Published date: 8 July 2020
The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has rapidly spread around the world impacting economies, healthcare systems and daily life. The challenges that it poses are real and consequential.
To help policymakers and donors better understand the impact on China’s social sector, CAPS’ Deputy Director of Advisory Services Angel Lin and Research Manager Vincent Cheng (virtually) sat down with Liu Lei, Secretary-General of both the TCL Charity Foundation (hereafter TCLF) and Huameng Foundation, Li Beiwei, Secretary-General of the Yifang Foundation, Li Jing*, President of the Sany Foundation, and Tao Ze, Founder and President of Yishan Philanthropy Data Center. The conversations took place between April 14-20.
CAPS: How has the outbreak affected your work and how are you responding to it?
Liu Lei: As TCLF is embedded in TCL as its CSR arm, we acted very swiftly with the corporate body. First and foremost, we need to protect our employees’ health and safety. We have over 10,000 staff based in Wuhan, six to seven thousands of whom were staying in town within the early outbreak period before the Chinese New Year in late January. We have quickly introduced necessary measures to safeguard their health and as a result don’t have a single infection case among our employees.
Secondly, we started discussing about donations as early as January 24 on Chinese New Year’s eve. Donations were made swiftly by January 26. In total, we donated over RMB 20 million (approximately US$3 million), including cash and gifts in kind, such as electronic appliances to the two Wuhan makeshift hospitals.
Li Jing: The outbreak has had two direct impacts on the Foundation’s work.
Firstly, the communication within our team and with our social sector partners has been affected, given we cannot meet face to face. It has affected our efficiency and relationship building, especially with new partners.
Secondly, some of our offline capacity building and promotion activities had to be cancelled. For example, our flagship 3ESPACE once was an incubation project and now is an NGO community-building initiative. As far as I know, we seem to be the only foundation in Beijing to provide such free space for NGOs’ activities. Sadly, it has not been possible to continue operating 3ESPACE normally during the crisis.
From our end, we had taken early action by supporting social delivery organizations with two rounds of funding before and just after Chinese New Year–half a million RMB (approximately US$70,000) each time. We are a relatively small hybrid foundation (there are two types of foundations in China, operational ones and funding ones) with clear strengths and limitations; hence, we tried to strategically select the most effective intervention within our limited funding. Rather than mobilizing our resources to donate medical supplies—something that has already pulled a huge amount of resources—we decided to support community services that have mostly been neglected yet have big, longer-term impact to society. In short, our support focused on social services like psychological support, community prevention, online diagnosis programs, national foundation coordination and networking, plus related research in said areas. I believe our targeted areas are important especially for the rebuilding of communities in the next stage of the crisis.
On the other hand, with our existing grantees, such as the village revitalization project, we have granted a three months buffer for their project execution, understanding that they have to suspend on-the-ground activities for the moment.
Li Beiwei: The pandemic has little effect on us. The child education, social enterprise development, and elderly care research projects we funded are not much affected by the situation. The two social enterprises we invested in though are affected. They are SMEs that are respectively engaged in the elderly care services and second-hand clothes recycling industry. We have been actively communicating with them and helping them as needed.
Tao Ze: Covid-19 has impacted us in many ways—but more opportunities than challenges I’d say. YISHAN—as a data platform—has a mission to advance the transparency of China’s philanthropic sector. YISHAN has built a platform that has collated donation information on over 50,000 companies as well as the donation requests of over 6,000 charitable organizations. During Covid-19, the public, donors, and charitable organizations have paid greater attention to the issue of transparency as donations have surged. This aligns with and is an opportunity for YISHAN’s advocacy and promotion of data transparency.
The negative impact on YISHAN is that the extra manpower needed to collate the massive amount of donation data out there has made us more cash-strapped than ever. Our work restarted on the eve of Chinese New Year (January 24, 2020), when the government started to mobilize fundraising initiatives, to which society responded quickly. YISHAN had to operate in an almost “wartime mode” working over 15 hours each day to build a data platform, as well as load and release data on this dedicated platform, detailing the donations directed to Covid-19 relief efforts in China.
CAPS: What about going forward? Will you change the way you carry out your work?
Liu Lei: Our major program, the TCL Project Hope Candlelight Award, has been severely impacted. This prize aims to recognize and reward excellent teachers in the rural areas. Normally during this time of the year, we need to visit villages around China for site inspection, and we will bring together selected teachers for award ceremony and training. This kind of offline activities simply could not happen these days. Hence we have decided to defer the selection process till next year (2021).
In general, around 80% of our program work had been either on hold or adjusted, while roughly 20% are online activities which are going as usual. However, since TCLF has a strong business culture and practice, we set strict KPIs earlier, so we don’t sit here and wait. We tried to either adapt existing projects to online mode as much as possible or came up with new innovative projects that don’t require frequent travelling. In fact, we just finalized our new KPI setting based on these new activities.
CAPS: Do you see more local collaboration taking place as a result of this crisis?
Li Jing: In fact, we have seen a plurality of social efforts to help people weather this crisis, including community support measures from the government, donations and provisions from the private sector, and various efforts from social organizations and volunteers. There has not been an overall coordination mechanism, but it seems these vibrant and spontaneous “social organizing” efforts—in the word of Chen Wang, President of the Chinese Academy of Medical Science—laid the foundation towards a successful mitigation of the crisis, if we may say.
Later during the crisis, a China NGO Consortium for Covid-19 was set up in February to provide coordination among foundations and social organizations. Sany Foundation also supported this network, though it’s hard to evaluate how effective this platform is in its early stage.
Tao Ze: There are two noteworthy examples of collaboration that are being led by the Narada Foundation and Beijing Chunmiao Foundation.
Narada Foundation has always focused on ecosystem building and partnerships. Recently, it co-founded a collaborative platform called the China NGO Consortium for Covid-19 (hereafter “CNC Covid-19″), to coordinate amongst funders and NGOs for a more synergistic response to the crisis. Let me give you an example: one organization managed to buy masks and ventilators, but they were unable to send these to Wuhan. Some other organizations with the know-how stepped in and helped with the logistics of getting these supplies to Wuhan.
The platform also serves as an information sharing and facilitation hub. Through this collaborative platform, discussions are organized through Wechat, documents detailing efforts of international disaster-relief responses are translated, and training initiatives are held online to build up the capacity of front-line NGOs. The long-term goal is to establish a coordination mechanism for disaster relief and emergency management, as well as enhance the social sector’s collaboration in China.
Beijing Chunmiao Foundation also established a powerful collaborative network. I should begin with the interesting background of the founder. The founder completed three business school degrees, and her classmates are business owners or chief executives of big corporations in China. During this crisis, these business leaders wanted to help with their resources, but they had no idea what to do or how to do it. Thus, they donated money to Chunmiao to help allocate their resources to those in need.
Chunmiao Foundation thus became a coordinating body, utilizing the founder’s networks to handle procurement and logistics of much-needed medical supplies for hospitals in Wuhan.
Chunmiao essentially functions as a hub that gathers donations from the founder’s network and gets the work done on the ground. Narada, in contrast, established a coordination mechanism to facilitate collaboration through CNC Covid-19.
CAPS: It’s good to hear some of you are supporting collaboration efforts. Do you see this crisis having other longer term implications for the social sector?
Li Beiwei: My personal view is that for social enterprise, I think we should work along the lines of PPP (Public-Private Partnership), which includes stakeholders like the government, the businesses, and their employees. Everyone should work hard together to get through this difficult period.
The government can give tax benefits, reduce the interest rate of loans, and waive rents. Companies should expect to earn reasonably less in this period. For instance, the price of services given to the disadvantaged should also be lowered. Employees should also be conscious of the difficulty of businesses during this period and weather the storm together. This idea of mutual assistance, to me, captures the essence of PPP which benefits the society. This is one of the possible lines to take to persuade the government to prop up social enterprises specifically among the sea of SMEs.
For the wider social sector, if we take the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 as a precedent, the government may entrust more money to the sector to carry out social services at the community level. The clout of the government—as a major procurer even for now—would rise further as social sector’s financial support from other channels dwindles due to the economic downturn. Yet, if the social sector could utilize this tranche of newly available resources, this could well be the beginning of another boom for the sector.
Tao Ze: China’s charitable sector has improved in recording information and data. The scandals that happened over the years have made practitioners realize that more attention has to be paid to transparency. Many stakeholders also want to know the actual donations received by grant recipients, as this piece of information will help them make decisions for future issue-specific donations.
I’ll also pay attention to the roles of and dynamics between GONGOs and NGOs. Figuring these out are important because they offer a glimpse of what China’s future social governance model could be like.
Among these two types of organizations, NGOs symbolize the bottom-up approach and GONGOs top-down. If GONGOs ended up getting the bulk of available resources, this means the top-down approach will dominate the sector, whereas the bottom-up approach will be in its shadow, and vice-versa. That said, we don’t believe the choice of these two approaches will be a zero-sum game, rather it will be more about achieving a dynamic equilibrium that will shape the future pathway of civil society in China.
The exact point of equilibrium will be influenced by the views of government officials, corporations, and leaders of NGOs. The consequence could be very significant if this balancing point is determined wrongly. Nevertheless, this year and the year after is the right time to reshape the direction of China’s civil society.
Liu Lei: Actually I was discussing about social sector’s “self-salvation” with some colleagues earlier (I was a board member in Shenzhen Commonweal Fund Federation).
I think the social sector might not get that much financial aid from the government, because its top priority is to support small and medium enterprises’ survival. On the other hand, it’s unsurprising to hear some companies are going bankrupt in the economic downturn, so grassroot NGOs that rely very much on corporate donations will suffer. Furthermore, it’s difficult and also costly for these NGOs to explore other fundraising models such as crowdfunding on Tencent’s or Alibaba’s platforms. As I mentioned earlier, business thinking and skills are really important to the social sector. Those NGOs that are not agile enough to adapt to changes will face survival issues.
While the majority of social sector organizations are grappling with domestic social issues, for big corporate foundations like ours, we have also been paying attention to the needs of different overseas communities as we expand our philanthropic endeavors abroad. We will continue to do so with more strategic deliberation. This is a big trend and I personally feel it’s a right thing to do.
Li Jing: It’s difficult to predict any trend in China, so I’ll just share some personal observations and thoughts. To most of us, the non-government efforts in this crisis, including those from the private sector, social sector and individuals, are undoubtedly very powerful. What remains a question is how well the government realizes the immense power of these social efforts and how can it recognize and appraise such power?
Our great appreciation to Li Beiwei, Li Jing, Tao Ze and Liu Lei for taking the time to talk with us. We will continue to stay in touch with our partners in China and around Asia as we grapple with the pandemic and its aftermath.
* Mr Li Jing spoke to us in a personal capacity as an experienced philanthropy practitioner.
为了帮助政策制定者和捐助者更好地了解疫情对中国社会部门的影响，亚洲公益事业研究中心（Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society, 以下简称CAPS）咨询服务副总监林卓敏和研究经理张嘉玮，与TCL公益基金会兼华盟基金秘书长刘磊、亿方公益基金会秘书长李北伟、三一基金会秘书长李劲* 和易善慈善事业数据中心的创始人兼总裁陶泽分别在4月14日至20日之间进行了访谈。