The sustainable development of the NGO sector requires understanding and support from the public. What is most important is the need to “de-moralize” the sector and treat at it as just another professional endeavor. Tao Ran shares the experience he has gained as a professional NGO worker during the past five years, and his expectations for the professionalization of the NGO sector during the next five years.
It is difficult to believe that it has already been five years since I joined the NGO sector. As I pause and look back upon my journey as an individual in China’s developing NGO sector, I remind myself that five years is a phase, and it is now time for some self-reflection before I move on to the next five years.
My decision to join the NGO sector five years ago was one I took after much serious consideration. Back then however, the environment for Chinese NGOs was much harsher. When people asked me what it meant to be an “NGO professional”, I never knew what to reply. No matter what I would say, about half the people I spoke to would see me as some kind of irrational fool and the other half would admire me, because they imagined that I planned to dedicate my life to teaching in a remote rural village. No one understood the relationship between the “NGO sector” and “professionalism” at the time.
Now, five years later, topics such as what a reasonable salary should be for NGO workers are already being discussed. Feng Yongfeng even publicly raised the following question: “do NGO workers have to maintain a dignified poverty?” This surely indicates an increasing diversity that will lead to a more healthy and sustainable development of the NGO sector. We are fortunate to have witnessed a variety of events within and outside of the sector during the past five years, including the disappearance of certain people, for example the infamous Guo Meimei, who has begun to serve her five-year prison sentence. The once shaky Chinese NGO sector is getting stronger.
I did not join this sector by coincidence. Working as a social worker for two years beforehand had equipped me with a thorough knowledge of how NGOs work. In my opinion there is no difference between NGO jobs and other jobs, since both require expertise and professionalism. This turned out to be the most convincing argument I could use to justify my career choice to my family.
In June 2010, two months after the Yushu Earthquake, I arrived at Yushu and began my full-time job in the NGO sector. Since I was the only man in the organization, I was sent to the frontline. The tasks were simple and required no expertise: finding and confirming the identity of children who were receiving donations, and reporting the situation to the donors. All I had to do was to ask the children one by one for their grant-receiving number in order to confirm their identity. It was a repetitive job, but I did it for 55 days.
Following this, I had to carry out another two simple tasks: visiting selected students in their homes and delivering the donations. Meanwhile, the organization’s local volunteers conducted the rest of the procedural work. This model had been operating for five years and was well established. The services of the volunteers were also guaranteed. With all the procedures already set, I didn’t have a chance to improve my professionalism or expertise. In fact, the only difference between employees like me and the volunteers was the amount of time we committed.
A year later I left this social organization, which had been started by outstanding volunteers, and joined a newly established private foundation in Beijing. This organization was active in the educational sector, and also provided services in Qinghai Province. I had the chance to manage an entire project, since the foundation was still new and had many projects running but few volunteers. These projects were assigned to individuals and divided by counties. Despite the lack of much chance to use my own discretion due to the strict project budget and plans, I still made some progress in my project management skills when compared with my previous job.
I frequently compared the two organizations. The most obvious distinction was their different natures. Private foundations were supervised by the civil affairs department through annual inspections，which ensured that all activities were carried out to specific standards. Furthermore, with little external interference, the foundation where I worked just operated according to the rules.
Fortunately, the situation changed soon. The foundation started to seek exchanges and cooperation with organizations like the Pneumoconiosis Assistance Foundation, the Sina Yangfan Plan Fund and the China Foundation Center. Interacting with other foundations, building up sectorial platforms and combining resources became priorities for us. This change of mindset allowed us to stop working alone and drew our attention to the effectiveness of grant-making projects. That was when we realized what the major hurdles for our development were, and that we urgently needed to cooperate with others.
In 2014 and 2015, while we attempted to enhance our own educational projects, some foundations had already begun to understand the soft power of charitable projects. In a particularly impressive seminar I attended in China, I got to know about many highly professional organizations with both specialized knowledge and decades of practical experience in education and other related areas.
As a frontline project officer, having gone through all the experiences described above during the past five years, I feel there is an urgent need for an improvement in the professionalism of NGO workers. Some NGOs have already started to promote the use of professional managers. It is obvious that NGOs require more people with a professional expertise. When we discuss whether NGO practitioners deserve a high salary, I often ask myself whether my competences could actually match such a salary. In my view, the ideal project officers must earn their payment, their reputation in the sector, and the recognition from donors and grant-making foundations of their expertise.
Looking forward to becoming more professional for the next five years.