A Fresh Approach: Impressions of Beijing Sun Village

China Development Brief no. 57 (Spring 2013)

中文 English

The standard internet description of Beijing Sun Village (Běijīng tàiyáng cūn) as being “a charity that cares for and educates minors whose parents are serving a prison sentence” is one that had stuck in my mind for many years, right up until recently when I was finally able to experience what the charity does first hand, and to begin to understand the new Sun Village.

Thinking back to my previous visits to charitable organizations, it always saddens me to recall the serious difficulties they face in developing their operations. While reading up for my trip to Sun Village I saw that its director, Ms. Zhang Shuqin, had already been asked “What is the most challenging aspect of your work?” during an earlier press interview, to which she had replied: “Money!” – a perennial problem that inhibits the survival of all grassroots NGOs. A few years ago, the monthly cost of supporting a single child at Sun Village was CNY 300, while staff salaries ranged between CNY 400 – 600. But with prices soaring over recent years the organization’s budget is stretched to the absolute limit. How are kids expected to survive on CNY 300 per month today? And how can Sun Village survive? With these questions in mind, I set off on my visit.

Zhang’s energy level completely belies her age – she is soon to be 60 – as does her tight schedule: a queue of other journalists wait in line with appointments that follow on from my interview. Candid and talkative, Zhang responds to questions with a flow of lucid prose, summarizing the village’s survival story in one word: “self-reliance!” Prior to 2002, “Two-thirds of our income came from voluntary donations; the other third was generated by reselling goods donated in kind for cash.” Goods that are donated in kind are items deemed unsuitable for the children at Sun Village to use, but which can be “re-marketed” as second-hand goods and sold for cash. The income this generates – which comes to several tens of thousand CNY per month – has underpinned the Sun village’s survival for many years.

But scraping by on handouts does not constitute success for Zhang who realized early on that the village would need to develop its own independent lifeline to secure its long-term survival and development, rather than rely on goodwill. So, while many NGOs were still yo-yoing between “survival and destruction”, prior to the era of social entrepreneurs, Zhang had already begun to actively explore the process of becoming independent.

This kicked off in 2002 when the village began to establish its own community farm (“Àixīn nóngchǎng”) by renting 260 acres of land which it used to plant pear trees, jujube and other crops, using the income to plug funding shortfalls. Over time, as Zhang slowly recognized the value of leisure travel, the village began to explore how to transform its farm base into a site that integrated the values of public benefit with leisure. This led, in 2005, to the launch of a one-day summer camp, which hoped to attract urban visitors by laying on activities such as picking fruit, feeding chickens and rice farming, as well as offering participants the chance to sponsor a jujube tree for RMB 100 – 150. Following positive public reaction to both initiatives Zhang launched the “Happy Farmhouse Community Club” project in 2007: a fee-paying membership model that gives members a range of benefits, including the opportunity, at weekends and during holiday periods, to plant and tend a variety of seasonal fruit and vegetables in a tranquil rural setting, and to receive art, including paintings, produced by the children at Sun Village. Charitable people warmly welcomed these activities.

However, the good times did not last. The harsh winter of 2009 wiped out 40,000 jujube trees, leaving the fledgling enterprise on the brink of extinction. “What could we do? Being at the mercy of God, we could only grit our teeth and start again!” said Zhang. It was while in the midst of this predicament that the organization made the decision (following exploratory investigations) to strengthen its capacity to withstand natural disasters in an effort to develop a secure income stream. The embodiment of these efforts is the greenhouse project.

In 2011 the village made a successful application to the Beijing Agriculture Commission which, through a programme of subsidized funding, provided opportunity for the construction of 74 greenhouses to cultivate strawberries. “For every greenhouse built, the Commission would provide a subsidy of RMB 30,000. But in the beginning we didn’t even have the funding to build a shed, and so we were trying to drum up sponsorship from everywhere, asking business after business whether they could make a RMB 50,000 contribution. Using the subsidy from our first greenhouse we were able to pay off old debts from 2009. Over the course of 2 months, we were able to construct greenhouses containing 7,000 square meters of steel using this investment model!”

Listening to Zhang’s story amazed me. How could all of the construction and planting work be finished in little more than two months? “By mobilizing society!” was her incredulous reply. Funding from businesses made up only a small part of the overall cost of the greenhouses. Other contributions came via direct sponsorship or in-kind gifts such as building materials. In addition, volunteers such as students or families helped to plant strawberries, while some made advance strawberry purchases by “adopting” a strawberry greenhouse.

“Our yields have already reached a certain scale” Zhang said proudly, while at the same time encouraging staff to taste freshly picked strawberries from the two boxes that had been prepared for us. “Sun Village is already out of the woods!” she said with an air of confidence. “Asking businesses to ‘adopt’ a greenhouse is much easier than direct financing. They are more willing to donate in this way and can receive great strawberries in return. What’s more, the prospects for strawberry sales are very good. From here on, Sun Village will be able to rely on income from greenhouse crops to secure its existence and provide assistance to more children in a wider variety of ways. According to our assessment the farm now has fixed assets of more than RMB 10 million, and this year we are preparing to establish a ‘public benefit industrial development fund’ and a second-hand goods supermarket. But we also want to be a base that provides free office space and accommodation for grassroots organizations.” In Zhang’s mind the future is rosy.

The question I am left pondering while visiting Sun village’s yard is “What has allowed Sun Village to emerge from its predicament in such good health?” Although the children are not yet back from school the yard is full of busy people: a TV camera crew, corporate sponsors delivering supplies and delivery trucks dropping off flowers and plants. The area in front of the activity room is decked out with materials, including plaques, from business sponsors, work units, schools, the media and other institutions that have adopted Sun Village as a base for their charitable activity. There is space to house dozens more and what’s visible “is just the tip of the iceberg.” The children’s rooms are located in the yard of a one-storey building, each named after a donor company.

From what I have observed during my visit “self-reliance and social mobilization” are not just words but ‘lived’ values for Zhang Shuling. The organization adopts an entrepreneurial mindset to run its business, exploring new ideas to build its own model of sustainability. While all resources, regardless of their dimension, are viewed through the eye of a spider: in other words as objects that can be adapted to its use. Size simply does not matter when it comes to the effort invested into the management of relationships and resources: be it a government department, a business or a school, the media or the public, a major policy innovation or a small individual donation of a few yuan, the organization will go to great lengths to coordinate every last detail. Using this fluid business strategy, Zhang has been able to gradually develop a virtuous and sustainable model of development.

Having bid farewell to the Sun Village and returned to the office to write up my findings, I stumbled across two further sources of information. The first was a Sun Village strategic development plan from 2006 that provided a detailed SWOT analysis (undertaken by the management consultancy group McKinsey & Company) of the organization’s plan to develop its long-term development objectives. The second was an article describing the organization’s experience of the winter of 2009 – written up not as a sob story, but of how the charity was exploring ways to replenish destroyed crops and become financially self-sustainable. The piece provoked a lot of public sympathy, but also some criticism from those that wanted to provide funds directly for the benefit of the children, but who were not concerned with compensating the charity directly. Nonetheless, the positive slant of the report convinced people to remember all of the good work previously carried out by Sun Village and for it to preserve its credibility and positive brand image.

In my opinion, a small grassroots NGO like Sun Village that has a progressive outlook, an ability to view itself rationally, a management ethos that “continues to seek out new horizons and set new goals” along with its ability to connect with the hearts of the people must surely have a bright future.

鲜活的生存之道:北京太阳村印象 作者:董惠洁

“北京太阳村是以无偿为服刑人员代养代教其未成年子女的慈善机构。”这是我从网上查到的太阳村的一个“标准的定义”,很多年前知道太阳村时,它就一直这样概念化地存在我的脑海,直到最近我才真正走进它、接触它,感受了一个鲜活的太阳村。

原来也走访过一些公益组织,看到一些机构面临着重重困难,处于举步维艰的境遇,总让我心有戚戚。笔者此行太阳村之前翻阅资料,见曾有媒体在采访中问太阳村 主任张淑琴女士:“最困难的事情是什么?”张女士回答:“是钱!”困窘的资金,遏制着每一家草根NGO的生存。几年前,太阳村的孩子们每月的生活标准是 300元,而工作人员工资仅400~600元。物价飞涨的今天,这样的标准更显得捉襟见肘。孩子们现在的生活如何?太阳村生存的现况如何?带着疑问,我走 进太阳村。

张淑琴看上去精力充沛,完全不像年届六旬的老人。那天她的日程很紧凑,在我们访谈的前后,都有另外的媒体相约而来,排队等候。感觉得出她是个性格爽朗、健谈的人,我们甫一发问,她立刻哗啦啦地开讲起来,思维非常活跃。谈到太阳村的生存之道,她用了四个字“自力更生!”在2002年前,“太阳村三分之二的收 入依靠社会支持,三分之一的收入靠旧物资变善款。”她口中的旧物资变善款,是指由社会捐赠的物资中那些不适合太阳村孩子使用的,他们就整理好放到二手货市场去“营销”,变实物为资金,将不能流动的有形资产变为看得见的真金白银。这种方法使太阳村每个月有几万块钱收入,支撑了很多年。

但张淑琴并不因此满足。张淑琴早早意识到,太阳村要长久生存和发展不能仅仅依赖于外界的捐助,还需要培养自身的造血功能。于是,在许多NGO还在“生存还是毁灭”间徘徊,许多家社会企业还未萌芽的时候,太阳村在这方面已开始了转型的积极探索。

2002年,太阳村开始兴建自己的“爱心农场”。他们租赁了260亩土地,建成种植基地,栽种了梨树、枣树和其他农作物,用收入弥补经费的不足。随着时间 的推移,张淑琴慢慢认识到了公益旅游的价值,于是开始探索将种植基地转变为大众公益和休闲度假相结合的场所。2005年,太阳村推出“爱心认树,家庭小农场,一日夏令营”活动,果园里的枣树以每棵100~150元的价格供社会人士认捐,同时还开展采摘、喂鸡、农家饭等活动吸引城里的游客。这些举措立刻得到 了积极的响应。2007年太阳村推出“农家乐爱心俱乐部”项目,采取会员制,会员交纳会费后享有一定的权利,包括可以利用周末假日来这里享受种菜、锄草、 浇水施肥等农耕的快乐,可以采摘不同品种的水果和不同季节的蔬菜,可以得到太阳村小朋友的绘画作品和其他艺术品等,这些活动都受到了社会爱心人士的欢迎。

但是好景不长,2009年的寒冬,农场40 000株枣树全部被冻死绝收,刚刚起步的太阳村爱心企业遭遇灭顶之灾。“怎么办呢?老天就是这样的安排,惟有咬着牙,重新再来!” 张淑琴说。困境中的太阳村经过考察,决定开发能抗击自然灾害和使太阳村能有相对稳定收入的设施农业,这就是现在他们的温室大棚项目。

2011年,太阳村成功申请了北京市农委的温室建设补贴,在50亩土地上建造了74座温室大棚,栽种草莓。“开始时连建棚的资金都没有, 我们到处拉赞助,认养一个大棚五万块钱,一家企业、一家企业地问。建好一个大棚,农委补贴每个棚三万。我们建好一个,拿到补贴就去还2009年欠的旧债。”就这样7 000多平米的钢建大棚用了两个多月的时间全部竣工了!

张淑琴老师的叙述让我听得投入,又大为震惊。两个多月,完成建筑工程和种植任务,怎么会这么快呢? “动员社会力量啊!”她说。企业认领大棚筹集建设资金只是一小部分,有的企业直接赞助了建大棚的钱;有的公司将建筑材料无偿送给太阳村,还有很多大学生志 愿者和爱心家庭帮助种植草莓,有的用认养草莓大棚的方式定购草莓,众人拾柴火焰高。

“现在我们草莓已经有一定规模的产量了。”张淑琴一边自豪地说,一边招呼工作人员为我们摘两盒草莓尝一尝。“太阳村已经走出困境了!”谈及前景,她一脸自信地说,“向企业征集认养大棚比直接筹资容易得多,企业可以收获美味的草莓,他们更乐于这样的捐赠,而且草莓的销路也很看好。以后太阳村靠温室大棚的收入 就能生存得很好,还能用多种方式去帮扶更多的孩子。我们农场的固定资产评估现在已经有1 000万以上,今年我们准备建立公益产业发展基金,还要创办一个二手货超市,还想做一个草根组织的基地,免费提供办公场所和住宿……”. 未来,在张淑琴心中 似乎已经规划得十分清晰、明亮。

是什么让太阳村从困境走出,又充满着生命力?我一边在太阳村的场院里参观,一边在心里琢磨这个问题。孩子们还没有放学回来,太阳村的院落里忙碌着很多人, 有正在录像的电视台,有来送物资的赞助企业,还有花卉大棚运送花卉的车辆。在活动室楼前,挂满了各赞助企业、合作单位、学校、媒体等机构爱心基地、教育基地的牌匾,足有几十块,而这“还只是一小部分”。座落在场院里的一座座平房,是孩子们居住的爱心小屋,每间都以捐赠单位的名字命名。

“自力更生,动员社会力量”,这是张淑琴的话,也是我看到的太阳村最大的特色。一方面不依赖于社会捐助,开拓思路,用企业家的思维经营自办产业,积极建立 自身的造血机制;另一方面抓住一切机会,整合各方面资源,像蜘蛛织网一样,把资源从四面八方集中起来,为其所用。大有大用,小有小用,从政府部门到企业、 学校,从新闻媒体到社会大众,大到优惠政策的争取,小到个人几块钱的捐赠,可以看到太阳村在每一件事上的用心,努力协调每一个层面。这样收放自如的策略, 使得太阳村一步步走到良性循环中,从而走上持续发展的道路。

在告别太阳村,回来整理资料时,我偶然发现了两份资料。一份是2006年太阳村的一个战略发展规划,里面详细分析了太阳村内部、外部环境的优劣势,制定了 中长期发展目标。据张淑琴介绍,这是他们请麦肯锡公司专门做的评估,依据现在的发展状况还准备再次评估更新。另外一份资料是2009年太阳村遭遇寒冬,枣树绝收后的一篇新闻报道,写的是太阳村没有因为困境推脱承诺,而是自筹资金,想办法外购了一批枣,对认养人给予赔付。此举得到了大家的理解,甚至还遭遇了部分“非议”,认养人纷纷表示不在乎赔偿,而希望把资金用于孩子身上。温暖的报道让人感觉不到寒冬的冷酷,而更多地记住了太阳村用诚信赢得了人心,维护了 品牌的公信力。

我想,一个小小的草根NGO,高处有着前瞻的视野,认识自身的清醒以及“不断看到新希望、新目标” 这样的管理智慧;低处有着微小的细心,用真诚去维护人心。这样的太阳村,前景如何不光明呢?

Translated by Matt Perrement

Reviewed by CDB Staff

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