CDB Staff Writer, Li Simin, profiles a virtual Shanghai-based NGO that provides a networking and information-sharing platform for social workers, and teachers and students of social work.
Without doubt, the Internet will play a crucial role in society’s development in the twenty-first century. However, scientific and technological development do not necessarily equate to social progress. On the contrary, science and technology are shaped by the social and historical conditions of the time, and their efficacy is limited by the results of social and historical development. The question for current Chinese NGOs, then, is how can they utilize the internet to positive ends?
SowosSky (青翼社会工作人才服务中心) is an NGO which was conceived on the Internet. In 2003, while still in her third year of university, Li Zhaowei established the “SowosSky Social Work Network (“青翼社会工作网”). According to Li, the site was originally set up out of personal interest, and she hoped that it would serve as a platform to meet like-minded people.
After graduation, Li continued to maintain the site, which by that time had become something of an online home for social workers. However, at this point it was still strictly a hobby.
In 2006, Li’s father was diagnosed with cancer and she resigned from her job in Shanghai to return to the family home to care for him. It was more than six months before she returned to Shanghai.
During this time, a number of users of the website left messages and sent emails asking why the page appeared to have lapsed into disuse. Some were also concerned about what might have happened to Li and wondered whether the site had been abandoned because of a lack of funds. Some also criticized Li for what they saw as her suddenly and irresponsibly abandoning the website altogether: “The website doesn’t only concern you; you can’t shut it down just because you feel like it. This is a website for an entire profession; if there is a problem you should tell everyone so we can discuss it together.”
It was then that Li began to realize that running the website was not just a matter of personal interest; it was also a responsibility. There were many in the social work profession who had expectations of the site, and the site also provided them with support and assistance.
Li began to consider how to turn “SowosSky” into an organization. In September of 2008, an entity was created and in the same month it was admitted to the incubation program at the well-known Shanghai-based NGO, Nonprofit Incubator (NPI) (恩派公益组织发展中心), to facilitate further growth. However, the development of the organization has not all been smooth sailing: “Before December, 2009 we were all just finding our way. When we first started we believed we could do anything; we tried pretty much everything we wanted to. But afterwards we discovered there were some things we couldn’t do.” Therefore, Li and her team began to consider what SowosSky’s competitive advantages were and what SowosSky should focus on.
As a network platform, SowosSky brings together social workers, students and teachers of social work, and those interested in the subject. At the same time, by learning from past experience, they discovered that the development of social work had reached a bottleneck and that there was an acute problem in the supply of personnel to meet demands of social work.
Due to a lack of communication channels, social workers found it hard to find suitable work, while the rapidly developing social work organizations also faced a shortage of personnel. At the same time, due to insufficient recognition of the professionalization of social work, organizations employing social workers did not know how to utilize them fully. Social workers wanted recognition from society and also needed professional skills training.
“Therefore, we thought given that the development of the profession had reached a bottle neck, SowosSky’s work should build on the network and brand we had already created. On this basis our work would be aimed at providing services, such as arranging internships for social workers, helping them with employment problems, providing internships, mentoring, training, and recommendations for employment. We have been able to promote the professionalization of social workers through recommendation of personnel, capacity building, and group studies,” Li said.
Following this mission, SowosSky is currently primarily involved in launching the “SowosSky ‘Spread Your Wings’ Training Camp.” In 2009, the training camp was recognized as the social entrepreneur project with the most potential by the British Embassy and the YouChange China Social Entrepreneur Foundation (友成企业家基金会). [Editor’s Note: The British Council, the cultural wing of the embassy, has been involved in promoting social enterprise in China over the last few years, in partnership with local organizations such as the well-known private foundation, YouChange].
The training is primarily aimed at professional social workers and students of social work. The project combines workshops, symposia, practical training, mentoring by peers, individual supervision and sharing individual experiences about growth and development.
With the assistance of supervisors, students complete a series of challenges. Through personal experience, sharing, challenges, breakthroughs, mutual assistance and growth, students develop a deeper understanding of individuals and the profession. They increase their practical capabilities and professional qualities.
The organization also relies on members of the Union of Colleges and Universities to launch a series of activities that focus on areas such as the development of students of social work, training and employment. They also provide students of social work from across the country with incremental training.
In order to satisfy organizations’ requirements for employees, they do as much as they can to address the problems of students’ lack of practical experience and bolster students’ skills where they may be lacking. In December, 2009 SowosSky completed registration at the Pudong Civil Affairs Bureau in Shanghai.
At the same time, Li Zhaowei has not forgotten SowosSky’s online beginnings. They are currently raising funds to update the existing site. “SowosSky’s whole development has relied upon the development of the internet, and internet platforms can provide social workers with a great deal of support and opportunities to communicate. Therefore, we wanted to turn the website into a social work portal. The website will have a similar human resources database to the recruitment website Zhaopin, and a distance learning function.”