NGOs Have a Role in Organizing Society: An Interview with Michael Busgen

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CDB Editor Liu Haiying interviews Michael Busgen, long-time observer of China’s NGO sector, who offers some refreshing commentary on the past, present and future of China’s NGOs.

Introduction: In 1996, Michael Busgen joined China’s Doctors Without Borders disaster relief project. Soon after, he left Doctors Without Borders to work in the China branch of Misereor (the German development agency), about the same time that NGOs in China began to flourish. Ten years later, from 2006 – 2011, he went to work in two Chinese NGOs: the Beijing Capacity Building & Assessment Center (CBAC) and Non Profit Incubator (NPI). While there, he worked on building the capacity of Chinese NGOs. This was a period when resources began flowing to Chinese NGOs on a large scale, and a clear shift occurred in values and the direction of development work. Now, he is working in another international organization – the Heinrich Böll Foundation. In his 16 years of experience, Busgen has experienced two important stages of China’s non-profit sector, and in this exclusive interview with CDB, he looks back on the changes the sector has undergone and comments on the current situation of NGOs in China, clearing up some common misconceptions and offering his own unique analysis.

CDB: What are the major changes Chinese NGOs have undergone in the last 10 years? On many occasions, people have claimed NGOs are an essential part of civil society; what do you believe is the relationship between the two?

Busgen: In these past 10 years, Chinese NGOs have undergone many changes.

First, an obvious increase in numbers. I remember 10 years ago, philanthropists were very willing to support grass-roots organizations, but no matter how hard they looked there were only a few to work with. Hence, funding was spread out among these few, which definitely put the NGOs under a lot of pressure.
Second, an increase in the size of NGOs. Of course, most NGOs today are still small in scale – many don’t even have full-time employees, or if they do, there are only a few. However, there are already a number of medium-sized organizations out there.

Third, organizations have become more specialized and accumulated a significant amount of experience. Many organizations have mastered new skills such as fundraising based on international requirements, project applications, and organizational management.

Fourth, the entire regulatory system and its muddled policy toward NGOs, has changed. Of course, whether this is a good or bad thing is another question.
Fifth, a group of NGO specialists have been cultivated, creating many career opportunities; these specialists are very important to the development of the industry.

Sixth, NGOs are collaborating. At first they weren’t able to cooperate at all and didn’t even communicate, but now it’s happening more and more. And it’s not just domestic collaboration; domestic and international NGOs are also increasingly cooperating.

Seventh, as part of the third sector, NGOs have begun increasing their collaboration with the other two sectors (government and business). This is a major change, and has positive implications, but it’s still not enough. Especially in the last 2 years, in my work at NPI, more and more often I’m seeing governments in urban areas contracting services to NGOs on a large scale. This is a major breakthrough. Governments have moved from not knowing what NGOs are, to being suspicious of their good intentions and questioning their motives, to now paying for their services – this is a really important change.

The last very important change is that domestic funding for NGOs is on the rise. Ordinary people, large corporations, and even foundations, which have just begun supporting NGOs, are now funding NGOs. NGOs cannot rely only on foreign funding if they are to develop in a healthy direction. Aside from funding, a more important problem for organizations is legitimacy – they need to take root in the community. Fundraising alone does not ensure the survival of an NGO; equally important is that the organization demonstrates its value to the community. Of course, one of the reasons NGOs are turning more to domestic funding had to do with the sensitivity of international organizations funding Chinese organizations.

CDB: What do you think about the future development of Chinese NGOs?

Busgen: Despite what I just said, the progress made in the last 10 years has made me very pleased and optimistic. At the same time, we all know that China’s third sector is very underdeveloped. If you want to know the reason, we must first discuss the role of NGOs. What’s their relationship to the other sectors? If we’re not clear on this, then we can’t discuss future growth problems.

The original goal of NGOs1 is to organize society. Organizing society has two goals: one is to get various kinds of social groups to work together; to nurture a spirit of cooperation. We should make people aware that they can solve many problems by working together. The second goal is to give a voice to these social groups when negotiating with the other two sectors. Since many problems touch upon distribution of benefits and opportunities, the policy implementation process should focus on collaboration, by finding policies that everyone can accept and work towards. One of the premises to reaching consensus is the participation of those who represent these social groups. But presently there’s no formal mechanism for this participation, because the governance of society is currently monopolized by the government.

But a new trend is spreading among NGOs, and it isn’t limited to China. Non-profits are moving further and further away from their original goal of representing their social groups, and more towards serving others and playing a social service function. Whether it’s international or China, the specialization of NGOs has driven them further and further away from their original goal. In China there’s a major misconception; most people think that NGOs are only there to provide social services. Even though providing services may help with organizational survival, social service is merely one piece of the puzzle – the most important thing is actually organizing society. But this topic is rather sensitive in China.

What this society most needs is to allow different groups to seek out their own solutions. In order to solve problems, we’ve got to lay them out on the table first. The role of NGOs is to place these issues on the table and work with the government and corporations to get them resolved. Government agencies should really not be afraid of this cooperation and should not call this a problem. Moreover, within these groups, the word “sensitive” is very interesting. The issues we can’t put on the table at all are the ones deemed sensitive. Why are these sensitive issues a problem? Precisely because they’re understood as “sensitive.” Once the issues are out in the open, it’s no longer a question of whether they’re sensitive or not; instead, the question is, “How can we fix this?” For example, AIDS and the three rural problems (三农问题) were both sensitive 10 years ago, but now that’s not the case at all2.

I’ve always thought that one of the biggest challenges facing Chinese NGOs is that government agencies are afraid of the role they play. Now we can see in places like Shenzhen and Shanghai, where governments have contracted services from NGOs, that NGOs are becoming purely service organizations. I’ve always stressed that organizing society doesn’t threaten its stability, but it is in fact a prerequisite to stability.

CDB: What do you believe are the best conditions for the growth and development of NGOs?

Busgen: Chinese NGO development faces two major problems. One is a lack of trust. Without trust, it’s impossible to organize society. NGOs don’t trust the government, the government doesn’t trust the NGOs, society doesn’t trust the NGOs, NGOs don’t trust each other; even within NGOs there are trust issues. This lack of trust can be seen everywhere. This isn’t just a problem with social organizations, it’s a problem with the whole of society. If your hope is to help people cultivate social capital, and to help each other in the absence of contractual agreements, then you need trust as the foundation. This is one of the most important conditions.

About ten years ago, several organizations started carry out capacity building trainings for NGOs. Many people believed that we first needed a good legal structure, we needed to tell NGOs how to fundraise, and how to manage their organizations. Now, all of these areas have seen progress, but why has the growth of the sector not met people’s expectations? Because these are all secondary issues. We need to return to the core question of what an NGO’s role should be. The primary function of NGOs isn’t necessarily to provide services; it’s to convince people that they can build social trust. On this issue, NGOs can help people trust one another; however, no one is really working on this problem.

The second problem is that China’s education system doesn’t teach people how to change their current situation. This is not a problem limited to China, but in China the issue is very prominent. The current educational system is focused on teaching children how to survive and accept the rules of the current situation and conditions. Within these channels, they can find their place and their path. But there’s very little talk of how students can help effect change in society when they see problems.
I’ve noticed this is a problem within many groups, especially in the last few years when I’ve been helping to build the capacity of NGOs. I’ve run into many organization founders and staff, and they’re more or less just complaining about various situations. I ask them, “Why don’t you change it?” Most people just say, “I can’t change it, I can only accept it.”

Facing such a holistic failure on the part of the education system, who can make up for it? Corporations? They need workers to be obedient, to do what they’re told; they’re trying to make money. The government can only provide top-down methods. Of the three sectors, only the third sector has what it takes to teach people that they can change their situation and help people feel that they can trust each other.

So, if NGOs are going to be the leaders, first they’ve got to focus on themselves. They need to tell their employees that if something is not right, we can discuss it. If the staff don’t cultivate this skill, how can they push forward big changes in society? Hence, if you want to gauge the value of NGOs’ contributions, it doesn’t matter how many programs they’ve got, how much money they’ve raised, how many services they’ve provided. The most fundamental task is to cultivate people, to teach them how to change themselves, how to change their families, how to change their work environment. Once we’ve mastered this, then we can start talking about changing society.

CDB: Over the past few years, whether it’s been international or Chinese NGOs, you’ve worked hard to develop the capabilities of these organizations. In this time, what lessons have you learned from personal experience?

Busgen: The main challenge that capacity building faces is that NGOs still don’t have a mature management model. When we’re developing organizations, the management style and techniques are mostly taken from abroad, and the content is borrowed from corporate management. For example, the term “strategic plan (战略规划)” was originally used by corporations, but now NGOs use it too.

In the area of capacity building, there’s some borrowed concepts that aren’t useful. For example, in human resources, in order to get people to do things they aren’t intrinsically motivated to do, management relies on incentives and punishments. The underlying assumption here is that people are not reliable and must be controlled. The management’s attitude is that they must control the worker, that the worker is lazy, that they must rely upon the carrot and the stick. But in NGOs, there is no carrot – programs have a fixed budget, and salaries can’t be raised on a whim. And no one dares to use the stick; job responsibilities are high, work environment is poor, and salary is low, so the stick can’t be used.

I’ve always stressed that if you’re thinking of working in the NGO sector, you must have ideals. Idealistic people are already motivated, and if you treat them with the carrot and the stick, it’s an insult to their ideals. These extrinsic motivators pale in comparison to the internal drive so prevalent in the industry, and are not very useful in NGOs.

In reality, there are no “best practices”, but there are plenty that are good enough. The logic behind promoting these so-called best practices is usually that the person doing the promoting thinks he or she knows what is best. According to this line of thinking, everything will be OK. This is a flawed thought process. Organizations from different cultures and different fields need to find their own truth, so capacity building shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, it should help organizations solve their own problems in a way that works best for them. During this process, we can tell NGOs what international organizations have done to solve similar problems, but in the end we’re not giving them solutions, we’re just making them better at finding new ones. So a few years ago, I started promoting a learning network in the hope that NGOs, while reflecting on their own experiences, would create different kinds of exchanges which would then generate real knowledge, so that the accumulated know-how of these groups is not lost. NGOs participating in the learning network all face the same problems. But the steps they adopt to solve the problem are all different. This proves that the network is successful, because the goal is to give each organization the self-confidence to seek out its own solutions.

CDB: In the past few years a large number of civic actions driven by individuals have emerged, giving rise to a number of groups. What’s the main difference between these new groups and the older generation of NGOs? What are the most valuable things that these newly-established groups should study?

Busgen: Among the older generation of NGOs there are large differences, such as leadership style and management methods. Even between the newer NGOs there are also many differences; it’s difficult to lump them all together. But I’d still like to try to answer your question.

What I love about the earlier organizations is that they hold onto their ideals. They’re not opportunists; they have ideals, principles, which is wonderful. At the same time, they’ve got many problems; that generation relies on the charisma of their founders, and their evolution has hardly been smooth.

For the newer organizations, what I’m worried about is that they are also one-person operations, yet their founders lack the stature of the founders of the older generation of NGOs. However, these new organizations know how to use the social media space and are always looking for new ways to develop new techniques, which is great. In society there’s lots of red tape, but the virtual world is much more free. However, figuring out how to combine the virtual world with the real world is still a problem. If you only work with problems online, then you’re lacking the involvement of the real world, and not really fulfilling the goal of the organization. Moreover, social media still isn’t the best platform for society to interact, and it can be risky. Many people believe that the Internet allows more people to participate, that it’s very inclusive. But in certain ways, it’s also very exclusive. For example, on Weibo, most of the posts come from people who have benefited from the recent 30 years of economic reform (改革开放) – groups that were originally marginalized are still marginalized by social media. So what seems like an inclusive tool is perhaps an exclusive one as well.

CDB: It is a common conception that Chinese NGOs get most of their funding from international organizations. However, even if there is a lot of international aid, most is distributed to universities and the government; NGOs still receive very little of those funds. In China, funding sources include private foundations, government contracts, corporate CSR partnerships, yet regardless it’s difficult to get out of or change the stereotypes of funders. Considering this situation, what areas are the hardest to change? Throughout this process, what role can NGOs play?

Busgen: Research has shown that many international organizations are funding Chinese NGOs, and that Chinese organizations are still very reliant on international support . The most exciting thing this research found is that Chinese NGOs are developing strong relationships with these international organizations, but their experiences are quite diverse. More than half of these partnerships have space for improvement, and 10-20 percent of the collaborations did not go smoothly. This points to a more fundamental challenge.

What international donors need to pay attention to is internal supervision. I think the biggest problem for donors isn’t their own donor policies or management methods, but rather the donor representatives. Often, the donor’s headquarters is very far from China and they don’t have a good understanding of what their representatives are doing. It’s very difficult to monitor whether they’re following protocol or upholding the organization’s principles, and domestic NGOs don’t have a channel to provide feedback. Donors need to find a better way to facilitate communication with their representatives.

Another change in the way donors and NGOs communicate is that donors will generally review projects with the NGOs together; this can become a method for transforming the relationship. I think we can also look at it another way: it’s not up to the donors to ask, “What have you done with my money?” Instead they should look at the results of their cooperation, and ask “How can we work together to improve things?” This is a cooperative, exploratory type of evaluation method, which emphasizes cooperative learning and shared ownership. Adopting this viewpoint can provide funders with an opportunity for reflection and learning.

In this report we didn’t cover Chinese funders. Chinese and international funders have different relationships with NGOs. Compared to international funders, Chinese funders tend to have a more unequal relationship with NGOs. Once they’ve signed a contract with a Chinese funder, they’re no longer a public welfare organization, they’re more of a social enterprise. This trend is very dangerous.

I believe that the ones who most need to change most are not the donors but the NGOs. Because it’s often very difficult for smaller organizations to find a donor, once they find one they must strive to cultivate this relationship. Regardless of whether their cooperation goes smoothly or not, NGOs feel the relationship is an unequal one, rather than one of true cooperation. Because of this, NGOs tend to accept many unfair requirements. In reality, most donors are willing to accept suggestions. The relationship between funders and NGOs is like any other social relationship in which negotiations are essential.

A lively civil society should actively cultivate and restructure many types of societal relationships. In a highly class-conscious culture, this is an important process to study for Chinese NGOs, and not just for its relationship with international donors.


  1. he uses the Chinese term, “social organizations” 

  2. Editor’s Note: The Three Rural Problems were agriculture (nongye), in particular the problem of agricultural industrialization; villages (nongcun), in particular the divide between rural and urban areas due to the household registration (hukou) system; and farmers (nongmin), in particular the problem of farmer’s income and living standards compared to those living in urban areas. 

In Brief

CDB Editor, Liu Haiying, interviews Michael Busgen, long-time observer of China’s NGO sector, who offers some refreshing commentary on the past, present and future of China’s NGOs.
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