Editor’s note: this article is written by a young man who just started his career in the public welfare sector, and it is a profound reflection on his experience of learning how to go about project funding. It includes three interconnected parts: the evolution of my relationship with my partners; the learning and growth process which me and my partners went through while‘wrestling’ in pursuit of the ‘results’ of our projects; and finally going back towards defining myself and the beneficiaries of my projects’.
I completely lacked any experience in business organization and public welfare foundation when I started my master’s degree two years ago. During my four years in college, I worked in many social organizations ranging from state organizations and youth unions to students union and private non-profit organizations.
It was through a training project sponsored by China Merchants Charitable Foundation (CMCF) in which I participated by chance, during which I had my first contact with my current colleagues, that I first realized the difference between CMCF and any other team I had worked for earlier. As this training project presented me with a new path in the public welfare sector that I hoped to try, I started to follow news related to CMCF until I finally got the chance to work for them three months later. However, working in a foundation was not easy for a newcomer. Terms such as funding theory, rational public welfare, and value chains in public welfare, which were unfamiliar if interesting to me, were mentioned time and again at our team meetings. What left me the deepest impression was something someone said in a meeting: “there is no standard career training for project officers working in foundations, funding projects is more like a craft that is gained through a lot of practice.” Such a statement definitely made me quite anxious as a newcomer. How could I do this by self-exploration and without an adviser, I thought?
Listening to other people
My anxiety soon showed up in my work. On my first business trip for project inspection, I did a lot of work before my departure, including reading project material and gathering information about all the relevant stakeholders and their interests. Without any related experience, I found that I was ambivalent about the trip. On the one hand, I was nervous after finding out that our partner was strong; on the other hand, I looked forward to joining the project because it was the first time that I could play such a role in a similar project. However, when contacting project-related parties, I rushed to deliver messages that I had prepared beforehand. I was worried that if I didn’t do so the expected results could not be accomplished, therefore I kept struggling to find a perfect timing to express my opinions on the project. In the end this exhausted me and I gained little out of it. I kept wondering why I was not gaining the most from what I had initially prepared, and understood the answer by referring to a former project visit that I paid with a predecessor who worked in the field of educational foundations. Looking back at his generosity in giving partners more chances to think and express their ideas clearly, I realized that my impatience did me no favours, and in fact, putting the focus entirely on expressing my own opinion while trying to show that I was the party with the resources and power in my hands killed any chance for our partners to express their own viewpoint.
Focusing on personal development
What did I gain?
My criteria for evaluating a successful project have changed through my work. I was asked once during an interview how I think we can evaluate the success of a project. The answer that I gave at that time was ‘by looking at the quantified statistics’, and it sounds funny to me now because I am not an especially result-oriented person, but I still gave such an answer. What I realized gradually during my work at CMCF is that my foundation isn’t result-oriented either, accepting possible changes in the process of project implementation and willing to leave space for possible modifications even during the project design stage. We believe that the difference between the project promoter and the funder do not lie in their strengh or weakness with respect to each other, but in the different roles they play. Even though there may be plenty of obstacles during the project practice, and some might even affect the final results, a funding can still be considered successful as long as the two parties’ problem solving ability is enhanced in the process.
Some similar thoughts had already struck me when I took part in organizing student events on campus, and I realized that we can’t just look at the guests list or the attendance numbers to assess an event’s success. At the time I didn’t think deeply about the matter from other perspectives. Even though I am constantly learning how to deal with new challenges in my work, and this learning process has often been hard and painful, it has also made my thinking more integrated, and I have understood that, a successful project should include a clear logic, a smooth communication mechanism, a clear sense of responsibility and a clear division of labour..
What did my partners and I gain working together?
While carrying out projects for the ‘comprehensive development of rural communities in poverty’ (贫困乡村社区综合发展), our foundation lays emphasis on making use of the community capital and the ‘development’ of value chains in public welfare. Community development is however a slow process during which many uncertain factors are present. This means that community development projects may entail many variables which always have to be adjusted for. For a project officer, how to deal with these variables is an issue of great importance. In my view, the appearance of each variable and the implementation of every modification are positive processes. In fact, the growth of both sides (the promoter and the funder) even surpasses that of the project itself.
From the point of view of professional ecology, CMCF tries to cooperate with organizations that focus on different issues, including established organizations that operate maturely and several start-up grassroots organizations. We face great challenges, especially when working with the start-ups. For example, being a foundation with a central state enterprise background, CMCF is submitted to a large amount of regulations, and faces much pressure to regulate its financial operations. This year I participated in a funding project with a start-up that focuses on industrial reflection and criticism. Because it was hard to identify its independent financial account, we had some trouble with financial regulations. However we actively communicated with our partner and our colleagues in the finance department, hoping to find an optimal solution. It became especially important for us to restate our points repeatedly and strive to find common ground in our conversation, as we had different concerns and focuses that got in the way of our communication. I learned to feel and respond to our partner’s difficulties, and we tried to understand each other’s concerns, which in the end made our cooperation successful. Out of this experience, I learnt that the willingness to break down stereotypes and try to be understanding and communicative are more important than any specific technique when carrying out a project. It is a process of growing up for both the partner and the foundation.
A humanistic orientation
A belief I hold firmly all the time is that as change starts with a single person, every independent individual’s actual life and their specific situation are worthy of concern. The organizational value of CMCF is ‘to provide upward mobility for those who have motivations’, highlighting the importance of the individual and their initiative. Three of CMCF’s project principles, all derived from its values, are ‘raising people’s self-consciousness, ‘reinforcing people’s market access’ and ‘increasing people’s choices’. Either by chance or by luck, me and this foundation came together, and it maybe because of this belief that we stay together.
Meanwhile,in Southern China, the rural recreation center ‘CM –Yinlong Happiness Town’ has developed rapidly in Weining, Guizhou Province. Village women not only cleaned their houses up, but also formed a public health team to work on public health problems; college student Xiao Jiang came back to the village after her graduation, and became a ‘Chinese partner’ along with two other friends: they opened a cottage hotel, a restaurant and a KTV, introducing some urban amenities to their hometown; Xiao Jiang recently hosted a debate within the community, discussing living plans and environmental protection problems with the villagers. This is a village where only three years ago you had to wear rain boots to go out, because there was dirt up to half a meter deep everywhere. In an area of Yunnan not far from this village, villagers living in the mountain established a mutual aid team (互助组) to raise cows and sheep together. They also established the first public toilet in the village. In order to help villagers learn to use it properly, training was conducted on site. For generations, the only toilet that the villagers had used was the forest far way.
In Northern China, in Puhan community of Yongji, Shanxi province, workers from a Planting and Farming cooperative (种植养殖专业合作社)stand on the stage and give a lecture for non-locals. Wang, the village woman who is in charge of financial services,now takes a laptop to work everyday, because she needs to record data or sometimes prepare a PPT for her classes…. It’s hard to imagine that these sociable people were too nervous to speak in public a few years ago.
These changes brought about by our projects give me a feeling of satisfaction, and the targets of our assistance have become my focus. In September 2015, I participated in a “cooperative foundation camp” for front line program officers (基金会一线项目官员协力营). During the first phase, my predecessors from PCD (香港社区伙伴) pointed put that project officers in foundations should reflect on several questions, such as ‘do you agree with your organization’s sense of values and its strategy for promoting changes in society’ and‘have you become a part of the solution’ I was moved by these questions. Combined with what I have seen while moving forward in the past few months, they made me realize that I am not just a passer-by, but a part of ecological and public welfare. My participation in the projects I have worked in may turn me into a part of the problem, but also into a part of the solution.
When walking forward, don’t forget to look at the big picture. It will make your every step more determined in the future.
About the author:
Wu Jingsong（伍锦松）, project officer in the China Merchants Charitable Foundation (CMCF), participated in the ‘comprehensive development of rural communities in poverty’ project. He got his bachelor’s degree in social work from Beijing Normal University’s Zhuhai Branch, and his Master of Charitable and Philanthropy Management (MCPM) from Macau University of Science and Technology. While studying he was committed to the principle of serving the community from the campus, and actively promoted campus democracy. He took many positions while in school, including Secretary General of Association of Social Workers, President of the Student Committee, Chairman of the Joint Conference of Student Organizations and Chair of the Graduate Student Union; he was also actively involved in off-campus social services and carried out services for youth development and older patient companionship and care; he also promoted cooperation in the phjlanthropy sector, launched the Pearl River Delta Joint Conference of Social Work Student Groups and held its rotating presidency.