NGO 2.0: Helping Grassroots Groups use New Media

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“Assist Chinese grassroots NGOs in improving their ability to utilize the Internet and social media, developing a new type of charity with technology, and enhancing their capability for social innovation.” With this mission and objective, the China NGO 2.0 Project (www.ngo20.org, 中国公益2.0项目) has introduced Internet workshops since July 2009. These workshops were held in central and western regions of China, including Kunming, Xi’an, Hefei, Nanning, and Chengdu, where nearly 170 grassroots organizations have been trained successfully.

In the interactive classroom of NGO 2.0, participants can experience in person various new media tools, including Skype multi-user sessions, desktop sharing software, microblog/Internet-based marketing, Internet research, electronic maps, social networking, RSS, electronic bulletins, video production and sharing, cloud storage, and bookmarks. Examples of successful uses of NGO 2.0 at home and abroad have been incorporated throughout the lecture. Alongside these examples, the openness, sharing, transparency, cooperation, and innovation that characterizes Internet culture and the spirit of Web 2.0, are also promoted. The lecturers include university teachers, partners of NGO 2.0, and grassroots technology experts who had previously participated in the training. Through the transmission of information about Web 2.0, a “poor man’s communication tool”, to grassroots NGOs, Professor Wang Jin the director of the MIT New Media Lab and founder of the China NGO 2.0 Project, is attempting to set up a platform for grassroots organizations to learn about new media. Through this they can achieve the fusion of the elite with the grassroots.

Micro Public Interest Brings Big Changes

The year 2011 witnessed the rise of micro public interest in China. The most influential case was the Free Lunch Program (免费午餐计划) launched by Deng Fei with 500 journalists in April 2011. It successfully conducted online fundraising with the aid of Web 2.0 techniques, as well as mobilizing numerous individual citizens who were passionate about public-interest activities. As of July 2012, the Free Lunch Program has been extended to 16 provinces and autonomous regions. According to preliminary statistics, 60 percent of its donations originated from nearly one million internet users1.

As a case of micro public interest based on Web 2.0 thinking, the Free Lunch Program indicates that models of public interest are undergoing major changes following the rise of the Internet. Professor Wang believes that the extent to which grassroots NGOs are equipped with Web 2.0 thinking and able to keep up with the wave of new Internet charity, will affect their future development. In May 2012, Wang pointed out in an article in China Daily that “social media may soon become an indispensable tool for nonprofit organizations. In today’s new media environment, free public interest methods such as Deng Fei’s, as well as companies that are familiar with the new media technology, can bypass the foundations and NGOs and make direct impacts on charity. This poses a huge challenge to grassroots organizations, especially those in underdeveloped areas2. ”

As the social media era approaches, what are the needs of resource-poor grassroots organizations? How can we respond? Wang linked these questions to the survival of these organizations. “Despite the fact that Internet infrastructure covers 97 percent of China, NGOs still need to know how to use the Internet to bridge the digital divide.” What is the importance of new media for grassroots organizations in China? Perhaps one can obtain clues from the changes that have affected US Internet-based charity.

Drawing Inspiration From Overseas

In the United States, NGOs have an urgent need to use new media. In Wang’s opinion, the rise of the Internet empowers individuals and has had an important impact on civil society. The social network opens a public fundraising channel and helps to improve the transparency of American foundations. “As Web 2.0 faces the public, it can gain public confidence only if it is presented in a transparent way.” Wang said that the public interest environment in the United States is different from that in China. American public-interest organizations and individuals can easily conduct fundraising through the Internet. They can conduct public fundraising on social networking sites with large number of users, such as Facebook and Twitter. Some large foundations, such as the CASE Foundation, will hold charity fundraising contests every one or two years to encourage grassroots organizations to fundraise through their own social networks. Under these circumstances, a strong voice calling for NGOs to learn about social networking has appeared in the United States.

“For NGOs, the internet brings the most change to their public fundraising. This is because individuals are able to conveniently conduct small-scale fundraising through the Internet and the media.” Two years ago, to celebrate her 60th birthday, Wang Jin conducted a fundraising campaign for “Alma Anta” (爱心蚂蚁) – a Guangxi charity organization – in the form of a birthday pledge. She established a fund in the Pass Love Foundation (爱心传递基金会), a formal US-based nonprofit, and was able to raise $5,000 by mobilizing her social network on Facebook. “Such fundraising has a very low technical barrier,” Wang said. She hopes that in the face of the rise of personal charity and corporate philanthropy, grassroots organizations in China can take a proactive stance towards preparing themselves so as to achieve a sustainable future.

Origins

Although Wang’s connection with Chinese grassroots NGOs originated with the NGO 2.0 Project, the starting point was her criticism of the drawbacks of globalization, which was related to the global “Creative Commons” agreement (hereinafter referred to as “CC Agreement”).

The CC Agreement was launched in 2001 by Creative Commons in the United States. Unlike traditional copyright protection, it is a more flexible way for the protection and re-use of contents produced by Internet users. Internet content providers can release CC clauses selectively in six ways that enables them to retain some rights while allowing their work to be freely duplicated or modified under certain conditions. This solves the problem of protection and utilization of intellectual property rights in the age of the Internet.

The CC Agreement came to China in 2006. Wang helped to promote it in her capacity as Chairman of the International Advisory Committee of Creative Commons in China. Although this agreement was an innovation compared with the drawbacks of traditional copyright, there were still many problems in its global implementation. In the context of globalization, Wang believed that the CC Agreement reflected the needs of the developed countries. It had a blind spot in its global vision, displaying a lack of concern for the needs of developing countries and underprivileged people in those countries. It had also not incorporated the problem of the digital gap into its vision. In other words, for developing countries, the CC Agreement was a false proposition.

“Web 2.0 is a communication tool for the poor. The China NGO 2.0 Project was built to remind us about this blind spot in the CC Agreement. Rather than introducing this agreement, it would be better to introduce the cultural cornerstone of Web 2.0. If you want to find an entry point into countries such as China or India to introduce Web 2.0, it must be through NGOs.” Wang said that the culture of sharing resources and knowledge is shared by NGOs and the CC Agreement. NGO efforts to empower and develop vulnerable groups are identical to Wang’s critical thinking about the Internet, the CC Agreement, and globalization. She hoped to help NGOs understand and master Web 2.0 in underdeveloped regions, enabling them to gain more knowledge and resources in the context of globalization, and thereby narrowing the digital divide.

Discovering Needs from Research

Large-scale research on Chinese NGO use of the Internet has accompanied the creation and implementation of the NGO 2.0 Project. (The first survey was launched in December 2008, and a report was released in March 2009. The second one was launched in late October 2009 with a report released in May 2010.) This was done to obtain more information about NGOs and to build a NGO database for the China NGO 2.0 Project. In addition, it was done to analyze Chinese NGO Internet usage and their communication ability. The Project plans to launch a survey every year and a half. The third survey will be done in cooperation with the Tencent Charity Foundation, and is expected to commence in September of 2012. ( http://diaoyan.ngo20.org/ ).

The first survey found that “most NGO websites still involve relatively traditional website models, using relatively few Web 2.0 website technologies. Currently, NGOs’ ability to use new media based on Web 2.0 is still relatively weak.” Wang believed that the survey’s most valuable discovery was that the demand for hardware by grassroots NGOs is comparatively small. It was found that they had a greater need to be trained how to make comprehensive use of the internet.

“As of July 2012, more than half of the nearly 170 organizations that have taken part in the training are using Skype multi-user conference, video production, shareware, and microblogging tools.” Wang said that the project seeks to achieve three objectives. The first is to enhance inter-organizational collaboration. The second is to improve office efficiency and project execution efficiency inside the organization. The third is to help grassroots NGOs in central and western China to conduct web-based marketing and branding. In this manner, grassroots organizations can catch up with the new media’s snowball effect on social changes.

In order to make a rational allocation of training resources and ensure the effectiveness of training, the project aimed to select organizations that fitted the following criteria: organizations of an appropriate scale (excluding public-interest organizations in an early stage of development with very few participants and public-interest organizations with a large number of participants which enjoy rich resources); a relatively strong ability to use the Internet and considerable confidence and desire to promote their organizations; and a relatively weak capacity arising from resource constraints and the relative lack of capacity in utilizing the Internet.

In August 2011, the project conducted a follow-up survey after the training, in which it investigated and described the use of Web 2.0 tools by these grassroots NGOs, as well as how they applied Web 2.0 technology in their daily work and communication strategies.

The follow-up study showed that “with regards to Web 2.0 tools, generally speaking after the training many organizations started using various Web 2.0 applications, such as blogs and microblogs. Tools such as Google Maps, Skype multi-user conference, and video production and uploading were also widely used. At the same time, 52.56 percent of the organizations established their own websites (homepages) after the training – a similar number to those who created new blogs and microblogs. This suggests that static websites, as an important Web 1.0 application, still gains wide attention and usage by trained organizations.”3

After over two years of practice, the NGO 2.0 Project training has also undergone changes.” The initial Internet training focused on eradicating illiteracy. Now the starting point has been raised to lay more emphasis on how to use these tools to formulate a communication strategy using social media.” As Wang said, the module “Customizing Communication Strategy with Social Media” was included in the training course at the Chengdu station this July. The project also established a QQ discussion group [an instant message software] for all students so as to facilitate subsequent communication and exchange, which may lead to future cooperation.

Online and Offline

“The NGO 2.0 Project addresses the three major requirements of grassroots NGOs: dissemination, resources, and technical support. We have online and offline activities for each requirement,” said Wang.

In addition to dissemination and technical requirements, the project established an online map of public services (www.ngo20map.com), which includes information about grassroots organizations in all sectors as well as information about donors, including businesses. In this manner, ” a resource docking platform between NGOs and businesses, foundations, government, and public-interest actors is established. This platform includes material, human, and financial resources, as well as opportunities to establish project collaboration with corporate social responsibility departments.” Among four ways of fundraising, including government, business, foundation, and public fundraising, Wang emphasizes businesses. “The government can still do very little in supporting grassroots organizations. Foundations also cannot invest much in these organizations, and there are still many policy constraints and cultural barriers with respect to individual fundraising. Thus, we believe that companies constitute the undiscovered resource.” Perhaps due to her experience in studying brand marketing and advertising during the past ten years, with advice from her partner, [the public relations firm] Ogilvy & Mather, Wang placed the focus of the NGO 2.0 Project in part on the 2.0 Map which links [NGOs] to business resources. Naturally, the project will not exclude information about resources from other channels, such as foundations.

As the NGO 2.0 Project has evolved into a national NGO support platform, there is a greater requirement on its ability to integrate resources. The domestic and foreign partners and resources that the NGO 2.0 Project has tried to integrate have been relatively diverse as a result of Wang’s interdisciplinary background and the project’s establishment of multiple goals concerning the usage of new media technology, fundraising, research and development, and institutional branding, as well as organizational evaluation and trust-building. Currently, the project is seeking to collaborate with the Tencent Charity Foundation on Internet research and NGO assessment. In order to facilitate the connection between NGOs and business resources, the project has also collaborated with BSR’s CiYuan Initiative (BSR慈源团队) and held training on “cooperation between businesses and NGOs” closely following the recent training on Internet technologies in Chengdu organized by Sichuan Shangming Social Development Research Center (四川尚 明公益发展研究中心). The CiYuan training was also the third on NGO-business cooperation hosted outside Beijing. Among the 47 participants, 29 came from NGOs and 18 from businesses.

With the rise of corporate CSR in recent years, there is an increasing number of organizations and projects involved in establishing links between NGOs and businesses with uneven results. The early years had witnessed similar attempts made by some organizations, but the results were not satisfactory. When asked about the strengths of the NGO 2.0 Project, Wang remarked that in addition to integrating a variety of resources, the advantage of the NGO 2.0 Project was in its emphasis on grassroots organizations, which are closer to communities. In addition to stressing the deployment of training resources to grassroots organizations, the project has tried to respond to the demand of grassroots organizations in its design. For example, with respect to the modification of the interface for the NGO 2.0 Map and the design of the training content, Wang has been in constant communication with her “elite” partners, including the technical support team of the University of Science and Technology of China and the interface-design team of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, to emphasize users requirements and the characteristics of grassroots organizations so as to facilitate grassroots users’ acceptance and use. Another strength of the project is the integration of online and offline activities. An example is the use of offline training for NGOs to participate in online assessments to encourage organizations to update the database themselves. This scheme has reduced the burden of data processing for the managers and had a multiplier effect.

Virtual Teams Interpret NGO 2.0

While engaged in the promotion of new media in the public interest sector, members of the NGO 2.0 Project have displayed one characteristic that is different from other public-interest projects. This is their skillful use of new media technologies. Except for one full-time team member, the other members are all part-time members and scattered across various cities. Wang herself divides her time up between a large number of places. Not all members can meet together, even during offline trainings. Thus, it is truly a “virtual team.” At 8:30 every Sunday, the 12 core members of the team must “meet” on Skype to have a three-hour discussion about the work. Over the past two-and-a-half years, they have conducted this form of multi-user video conferencing every week. At the same time, they use desktop-sharing software. Whether it’s using the latest network and mobile applications, or sharing with each other cases of web2.0 application in western public interest sector, all members have demonstrated their adeptness in using the latest technologies and skills. Moreover, it is convenient for them to use the internet to do real-time editing of texts, to stimulate creativity, and to discuss their work plan.

“We all share the same understanding of the new media. The team has a strong sense of identity, for we can find each other online at any time, which is almost the same as face-to-face communication,” said Wang.

Wang is also personally using various new media tools, adopting different media according to her partners and their needs. For instance, she uses Twitter to communicate with colleagues inside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while mainly uses Facebook to follow others and spread more public information. She uses the QQ group to communicate with grassroots organizations participating in the NGO 2.0 Project (during the first two years of the project, she spent four hours a day on QQ), not to mention email and Fetion [an instant messaging app], which are indispensable day-to-day tools.

Wang said, “Web 2.0 is a platform through which people can explore a larger world.” As a type of technology that is having a profound impact on human society, the Internet and new media are presenting unprecedented opportunities and challenges for grassroots organizations. Grassroots organizations deserve to understand, learn, and follow with an open mind.

Appendix: Professor Wang Jin received her doctoral degree in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts in 1985. She is a professor of comparative media and the director of the Laboratory of New Media. She also serves as the director of the Institute of Research on Public Interest Communication at Sun Yat-sen University, Chairman of the Advisory Board of Creative Commons in mainland China, and a member of the Advisory Board of Wikipedia Foundation in the United States. She has published several books and won the Asia Society’s Best Academic Works Award. Her fields of study include branding and market, advertising and marketing, citizen media and communication, popular culture, and the new media, with particular emphasis on areas related to China. Her Brand New China: Advertising, Media and Commercial Culture was published by Harvard University Press in 2008, and is also available in Arabic and Japanese.


  1. Shenzhen Media Group. Charity Fair: Three-Yuan Free Lunch Keeps Children Away from Hungry [EB / OL]. www.s1979.com/shenzhen/201207/1344080713.shtml ,2012-07-13 

  2. Jin Wang. Triggering a snowball effect [EB / OL]. http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/weekly/2012-05/11/content_15265316.htm . China Daily, 2012-05-11 

  3. Follow-up Research Report on Chinese NGO 2.0 Training. Laboratory of New Media Behavior of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cross-Media Laboratory of the University of Science and Technology of China. [EB / OL]. www.ngo20.org/?page_id=295 , 2011 – 08 

In Brief

Fu Tao, CDB’s Senior Researcher, profiles the China NGO 2.0 Project, which trains Chinese grassroots NGOs to use social media and the internet.
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