An Interview with Zhuang Ailing, CEO of the China Foundation Center

China Development Brief, no.47 (Fall 2010)

中文 English

This article is part of our special issue on New Trends in Philanthropy and Civil Society in China (Summer, 2011). It records an interview with Zhuang Ailing, then the new CEO of the just-established China Foundation Center1.
The CFC’s founding stands as one of the biggest events in China’s philanthropic sector since 1949.  Zhuang talks about how the CFC came about, its legal status and operations, her own background and views on heading the CFC, the differing expectations and views of the CFC held by various social groups, how the CFC seeks to promote transparency in the foundation sector and the various challenges they face. Zhuang concludes by describing the CFC’s emergence as part of a natural historical process of rapid growth in China’s foundation sector, as well as of contradictions emerging from that growth. She sees the CFC’s role in addressing those contradictions as critical to the healthy development of philanthropy in China. 

“I’ve done a lot of strategic planning, and this was the shortest. From the initial communication to the time the Board adopted the plan, it only took 9 days.”

This exclusive interview was conducted by “China Development Brief” at a Jianguomenwai apartment with Zhuang Ailing, President of the China Foundation Center (hereinafter CFC,,

Perhaps it’s her disposition that makes Zhuang Ailing’s words sound calm and gentle, and allows her to laugh easily from time to time, with no sign on her face that she just went through a busy, tense preparatory process.  Zhuang, and a small working group, had only three months time to get everything done to meet the CFC board’s July 8 deadline. Preliminary investigations and consultation with stakeholders, recruitment of staff, setting up teams to construct collection systems… … she and her team have come a long way.  Now, they have begun the traveling “road show”, visiting the sponsoring foundations, strengthening relationships, promoting the website,  seeking feedback and urging the sponsoring foundations to submit relevant information and to show initiative in fulfilling their commitment to transparency2.

Zhuang Ailing is optimistic about the CFC’s future prospects. Taiwan has roughly 23 million people and about 5,000 foundations (or one foundation per 4,600 people). The United States has about 300 million people and 100,000 Foundations (or one foundation per 3,000 people). In contrast, China’s population is 4 times that of the United States, and the number of Chinese Foundations is less than 2,000 (or one foundation per 650,000 people). “During the next 3 to 5 years, the number of China’s Foundations will grow from 2000 to 5000, and during the next decade, it may grow to more than 10,000. Imagine how much work the CFC has ahead of it!”

The Historical Context

In 1998 the China Foundation and NPO Information Network (中国基金会与NPO信息网) emerged to promote information-sharing between foundations and other nonprofit organizations in an effort to strengthen their credibility. In 2001 the organization changed its name to “Beijing Enjiu Information and Consulting Center” (北京恩玖信息咨询中心), and registered with the Beijing Civil Affairs bureau in 2009 under the name Enjiu Non-profit Development and Research Center (hereinafter, Enjiu). Enjiu’s main function was to establish the CFC which was known then as the Foundation Center Network. After the sponsoring organizations met to arrive at a consensus, the CFC relied on Enjiu to develop activities and entrusted Enjiu’s board of directors to act provisionally as the Network’s board. In addition, Enjiu would lay the groundwork for the eventual registration of the CFC, and the election of its board of directors. The CFC’s role was to serve as the platform for information disclosure, and a support and services center, for the foundation industry.

Registration and Operation of the CFC

When I asked Zhuang about the legal registration, she said that feedback from the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) was positive, but first they wanted to take care of a few more things to wait until the time was ripe to re-register.  The CFC still needed 2-3 years to develop into an influential, professional and recognized web portal for the industry — if they had started to register too early, it might have backfired. Of course if there had been an opportunity, they would have registered in advance.  As early as 1998, the CFC had in fact already registered a number of domain names that are currently on record with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The organization and the website are now both legal, and it’s unlikely that there will be any problems3.

The CFC’s founding members consist of 35 foundations (15 public and 20 private foundations). Nine of those foundations serve on the CFC’s board of directors which numbers 11 and includes two scholars: Professor Kang Xiaoguang, director of the Nonprofit Organization (NPO) Institute at Renmin University, and Professor Li Qiang of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Tsinghua.

The foundations on the CFC board provide funding and personnel support. The CFC management came over from the founding members, while the rest of the staff consisted of external hires. In terms of developing the website content, there are five people responsible for gathering news, and five who gather and input information into the CFC’s database. Technical support is provided by an outside company.

In terms of funding, Narada Foundation (南都基金会) gives one million RMB annually. Supporting leading organizations in the foundation sector is one of Narada’s three main strategies. The Amity Foundation (爱德基金会), China Youth Development Foundation (中国青少年发展基金会) and China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (中国扶贫基金会) are established public foundations and have been promoting the transparency in the foundation industry for several years. These organizations, in addition to the Chinese Red Cross (中国红十字会), contribute 200,000-500,000 RMB each year. The Social Entrepreneur (or YouChange) Foundation (友成企业家扶贫基金会), Vantone Foundation (万通公益基金会), and the Tencent Charity Foundation (腾讯公益基金会) are  new additions to the board, and donate 250,000 RMB each year. On the technical side, Microsoft provides the necessary software and Cisco is donating online learning systems, and providing technical support.  In addition, the Ford Foundation has provided funding for two years4.

A Personal Transition

“What was my first reaction to being hired as the CEO of the Center Network? I wasn’t surprised. I’d already heard that the board was conducting a search and pulling together a list of promising people and evaluating each person. I was honored to come out at the front of the list. The reason was probably because I’ve been working in this area for a long time, and the board knew that I had connections. I had worked for ten years at the Amity Foundation, my Ph.D. thesis researched foundation capacity building and development, I founded Green Reflection (映绿), a community development center that works to include foundations in capacity building for public welfare organizations. Also, in 2001 I started volunteering at EnJiu where I participated in planning a conference on NPO capacity building, planned a conference about building public trust, compiled teaching materials and job training work. For the past few years I’ve been carrying out consulting and training to encourage some foundations to move towards a grant-making model.”

“Since Green Reflection was founded in 2004, every day has been overloaded with work. Last year, when the first term of Green Reflection’s board came to an end, I chose to continue on as chair of the board, but not as the executive director. Green Reflection’s board hired an executive director from the outside to oversee daily operations and management.  I needed to give myself some time to think things through, to give some consideration to the future development of Green Reflection, and also to spend some time with my family, especially since my son will be taking the university entrance exam next year.  Unexpectedly, I am now busier than ever—I’ve turned into an “amphibious” person on the fast train from Beijing to Shanghai,” she says with a laugh5.

“People ask me, what is the difference between working at Green Reflection and CFC?  I worked five years in preparation for Green Reflection, and it was a personal dream.  After the launch we got a lot of response and recognition from the industry, and many well-known people in the industry were willing to come on to the board of our small organization. I was very moved. The board’s early expectations of me were not very high, and that gave me a lot of space to explore and gradually grow. The main line of Green’s development is clear, but our resources are very limited. “

“The CFC is different. From the outset, there has always been a large structure in place. On the one hand, the main direction is clear. On the other, you have many famous and influential foundations involved, each with different but very high expectations.  CFC’s impact is large, and so is the driving force behind it.  Our high-profile launch also generated high expectations throughout the sector for CFC.

I also had some misconceptions about CFC early on. I thought the CFC website was only part of my work, and that I would be working on other areas including foundation capacity building and other services.  But then I came to realize that our main service is the publication of information, and the website is the core of our business. But my role will not be so much to manage the website as it will be to use the website to promote the industry’s credibility and development. That will be a new challenge for me, and involve some learning on my part.

Of course, after laying down the information infrastructure, the foundation will provide other services, but it needs to do so in stages. Information is the CFC’s life blood.  For those who push for information transparency, the CFC needs high-profile appearances to arouse the concern of the community. At our July 8 launch, 30-40 media outlets came and, within 2 weeks, released nearly 5000 different news reports online about CFC. I predict when the Beijing University Center for Civil Society Studies names the “top ten civil society events in 2010”, the CFC opening will be somewhere among the top three.

It’s easy to have high hopes about creating something, but making this hope a reality, and not just a flash in the pan, is going to be a challenge for me and my team. “

Expectations Shaped by Different Needs

Zhuang went on to discuss the different agendas and interests held by the foundations sponsoring CFC.  “Public foundations which have more influence and a long history of public fundraising, hope to expand their influence through the CFC platform, including getting more support for their own fundraising initiatives.   The smaller private foundations, which are not allowed to engage in public fundraising, face little pressure to fundraise, but they also want to enhance their social prestige and influence. Some of them have capacity building needs, and want to use our services to develop more quickly.

“The scholarly community is the CFC’s most direct beneficiary, and so their feedback has been positive and active. In the past, when scholars looked for information about foundations it was very difficult because you needed to look at many sites.  At present, the CFC is still a very broad “information supermarket”, but over time and with the growth of the team’s capacity, gradual improvements will be made in the information database.  The website can be used to compare donations, net asset value, and other factors across different provinces and sectors, and provides more than 20,000 items of historical and current news relating to foundations.

“Grass-roots NGOs have high expectations for the CFC. In communicating with NGOs, we found they lacked resources. Government bids for public projects were often limited to traditional philanthropy, and took into account factors such as the organization’s registration, evaluation, capacity, and influence. As a result, grass-roots organizations had a difficult time competing.  Corporate donors generally take into consideration the social and media resources and social impact of grassroots organizations. Therefore, grassroots NGOs want to use our website site as an industry platform both to learn more about foundation resources and to showcase themselves. We also plan to provide personalized services for the public welfare sector, including capacity building and personnel development to meet their needs. Since the foundation sector’s information systems lag behind other industries, we may also provide website support to small foundations.

“The government is now carrying out its annual inspection and writing up its annual report on the foundation sector. But the CFC website provides even more information. For example, the Shanghai NGO Management Bureau can use the CFC database to understand how Shanghai foundations rank nationwide in areas such as donations, activities, and net assets.

“We’ve created a list of China’s 100 Largest Foundations that ranks both public and private foundations in terms of their net assets, donations, public welfare spending, and so on.  We also have an information center where you can view daily news collated from more than 400 foundation websites.

“In the future the CFC will also provide other information resources. At the end of the year we will publish a report analyzing the development of China’s foundations. The report’s objective is to provide a detailed understanding of the current state of China’s foundation sector based on industry data.

Promoting the Government’s Disclosure of Information

“Currently, the main information source for the CFC is the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ (MCA) publicly-released information and annual reports.  The CFC’s publication of government information plays a catalytic role. Before July 8, only the MCA departments in Beijing and Shanghai made public their annual foundation reports. After July 8, the CFC will gradually add more publicly-available information on foundations in other provinces.   Some of this information is on the website of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, where you can find foundation annual reports and some basic information open to the public. The recent increase in information made available to the public by the government has been significant and is a particularly welcome change, and we look forward to seeing more information. Of course, making this information public will take time.  The number of annual reports that we’ve collected so far (a total of 1601) is already triple the number we had at the time of the website’s launch. But only a small number of foundations have reported information for the 2005-2009 period6.

Sponsoring Foundations Set an Example

Shang Yusheng, one of the driving forces behind the CFC, once said: “The process of the CFC pushing for the industry’s self-regulation is more difficult than accession to the WTO.” According to Zhuang, “The challenge is not just about the CFC promoting transparency in the foundation sector.  It’s also about promoting the idea of transparency in society as a whole.  Foundations may know about the CFC, but are surprised to find their financial information published on our website. They ask us how we were able to obtain their foundation’s financial information, thinking that they submitted the information for the government’s eyes only.  Many foundations do not realize that donations are a resource belonging to the public, not just the donor or recipient.  According to the MCA’s “Measures for Managing Foundation Information Disclosure”, foundations are public bodies with an obligation to disclose information to the public, not just the government.

“In addition to government sources, some information came from the foundations themselves. For example, starting in 1995, the Amity Foundation began disclosing its financial information in its annual report which is available on its website.

“Our current emphasis is to promote the CFC’s core sponsoring foundations as models, asking them to submit basic, financial, project and donation information. From late August on, we visited more than ten of these foundations to introduce them to the CFC’s resources. These visits also had the effect of encouraging them to disclose information as soon as possible.

Why 2010?

“Why was the CFC established in 2010?  First, the concern with strengthening the credibility of the foundation sector did not just start this year. Some of the large foundations started to push for this 20 years ago. The CFC is the culmination of a long, gradual process.

“Second, this is the result of foundations having developed to a certain level. After the “Regulations on Foundation Management” were issued in 2004, the public, enterprises and individuals were given more space. After 2005, new private foundations emerged, changing the environment for foundations which had previously been established by the government. After the Wenchuan earthquake, foundations began to receive a large number of donations. After 2008, newly-emerging foundations began to grow in scale. When I wrote my doctoral thesis in 2000, the number of foundations whose net assets exceeded 10 million RMB was very small, and only three foundations had net assets that exceeded 100 million. Now some 45 foundations have net assets exceeding 100 million RMB, and now some foundations with tens of billions in net assets are appearing.  As a result, public concern about the credibility of foundations has increased, and people have begun asking hard questions about how charitable funds are being used.  In 2005, private foundations initiated a self-regulation movement, and in 2009 they held a forum. The industry’s self-regulation movement has, at an early stage, benefited from the foresight of people with high ideals, and has already gained the consensus of those in the public welfare industry7.

“The third reason is that the public is beginning to be aware that it has choices. Whoever is transparent will be chosen. In addition, grassroots NGOs hoping to apply for government procurement projects also need to improve their transparency and standardize their operations. The entire public welfare sector needs to address the issues of transparency and self-regulation if it wants to move forward. The CFC is, thus, the result of the industry experimenting, engaging in action, and responding to society.

“China is in the process of creating a modern public welfare culture. Transparency will promote good governance, efficiency, and the standardization of an organization’s operations. The CFC wants to promote a healthy and transparent public welfare mechanism and public culture. We see the next decade as a critical decade for the development of our sector.

  1. Not long after this interview, Zhuang resigned as the CEO of CFC. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The sponsoring foundations were the CFC’s founding members and consisted of 15 public and 20 private foundations. 

  3. Editor’s Note: The discussion in the above two paragraphs shows the CFC going through various names and organizational identities. It uses the name CFC, but is not registered under that name. Legally, it is part of Enjiu which is registered with the Beijing Civil Affairs bureau. 

  4. Editor’s Note: YouChange, Vantone and Tencent are all private foundations. 

  5. Editor’s Note: Zhuang was previously based in Shanghai and, after being hired to head CFC, was shuttling back and forth between Shanghai and Beijing. 

  6. Editor’s Note: In recent years, the Chinese government has been promoting information disclosure at both the central and local levels in order to strengthen transparency and good governance. 

  7. Editor’s Note: Zhuang is referring to the Private Foundation Development Forum which was first held in July 2, 2009. On the forum, see the following articles in this issue, “Changes in the China Charity Federation System”; “Different Opinions at the Second Private Foundation Forum”, and “Develop Philanthropy through Debate and Cooperation” 

“我做过那么多战略规划,这次是最短的。从最初的沟通到理事会通过,只用了9天时间。”7月17日在北京建国门外一栋公寓内的基金会中心网(以下简称“中心网”, www.foundationcenter.办公室,面对《中国发展简报》专访,中心网总裁庄爱玲说。
1998年,中国基金会与NPO信息网亮相,推动基金会等非营利组织信息交流和公信力建设,并在2001年更名为“北京恩玖信息咨询中心”并进行工商注册。2009年, 转而在北京市民政局注册为“恩玖非营利组织发展研究中心”(以下简称“恩玖中心”)。恩玖中心的核心业务就是发起成立基金会中心(在正式注册前,以“基金会中心网”为名)。发起机构召开沟通会达成共识,中心网依托恩玖中心开展活动,委托恩玖中心理事会暂行中心网的理事会职责,待将来中心网正式注册后,再由发起机构选举新的理事会。中心网的定位是行业信息披露平台和支持服务中心。
 被 聘为中心网总裁,第一反应是什么?我并不意外。听说此前理事会进行了行业扫描,把有潜力的人拉了一个单子,对每个人做评价,我比较荣幸地列在前面。这可能跟我在这个领域做的时间长、理事会比较了解我有关系吧。我以前在爱德基金会做了十多年,博士论文研究的也是基金会能力建设与发展、创办的映绿(公益事业发展中心)做的包括基金会在内的公益组织能力建设,还从2001年开始就做恩玖的义工,参与NPO能力建设会议策划、公信力培训策划、教材编写以及培训工作等。这几年又一直通过咨询和培训推动部分基金会向资助型基金会转型。
自2004年创办映绿以来,每一天都超负荷运转。去年映绿第一届理事会任期届满,我选择只担任董事长,不再兼任总干事。 映绿董事会从外部聘任新的总干事,负责映绿的日常运营和管理。原本想给自己一点时间理清思路,思考映绿未来的发展,也给家人和自己一点时间,特别是明年儿子要考大学。没想到,现在比以前更忙了,变成了往返于京沪快线上的“两栖”人了。(笑)
还 有一点,基金会中心网与我最初的想象也有些出入。我原来以为网站只是现阶段的一部分工作,同时还有其他的支持功能:如基金会能力建设等服务。目前基金会中心的主要任务是基金会的信息披露,网站是核心业务。而如何管理、运营网站并非我之所长。如何通过网站推动基金会信息透明,推动行业公信力和发展,对我而言 既是一个新的挑战,也意味着新的学习过程。
学界是基金会中心网启动的最直接受益者,因此他们的反馈非常正面和积极。以前学者要做研究找基金会信息,真的很难,需要翻看很多网站。中心网现在还是很全的基金会“信息超市”,但随着时间的推移和团队能力的增长,信息会逐步完善。现在网站上已经有分析、比较功能,你要想了解基金会的捐赠支出、资产净值,各省 市、各领域的捐赠情况,还有每天更新的基金会新闻和2万多条基金会的历史新闻,这些在基金会中心网上就可以查到。这对学者们来说无疑是一个信息宝库,当然对于媒体也是如此。
草根NGO对 中心网也有很高的期望。我们在与他们的沟通中发现,草根组织一直苦于资源来源有限,政府的公益招投标项目通常限于传统的慈善领域,另外还要附加诸如机构注册、评估和能力、影响力等条件,因此一般小的草根机构很难竞到标。企业资助方一般要考虑草根组织的社会资源、媒体资源和社会影响力如何。因此,草根NGO希 望将基金会中心网站作为行业平台,既能了解基金会的各种信息,包括资源信息,也能通过平台展示自己。中心网计划在未来为公益行业提供个性化的增值服务,包括能力建设、满足它们在人力发展方面的需求。由于整个基金会行业的信息化发展水平低,落后于其他行业,也可能为小基金会提供网站建设支持。
政 府现在是通过年检,通过高度浓缩的年度报告了解基金会情况。但从中心网网站可以了解到更为丰富的信息。例如上海民间组织管理局可以通过基金会中心网,根据上海的基金会与全国其他基金会的捐款、活动情况、净资产情况等指标的对比,了解上海基金会在全国所处的地位。以前大家都知道上海慈善基金会是全国年捐款规模最大的基金会(2008年除外,2008年中国红十字基金会最多),但并不了解具体体现在哪些方面。现在中心网上的信息显示,它几乎在所有指标上都排在第一位。
基金会中心网还做了TOP 100(100大基金会指标自然排名),可以分全部基金会、公募和非公募,还可以从净资产、当年捐赠额度、公益支出额度等方面的指标来排位。有了这些信息,各个基金会、各个地方还可以互相比较。另一个部分是新闻中心,每天抓取1919家基金会中有网站的基金会新闻,简单编辑后上传。目前已做到抓取400多家基金会的新闻。
 目前,中心网的主要数据来源是民政部门开放的基础信息和年度报告。中心网对政府披露基金会信息起到了推动作用。7月8日前,只有民政部、北京市、上海市民政部门的网站公示了基金会的年报信息,7月8日后 我们注意到各省陆续开放信息。有的放到了民政部的网站上,那里公示的基金会年报、基础信息和财务信息都有了显著的增加,这些变化应该和中心网的启动有直接或间接的联系。这是特别值得高兴的变化,我们期待着看到更多的信息。当然,信息的增加需要时间。目前仅采集的财务年报部分已经比网站启动时采集的数量增加 了3倍(已达到1601份)。但披露2005~2009年5年年报信息的基金会还在少数。
 商 玉生先生曾经说:“中国基金会推动行业自律的历程比‘入世’还难。”目前,不光是推动基金会信息透明度,整个社会的信息透明都很难,这不只是某个行业的问题。有个基金会知道我们成立,吃惊地发现他们的财务信息都放在网上,问:“我们基金会的财务信息怎么可能被基金会网获得?”并表示他们只向政府开放。很多 基金会没有意识到,捐赠资金一旦进入基金会就成为公共资源,不属于发起人和捐赠人。作为公共机构的基金会有义务向所有人,不只是向政府提供信息。民政部有《基金会信息公开管理办法》,未来需要让基金会知道信息透明是一项义务。

CDB Editor

Translated by Ketty A. Loeb and Alex Ma

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