即使没有法规要求,基金会出于理事的需求、创始人或创始公司的需求、社会舆论的压力,也一定对每年资助款的支出是有要求的。刚刚提到,好的项目并非遍地都是,所以一心想把钱花到刀刃上的资助官员,难免要在一些方面对相对优秀的项目团队有所迁就。资助官员们私下的讨论里,也不乏被“不差钱”的好项目放鸽子、欠报告的故事存在。

其次,除了不成熟的项目执行方,基金会本身的内部治理也不那么尽如人意。前面提到的花钱压力就是其一。往往因为基金会的目标不明,或者附带了企业荣誉等附加条款,导致了资助官员不得不花钱、在不那么理想的项目里花钱的状况。再比如项目报告。资助官员必须向上级提交项目报告,但是,如果是一个一年只有3万投资的小项目,受赠方的精力、人力往往很难提供高频率的项目报告和财务报告。哪怕资助官员对这种状况心知肚明,他们还是不得不如此要求受赠机构。制度要求和实际状况之间的鸿沟,成为不断困扰资助官员的问题。

不是没有解决办法。之前在香港的一个小型基金会访问,他们的工作方法让我由衷佩服:他们不要求小额资助提交繁琐的报告,而通过更多地项目参与和陪伴,了解项目的状况和发展。要知道,这家基金会本身也需要通过不断地劝募来获取资金。没有机构的报告,意味着他们的团队本身必须负担更重的沟通压力和文字处理工作。然而在大陆,大部分基金会暂时难以达到这样的认识层面。所以资助官员依然需要不断地平衡和舒缓基金会要求与NGO实际特点的冲突。

当然,内部治理和规则设立的困局只是问题的表象。真正限制基金会发展和项目优化的,是我们对社会问题的认识和对未来远景的认识不清晰或者态度不坚定。以前我做基层项目执行的时候,也经常不屑于所谓的“理念”探讨,以扶犁深耕之心,鄙视一切虚无缥缈的空谈。但后来我发现,做事的人可以专注眼前,但资助型基金会必须心怀长远。通常一家基金会都会支持几个到几十个不等的项目,对这些项目要求和标准的设立,就应该以基金会的愿景和目标为准绳。譬如前文提到的项目报告的问题,如果基金会的大目标是推动行业发展,那么严格要求NGO进行财务处理和报告跟进,本身也是帮助草根机构完善自身工作和管理流程的一种方法。无论资助金额多少,这种要求就都在合理的范畴之内。而如果基金会的大目标是解决某一特定社会议题,那么资助官员在配合项目方工作的时候,就可以把对财务和报告的要求相对精简,而在受众体验等方面下更多的功夫。上文提及的那家香港小型基金会,就非常清楚自身的目标是妇女的赋权,所以才会明确自身的工作重心是推动草根女性团体认识和观念的革新,而不是她们的文字或者财务功力。

同样的原则也适用于基金会的整体预算控制、人力资源管理等各种内部治理和项目管理问题。所以,当资助官员们纠结于报告质量和数量的时候,其实应该回头反问他们的领导,甚至领导的领导:我们工作的目标到底是什么?我们投入精力期盼的社会进步到底是什么?

说到这里,我想我的论点已经很明确了。基金会的资助官员,和公益行业的任何一分子一样,受困于行业的怪圈和自身体系的局限。纵使我们背后有着体量不小的资源,也必然跳不出整体的困局。我们只是一座桥梁,所有的稳定都要依托于两岸的支撑。若两岸不稳,那便如无源之水无本之木,是真真的弱势群体了。

 

关于作者:南夷知,做志愿服务很多年,终于在公益圈从姐姐混成了阿姨。现在某南方私人基金会做项目官员,每天忙着收报告写报告交报告,但更喜欢钻进偏远的农村看最真实的生态。

 

【栏目介绍】作为行业资源汇聚之地,基金会总是能吸引更多目光,然而过往基金会发出的声音大多来自深孚众望的公益大佬与意见领袖,中基层项目官员成为沉默的大多数。2015年,在第七届中国非公募基金会发展论坛的支持下,中国发展简报设计执行了“倾听一线的声音-—项目官员眼中的基金会与行业”项目,通过国内非公募基金会一线项目官员的公益观察或个人故事,展示他/她们的所思所想、所见所得,由此呈现项目官员如何成长、基金会如何运作、又如何对社会议题和行业发展产生影响。

本文版权归上述项目所有,如需转载,请联系office@cdb.org.cn,并请保留本段版权声明。

 

Translated by Pan Mingzhu

Reviewed by Fu Tao

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