The Collective Voice of NGOs Serving Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities

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This article showcases some important trends in the grassroots NGO sector in China. One is the growth of networks among NGOs serving people with disabilities.
Over the last few years, formal and informal networks have grown among environmental, HIV/AIDS, gender, and even legal aid NGOs. Here we see an example of networking in yet another sector that is also supported by Narada, a private Chinese foundation that has been at the forefront of the philanthropy sector. This story also highlights opportunities and challenges for service-oriented NGOs. The opportunities come in the form of more funding sources for NGOs with the growth of private foundations, and government contracting to NGOs to deliver services. NGO collaboration with the government and business is common in the West, but rare in China until the last few years. The challenge for NGOs is to raise the quality of their service delivery to meet the standards of local governments. As the Chinese government moves forward in its efforts to create a more educated and professional civil service, NGOs will have to keep pace if they want to win government contracts and be accepted by the mainstream. 

On November 29 and 30, 2010, China’s first Research and Development Forum for NGOs Serving Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities was held in Beijing. More than 100 representatives from more than 60 organizations from across the country gathered for two days of discussions. They focused on issues that included equal policy treatment for NGOs in the field of intellectual disabilities, organizational development and operations, early education, employment services and community life, placement for those with intellectual disorders, and building a platform for a network of NGO working in this field.

Has Lizhi Been Going in a Circle for 10 years?

This year is the 10th anniversary of Beijing Lizhi Rehabilitation Center (北京利智康复中心). In China, any grass-roots organization that has survived for 10 years or more has experience worth sharing.  At the forum, Xiao Peilin, founder of Lizhi Rehabilitation Center, said that through Lizhi’s efforts, more than 60 young people with intellectual disabilities had joined the competitive workforce1. Lizhi has developed a set of effective work procedures. Yet in retrospect, the current Lizhi has changed much from the Lizhi of 10 years ago. In terms of space, capital, personnel, policy influence, and cooperation within the profession, its situation remains largely the same even as society has changed rapidly.

The challenges and pressure that individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families face continue to grow, creating unprecedented stress on the entire sector of intellectual disability NGOs.

The problems that Lizhi has encountered are not limited to one organization. They extend to all service organizations of this type. According to incomplete statistics, the number of NGOs serving people with intellectual disabilities number in the dozens in Beijing, and in the hundreds in all of China. They are concentrated in large and medium-sized cities. For the past 30 years, the model of individuals with intellectual disabilities being cared for only by their families has gradually changed to a more diverse model. More people with intellectual disabilities are getting out of the house. They therefore need more professionals and organizations to provide them with quality professional services in rehabilitation, education, and other areas. Chinese NGOs providing services to individuals with intellectual disabilities have emerged over the last 30 years, but society and government still do not understand them much.

With funding from the Narada Foundation (南都公益基金会), Lizhi hosted the forum for NGOs in the field of intellectual disabilities, using this event as their coming out party. The organizers hope to use the forum to promote communication and exchange within the profession and to make the voice of NGOs in this field heard. They hope to influence the development of policies beneficial to people with intellectual disabilities and their families, NGOs in the sector, and the community.

Narada Foundation vice-president, Xu Yongguang, said he hopes this forum can make their voices be heard, so that more people pay attention to these groups. To this end, Xiao Peilin wants to collaborate with Beijing Normal University’s Philanthropy Research Center to write a research report about the sector to submit to government departments.

According to the participants at this Forum, “We want to do something together, we must consider what is in our common interest. From an interest perspective, we need to seek more government resources, and gain support from foundations such as Narada. We can use our common mission and interests as a way to get the attention of the government and raise funds.”

In an important outcome, the forum participants reached a consensus to hold the “Intellectual Disabilities NGO Leadership Forum” annually.  Based on factors such as influence, region, and gender, NGOs would form into regional groups representing eastern, western, northern, southern, and central China, and democratically elect five organizations. These organizations would make up the organizing committee for the forum’s second session.  The goal is to professionalize and marketize the services for the intellectually disabled, and promote the healthy and sustainable development of NGOs2.

Are Intellectual Disability NGOs Ready?

At the end of the forum, Tsinghua University’s Professor Wang Ming provided a clear analysis about this era of development for China NGOs. He noted that NGOs must be prepared because China is entering a new era for civil society. NGOs in China are marching at the forefront of this historic era.

Wang Ming went on to say, “Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in 1999 that the 21st century would be the century of NGOs. At the time, I said it was far from that. But after 10 years I found the age of NGOs really has arrived.” He offered three reasons for his optimism.

First, the most important resource for NGO survival and development is undergoing significant change. Total charitable donations in the past few years have grown; it was more than 100 billion RMB in 2008, and more than 30 billion RMB in 20093. In 2010, public donations for the earthquake in Yushu totaled 10 billion RMB. In addition to changes in the total amount and the structure, Chinese people now have money to engage in charity. This is a historic change. Many wealthy people are now able and willing to support foundations. He predicted, “within five years, private foundations will surpass public foundations not only in numbers, but also in terms of funding and total assets4.”

Second, on the government side, Wang observed, party and government departments at all levels regard building a harmonious society, and some even mention civil society, as their first order of business. Although the well-known effort in government procurement of services is still limited, it is also very recent. Different localities only came up with standards [for procuring services] just over a year ago. In Beijing, 100 million RMB has been used to purchase social services. Government purchasing of services opens up the space for public services5.

Third, this field has already seen the emergence of a new generation. Young people have matured, which means that the development of NGO has entered a youthful period. This new generation has a good foundation and environment. We are moving into a new era for the development of NGOs and civil society.

At the same time, NGOs face many challenges. He asked the participants, “When someone provides money, can you spend it well? Can you provide professional services? This will be your big challenge.”

How should service organizations respond to this wave of public welfare charity? With regard to the overall trend, the government faces many problems in terms of policies, laws, and the system, but they are moving forward. Their progress poses a great challenge for NGOs. Li Jing, Assistant Researcher at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said: “Actually I’m quite worried about the development of NGOs serving those with disabilities because as the government keeps pace, its demands will increase6”.

Li revealed that among organizations serving people with disabilities in Beijing, some of them voluntarily sign up every year for annual institutional assessment [by the city government]. Based on the assessment, they receive varying amounts of financial support based on a grading system. However, an important change was made in the 2010 assessment model that Li Jing was partly responsible for. After December 13, service organizations undergoing the annual assessment will be required to submit a list of service users before the end of November, and conduct a satisfaction survey of the service users. This survey will be part of the appraisal and ranking of the service organizations, and the rank and funding will be linked. The amount and scope of funding will be larger than in the past. There are nearly 80 disability service organizations in Beijing, so the selection range will expand, and the competition will become more intense.

Beijing city authorities have also issued an official document making it easier for disability organizations to register. The document states that any organization working with people with disabilities can register using the Disabled Persons Federation (??联) as the professional management unit. They only need go to the district or county level DPF to apply, and be registered with a minimum capital requirement of 30,000 RMB. The district or county-level Disabled Persons Federation cannot refuse according to this policy document, and must respond to the applying organization within 30 working days7.

The fifth China DPF Vice-Chairman Hui Mating spoke highly of this forum. She said, “I have served in schools, the Education Commission, district, city and national-level Disabled Persons Federations, and attended numerous meetings. But this is the first time I have participated in a meeting of this size, with this format, and with this particular community. We all serve people with intellectual disabilities, and we are civil society institutions here discussing our work. I am very excited and very much value the opportunity of this meeting. At this meeting I have seen all the participants consciously participating, and demonstrating a spirit of responsibility. These young people made me feel that we can let them do this work with our minds at ease.”


  1. Editor’s Note: In China, people with disabilities are usually cloistered at home and taken care of by their families. Organizations like Lizhi and Huiling seek to bring these individuals out of the home and into the community by teaching them life skills. 

  2. Editor’s Note: This decision reflects a desire on the part of these NGOs to create a more formal structure for their network. 

  3. Editor’s Note: The wording here makes it seem like donations actually fell in 2009. The 100 billion figure in 2008 actually included 76 billion RMB for the earthquake relief alone, so charitable donations outside of the earthquake relief were actually around 24 billion RMB. Also, donations in 2006 and 2007 were 10 billion and 31 billion respectively so the overall trend in donations has been upward. 

  4. Editor’s Note: Wang Ming actually mentions three types of “private foundations” – nonpublic fundraising foundations, foundations established by private individuals, and foundations established by entrepreneurs and the wealthy – but for all intents and purposes, almost all of these fall under the category of private foundations (the literal Chinese term is nonpublic fundraising foundations) which are distinct from public foundations in that the latter are allowed to engage in public fundraising while the former are not. The rise of private foundations is explored in more depth in our special issue on New Trends in Philanthropy and Civil Society. 

  5. Editor’s Note: Government procurement of social services from private for-profit and nonprofit organizations is common in the West, but rare in China where the government sector has sought to monopolize service delivery. Some scholars thus see government procurement as an important trend because it could create more space and support for nonprofits to operate and influence government policy. 

  6. Editor’s Note: Li Jing’s point is that NGOs are not the only one paying more attention to social issues. The government is also paying more attention to social management and innovation, and as it does so, it will demand a higher level of service from the NGOs it works with as the next paragraph makes clear. 

  7. Editor’s Note: NGOs that want to register with the Civil Affairs office have to find a government agency willing to serve as the NGO’s professional management unit. In the past, many NGOs were unable to find an agency willing to take on that responsibility. As a result, many NGOs ended up taking the easier route of registering as a for-profit business. This paragraph refers to recent changes by local authorities to make the registration process easier by allowing the Disabled Persons Federation, a GONGO, to act as the government sponsor. It is unclear though whether many NGOs have succeeded in registering after the new document was issued. 

In Brief

This article showcases some important trends in the grassroots NGO sector in China. One is the growth of networks among NGOs serving people with disabilities
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