Government Procurement Promotes Social Work Agencies

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Introduction: The following is a dense but very interesting article on a cutting-edge trend in China: the flowering of nonprofit (and some for-profit) social work agencies that are appearing in Chinese cities with the support of government funding and support. Many of these agencies are private, nonprofit organizations but they also have close ties with local governments and communities that give them space, legal status and funding to provide services to the elderly, women, the disabled, children and other groups in China’s urban communities. This growing collaboration between local governments and social work agencies can be seen as part of the Chinese government’s recent efforts to promote social management and innovation in order to better meet the needs and manage the conflicts that arise at the community level. Whether these social work agencies will develop into more independent actors that can play a role in shaping resource decisions made by local governments will bear watching.

Like a gust of fresh air, 11 social work agencies emerged in Beijing during the first eight months of 2010.

Similar social work agencies have appeared in Shanghai, Guangzhou and other places, and their importance is that they receive government funding for their goods and services and also to hire accredited social workers to work in communities, schools and hospitals.

In June 2009, Beijing’s Dongcheng District set up its first “social work agency”, known as Zhu Ren(Helping Others, 助人). Zhu Ren’s founder Li Xin explains the term “social work agency” originated from more familiar agencies like law firms or accountancy firms: “The goal is to let residents know that we are providing similar professional services.”

Other social work agencies emerged later in Beijing with names like Ren Zhu (Benevolent Assistant,仁助) , Yue Qun (Happy Group, 悦群), and and Mu You (Harmonious Friends, 睦友). The rate at which these agencies have grown since 2009 has been startling. The development of social work agencies had been slow after 2002 when the Beijing Social Work Association (北京社工协会)was founded under the supervision of the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau. Now, Beijing has at least 18 social work agencies and Social Work Associations1.

This new trend of creating social work organizations is intended to address the social problems inherent in the transition process. The 16th Party Congress (in 2002) clearly stated the following goals in its “Decision on Building a Socialist Harmonious Society”: “Develop social work human resources. To create a socialist harmonious society, we need to develop appropriate organizational structures and social work personnel”. As a result of government policies at all levels, and the work of local governments, the social work profession has made rapid progress. For example, the Beijing Social Development Office issued the “1+4”series of documents which guide social construction, party building in the social sphere, development of social organizations, community management and supervision, and social work management2.

From the beginning of 2008, under the guidance of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, China initiated national qualifying exams for social workers and social work assistants. Around the same time, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other places began establishing social service agencies. Jobs in grassroots community service stations began to open up for recent social work graduates or experienced social workers.
“The government has realized that setting up social work agencies can ease social conflicts and respond to the needs of society,” says Zhang Yang, project leader at the Jinlin Social Service Centre (近邻社会服务中心). He believes the current government push is needed for the time being as it allows different experiences to shape decisions about government resources.

All roads lead to “social work agencies”

If we take the familiar saying that “All roads lead to Rome”, then at present, we can say, “All roads lead to social work agencies”.

Beijing’s 18 registered social work agencies basically have one thing in common: they were founded by institutes of higher education and their graduates with the support of government policy. They are therefore set for a smooth journey.

Several agencies have been founded by recent graduates with investment and support from their colleges. These include Zhu Ren located in Nanluoguxiang, and Mu You, Ren Zhu and Yue Qun, all located in Xicheng district. Two of these agencies, Zhu Ren and Ren Zhu, are supported by the Beijing Youth Politics College (北京青年政治学院). Yue Qun is supported by the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture (北京建筑工程学院 ), while Mu You collaborates with the China Youth University for Political Science (中国青年政治学院).

Agency staff are typically social work graduates. The staff at Zhu Ren, initially consisted of two males and eight females who were either classmates of the founder, Li Xin, or alumni of the same college. Ren Zhu draws mainly from college and university students, and was founded with Li Xin’s help. Ren Zhu’s current director, Anna is also a graduate of China Youth University for Political Sciences. Anna previously worked at Zhu Ren. Zhu Ren and Ren Zhu are essentially sister organizations.
With the exception of Mu You, these social work agencies are registered with the district Civil Affairs Bureau as non-profits3. Mu You is not yet registered as a non-profit, though it is run as one. It carries out its own projects by “attaching” itself to the Xicheng District Social Work Association (西城区社会工作联合会)4. Mu You’s manager, Pan Xing, says Mu You will become an independent, registered organization when the time is ripe.

In response to government policies, some of Beijing’s surrounding counties have begun to actively promote social work. Some college professors have stepped forward to found their own social work agencies, for instance Wen Xin (Warm Heart 温心) in Changping County and Beijing Lv Xiang (Beijing Green Harbour 北京绿港) in Shunyi District. Ma Zechun, a professor at Beijing College of Agriculture (北京农学院) confirmed that the creation of Wen Xin stemmed largely from the Beijing Municipal Party Committee’s Social Work Commission’s (北京市委社工委) desire to generate “real experiences” for the Changping district government. This view was seconded by Zhang Yang of the Jinlin Social Services Center. Zhang understands the strategic issues, having participated in the Beijing Social Work Commission’s founding ceremonies for 10 community social work agencies5.

Jinlin was founded this year under the auspices of the Chaoyang District Agricultural Committee (朝阳区农委). It had previously worked in migrant communities such as Shange village (善各庄). Two social work agencies with similar backgrounds and concerns are Chaoyang District’s On Action Social Work Agency (朝阳区在行动社工事务所) and Beijing’s Facilitator (北京协作者社会工作发展中心). The three agencies – Jinlin, On Action, and Facilitator — were all originally registered as commercial organizations but have transformed themselves into non-profits registered with the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau.

These three agencies have developed, benefiting from the government’s readiness to acknowledge and make use of the experience and approach of nonprofits. The NGOs have also benefited from their improved status to develop their services. The heads of all three agencies said the government has offered them the olive branch of official registration.

Behind the scenes of Facilitator’s “probationary experience”, besides the dramatic one-time event of being asked by the government to register, of greater importance is more than seven years’ accumulated experience and exploration of effective methods, including models that can be extended and replicated elsewhere. Examples include integration of locally-appropriate social work experiences such as the People’s Theatre (民众戏剧)and Mature Small Groups (成长小组). Facilitator has also set up local offices in Nanjing and Zhuhai.
Li Tao (李涛), founder of Facilitator, said the biggest change has been a reduction in unnecessary pressures. For instance, since the agencies no longer have to explain their role and status to others, they have greater scope for their activities. At present, Facilitator is discussing two projects with Beijing’s Dongcheng District Civil Affairs Bureau (东城区民政局). The first is working with Dongcheng District’s neighborhood and community service stations (社区服务站) to train community service station workers. The second project, initiated by the district Civil Affairs Bureau, would establish a Dongcheng District Association of Social Workers (城区社会工作者协会) to provide practical support and professional training to the district’s social work agencies. The aim is to ensure that its grassroots social work agencies can eventually become sustainable and service-oriented organizations.

In the course of these interviews, the author also discovered a unique social work agency called Hope Social Work (Houpu 厚朴). Its structure is different from that of the agencies co-founded by colleges and recent graduates. It also differs from Jinlin and Facilitator which are nonprofits originally registered as commercial enterprises. Hope Social Work was started with corporate investment.

Hope was set up because an IT company wanted to use social work to help the firm fulfill its corporate social responsibilities, and shape its corporate image. Hope’s chairperson, Zheng Siyu, explained that she is a company employee who is carrying out projects for the public good under the company’s sponsorship. The company hopes to improve its own service training and gain public recognition through its social work program. Hope has so far hired two social workers, supported and paid by the parent company.

Although Zheng Siyu graduated from Beijing University of Agriculture, she lacked the support of a university at the outset, and so had to develop resources piecemeal relying on her own initiative. She contacted the heads of Social Work departments at five Beijing colleges who could provide Hope with supervision. Hope also signed a development agreement with Capital Normal University (首都师范大学) to create a work experience program for its social work students. Each week, Hope emails the various supervisors for their advice and recommendations. If there is an urgent issue, Hope telephones them, or asks for direct, face-to-face assistance.

“One Association-Four Agencies” development path

Near Xinjiekou subway station, the offices of the Xicheng District Social Work Association and four social work agencies – Hope, Mu You, Yue Qun and Ren Zhu — are squeezed into a seventh floor room of an office building. Each agency has its own office space, generally with two people sharing a cubicle. These office facilities are provided free of charge by the Social Work Association so that the agencies can interact with each other, and gain from peer supervision. Hope’s Zheng Siyu says she still hopes to have a separate office that would be more conducive to casework and group work.

Although Ren Zhu and Yue Qun both display name plates here, they do not have anybody working in this office. Pan Xing, the director of Mu You explained that these two agencies have offices in other locations. Mu You itself has only two people in this tiny space. Its other five social workers are based in a hospital, senior citizens agency and a community site office.

These four social work agencies make up the membership of Xicheng District Social Work Association. They receive support services, such as office space, projects, supervision and so on. The relationship between Xicheng District Social Work Association and these four has been dubbed the “One Association-Four Agencies” (or 1+4) model.

In addition to his role as Mu You’s director Pan Xing is also the deputy secretary general of Xicheng District’s Social Work Association6.

Within the “one association-four agencies” model, the independently-registered agencies Ren Zhu, Yue Qun and Hope carry out their own projects. Only Mu You has to apply for funding and projects through the Xicheng District Social Work Association. At the same time, the Association can apply on behalf of the four agencies for funding for social construction special projects administered by the Beijing Social Work Committee (社工委). Payments from this special fund cannot go directly to any of the four agencies; instead they are deposited into the Association’s account. The Association receives a 10 percent management fee to monitor project implementation, Pan Xing explained. Member organizations can apply for emergency support from this money.

Currently, Yue Qun and Ren Zhu are developing school-assigned service teams to help students solve personal, family and academic problems. Yue Qun serves primary school students, whereas Ren Zhu is working with vocational colleges. Mu You is concentrating on the needs of the elderly, while Hope is focused on enhancing the capacity of grassroots community workers and community organizations.

The four social work agencies maintain and operate their projects through government contracting. At the same time, they are constantly making adjustments in accordance with their own organizational capacity or external demands. For instance, Yue Qun is attempting to take on Xicheng District’s neighborhood mental illness rehabilitation project.

In Dongcheng District, Zhu Ren was Beijing’s first district-level social work agency when it launched in 2009. After more than one year, Zhu Ren is developing services for the elderly and pregnant women funded through government contracts. At the same time it is undertaking a number of community surveys, and training and assessment activities, commissioned by the district government and neighborhood committees.

Independence and sustainability under government procurement

Many social work agencies expressed the view that government procurement enables them to maintain their project work structures. However, their hope is to diversify their resources so they can design their own projects and not simply rely on the government as the sole or principal funding source.

Mu Youhopes to gain enough experience in serving the elderly to influence the government, and to allow elder care homes, hospitals and neighborhoods to purchase its services directly, rather than continue to rely on applying for special funds through the Xicheng District Social Work Association. This would be the opportunity for Mu You to strengthen its independent development.

Similarly, Beijing Facilitator’s founder Li Tao also believes agencies cannot wholly rely on government procurement. He hopes to secure greater independence by diversifying his funding sources and carrying out strategic planning and positioning. When cooperating with the government, if no way can be found to undertake services then frank communication with agencies is needed in order to make adjustments.

Zhang Yang of Jilin Social Service Center takes the position that if problems arise, they will communicate and consult with the government to find space for cooperation while also striving for independence. He notes that since their cooperation (with the government) is recent, difficulties have not yet appeared.

Many of the social work agencies interviewed said that any risk to independence brought on by government procurement has yet to emerge, but noted it was worthwhile to be cautious.

Yang Jing, a professor at the China Women’s College’s (中华女子学院) Social Work department, contends that government procurement is the future direction of social work. As social work is about paying attention to people and altering people’s work, she thinks it is sure to take root in communities. What’s more, transforming people is not a one-time project, so the government needs to be aware of providing sustainable support. At the same time, social service agencies cannot forfeit their professional and independent status to the government’s purchasing system. She believes that for social work agencies to depend continuously on government projects to support themselves is not in itself grounds for criticism. However, she argues there needs to be some interconnection between the various projects in order to have dynamic, sustainable work that can change a community and its inhabitants. The government cannot look upon social workers as emergency services or “fire-fighters”. It needs a developmental perspective to remedy problems, she says.

Yang Jing repeatedly stressed that social work should be committed to nurturing the community’s own strength and mobilizing community resources to solve community problems. Social work agencies are outside entities that cannot provide sustainable services within a community for the long term. Otherwise, the service will be disrupted once the agency leaves, she says. “They should be rooted in the community for a minimum of three to five years”, she added.

In her view, in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and other places where social work agencies are just emerging, their first steps in promoting themselves consist of “just activities and more activities”. They are not attaching importance to fostering community capacity building and integration. Social workers sent into communities by these organizations mainly provide a series of activities. When the activity ends, there is nothing left, it is not sustainable, she says.

Beijing University of Agriculture’s Ma Zechun thinks that social work projects still lack a professional group that can act as a third party to assess them. This indirectly affects the efficiency of the government’s procurement system.

Finally, Yang Jing raised a problem that cannot be ignored, namely that some commercial organizations see the government procurement system as a business opportunity. They have begun to register as social work agencies, and to make profits. She said similar cases are emerging in several places, and it is necessary to be aware of this trend in the Beijing area.


  1. Social work agencies should be distinguished from Social Work Associations. The latter are set up through local Civil Affairs bureaus and act as the supervising or coordinating unit for social work agencies in their jurisdiction. The former tend to be private nonprofits set up by social work majors who graduated from college. 

  2. Editor’s Note: 1+4 refers to a management model whereby one Social Work Association administers social work agencies in four different neighborhoods. This model is explained further down in this article. 

  3. Editor’s Note: the Chinese term used here is minfei, one of three legal categories of nonprofits similar to service providers. 

  4. Editor’s Note: The Chinese terminology used in this sentence is “guakao” or literally “attached to”. Some NGOs gain a formal identity by “attaching” themselves to a legally-registered organization, which serves as a kind of fiscal sponsor, rather than register themselves. These NGOs may operate as independent entities even though they are not technically legal persons. 

  5. Editor’s Note: this paragraph reveals the existence of a little-known agency, the Beijing Party Committee’s Social Work Commission, recently merged with the Beijing City Social Construction Work Office. These two agencies, which are not part of the Civil Affairs system, were set up to address a wide range of social issues that come under the heading of “social construction” (shehui jianshe), not just social work. 

  6. Editor’s Note: the personnel overlap between the Association and these agencies illustrates the close ties between local governments and these social work agencies. 

In Brief

The following is a dense but very interesting article on a cutting-edge trend in China: the flowering of nonprofit (and some for-profit) social work agencies that are appearing in Chinese cities with the support of government funding and support
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