“Blood and Sweat” for the Public Interest

China Development Brief, No. 52 (Winter 2011)

中文 English

CDB Editor, Liu Haiying, highlights a growing recognition in the NGO sector that public service, nonprofit work is not simply about pursuing one’s passion and ideals. As the public service sector matures in China, it has become a way for many to make a living and pursue a career. But low salaries and long hours make it difficult to retain and develop more professional staff and leaders, which is one of the many challenges that NGOs in China face in their journey from the margins to the mainstream of society. 

On November 8, NGO employees asked each other: “Did you skip work today?”

On October 11th, Xu Zhenjun wrote an appeal on the NGOCN site (NGO发展交流网) under the user name “Powerful Tiger” entitled “Oppose low salaries: stop work for a day.” For this, he earned the nickname “Public Service Pay Raise Brother.”

“Public Service Pay Raise Brother” urged colleagues in the public service sector to take off work on the first Monday in November. He suggested:

1. We are not on a strike, and not specifically targeting our organizations or funders;

2. Preferably the entire organization participates together, so no one is caught in an embarrassing situation;

3. Our aim is to give the public, at least the members of the public concerned about public interest, a greater understanding of us;

4. We will encourage colleagues through microblogs to join us and proclaim our four “wants”!

Our message applies whether you want to just make a living,  be secure, get a raise, be promoted, fall in love, marry,  have fun, rest, learn, or develop …

On November 10, the day following the one-day break, an employee of an international NGO wrote an open letter to the NGO director on the NGOCN website. The letter discussed working conditions, disguised deduction of wages and asking employees to work on their days off:  “with regards to my job responsibilities, risks and pressures, I have not received reasonable compensation. The current compensation lags behind that of other sectors, payments are often late, and the annual salary has neither increased as agreed upon in the labor contract, or in accordance with the relevant national or provincial regulations.  I feel a lot of pressure in my life; overtime work and work on holidays should receive adequate compensation, unless it is something urgent. From now on I refuse to work on weekends and holidays.” This highly discussed issue of pay for public service employees has raged for half a year, with this open letter sparking discussion to the year’s end.

In addition to the NGOCN website, in the second half of this year, the media repeatedly reported about pay and personnel issues in the public service sector. In this sector, one rarely sees such heated discussion focused on just one issue. In its September issue, China Fortune magazine published an article headlined “Blood and Sweat for the Public Interest”. The dramatic title heightened the perception of this problem.

This year’s issue no.7 of Social Entrepreneur included the article “My Public Service ‘Salary’” which expressed the stories and feelings of colleagues in the sector, and revealed pay standards at different types of organizations. China Development Brief’s (CDB) website is an important platform for recruitment and information updates in the sector. CDB took last year’s information and conducted a detailed analysis of its job recruitment database. It organized a small seminar to discuss salary and personal training issues, and published the results in its Fall issue.

It’s Time for a Salary Increase

At the end of 2010, in collaboration with several foundations, Horizon Research Consulting Group released a “Report on a Survey of Human Resource Development and Needs in China’s Public Service Sector,” showing that 90 percent of employees in public service NGOs earned a salary of 5000 RMB or less; the largest category of about 25.7 percent earned in the 2000-3000 RMB pay range. People without fixed income or salaries lower than 1000 RMB represented 18.4 percent of those surveyed. Over 20 percent worked more than 12 hours per day.

The salaries in the public service sector have been low for many years, especially since low salaries for grassroots organizations is so normal, so society takes it for granted. In internet comments and threads, a common view is that if you are interested in sacrificing for what you love, then why complain about wages? Some people even believe this is an occupation for retired people to be useful in their retirement. The ill-informed media likes to talk about keeping administrative costs low, which damages the sustainable development of the sector. [Editor’s Note: There is a widespread perception in China (and elsewhere) that charitable donations should go almost entirely to those in need and that giving away money or providing services funded by donations does not require much in administrative costs.]  While public service has been a hot topic in recent years, public service employees have either been marginalized by society, or marginalized themselves.

Funders play a pivotal role in the public service food chain. But funders spend money mainly on project development and execution, with low investment in human resources. Previously, when organizations developed, limited resources tended to be concentrated on the organization’s director or founder. Since young people lack sustainable development opportunities, it tends to be only the leaders who really end up benefiting.

This year, people are making their voices heard in their own way, declaring that the time has come to face the issue of the survival and career development of grassroots public service employees! The sector is calling on donors of all stripes to reach a consensus in their awareness and orientation, starting by increasing the proportion of personnel costs in project expenses.

This issue has endured for many years, and people have demanded change for many years, so why is it that only in the last few years that changes have started taking place? This has to do with different groups entering the public service arena, and changes in the sector’s structure and composition in recent years. On closer inspection one notices that some foundation employees earn up to 100,000 RMB a year, while employee salaries at grassroots organizations remain extremely low. This gives NGOs the feeling that they are not equal partners but rather are at the bottom of the food chain. Government contracting of services [from NGOs] has grown, but staff salaries have not grown in proportion. This issue undoubtedly raises concerns in the industry. But the real impetus for change will come from private foundations.

Li Yusheng of the Narada Foundation (南都公益基金会) wrote in an article that since 2007, the number of private foundations has increased by 20 percent a year. Right now the field is in its early stages of development, and the degree of professionalization in the field is still not high, and the public service value chain is still being formed. In the short term, there are stages when resources are lacking. But as private foundations become more professional, the public service value chain will mature, funders and project implementers (e.g. grassroots NGOs) will come to understand each other’s roles and divide their labor accordingly. What will this mean? Undoubtedly, competition for better organizations and better projects (broadly speaking, this includes better staff) will grow. When the public service sector’s “buyer’s market” arrives, Li Yusheng predicts a change in the next 2-3 years, or perhaps 5-6 years.

At this point, though, the public service sector lacks qualified staff and new foundations and organizations are already having difficulties recruiting in this field. People from other sectors entering the field because they believe this sector holds a higher moral purpose are sometimes mocked. A competitive salary is the most practical and reliable draw. As the industry develops, personnel and leadership training has gradually been put on the agenda. Thus, some personnel training projects have been established at places such as the Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University and public interest universities established by several other foundations.

As for the past problem of funders prioritizing project expenses over personnel training, Narada’s Ginko Partners Program (银杏伙伴计划) and Alashan SEE Foundation’s Ecological Award (阿拉善SEE基金会的生态奖) have been investing in personnel and leadership training. In 2010, five people were selected as Gingko Partners and, in 2011, 16 people were chosen with each receiving support of 100,000 RMB a year for three consecutive years, which indicates Narada’s growing commitment to training leaders. According to news reports, one of the selected partners this year, Fang Hong, the founder of Henan’s Enlai Public Interest, really “took a plunge” into the field. He had worked in public service for ten years, invested all his time and savings, and was about to reach his limit. Low salaries are truly discouraging people from the public service sector because they may eventually have to give up their work in the face of economic realities.

Two years ago, Feng Yongfeng and his colleagues founded the Green Beagle Environmental Institute (达尔问自然求知社) . Now the organization’s annual budget is about three million RMB. What is enviable or likely to inspire jealously is the salary standards: 3000, 5000, 8000 and even higher.  First year entry level salary is 3000 per month, second year is 5000. While it may be common practice to avoid discussing salaries, Mr. Feng openly discussed the wage standards. At the end of the meeting for Gingko Partner Programs, he commented: “Recently I have felt strongly that if NGOs are going to be an industry, we should recognize that one marker of an industry is the status of its workers. If their treatment is improving, and this is not to say it is solely about money or benefits, then it signals that other associated things are also good. When I go to any foundation I am very proud, I say to them, if you give me money, because we are the only people who can put it to use, then no matter if it is in front of 18 people or a few hundred, in the future I can go to any foundation and say that if you give me money, we are the right people to put it to use.”

In truth, he did not mention that when he first started the organization, he himself invested hundreds of thousands of RMB. He felt that the cause was worth taking a risk.

What Kind of Talent Should be Cultivated?

Narada’s Gingko Partner selection criteria include “outstanding people, the right growth period, and leveraging potential.” So the next question is what type of person to select? What are the training objectives?

For two consecutive years Meng Weina participated in Narada’s Gingko Partner candidate selection meetings. She believes the candidate’s speeches were all excellent and similar, which makes her a bit anxious. Narada is looking to cultivate future leaders in the public service sector, but the current group’s “weight class” is generally lightweights. They are passionate, but these future leaders are not very aware of their own problems, always talking about the structure, talking about “things” and not “people”, or of people’s gratitude and the like, but never allowing a clash of ideas.

She recommends that since Narada is looking for “future leaders” and not “current stars,” it is important to ask the recommended candidates how they see the relationship between their own developmental constraints, their “sense of ethics” (dao) and their “skills?” As China’s public service sector develops, each organization’s leader has had many professional development opportunities to develop their “skills” but not necessarily their “sense of ethics”.

Meng Weina, the founder of Huiling, has a director [of one of the regional Huiling schools] who is one of the candidates. [Editor’s Note: Huiling, one of China’s earliest and best-known NGOs serving the disabled, now has 10 schools around the country.]  When discussing the main constraint on this person’s career growth, she and this individual had very different views. The candidate wanted more professional growth, but Meng Weina emphasized that joining the Gingko Leadership Program was about creating high level leaders who are able to deal with a changing social environment, and with different or contradictory opinions. Essentially, it is about elevating your “sense of ethics” and becoming stronger through the Gingko Program, not about boosting your ego and reputation. Even though she felt this Huiling director was not quite as strong in this respect as others already on the list, Meng Weina agreed with her being included as a finalist.

Are the expectations of the older generation of public service workers the same as the career goals of the younger generation? On this issue, there is an intergenerational difference in the public service sector. Younger people emphasize “efficiency and effectiveness in professionalization”, rather than focus on grand problems. Young people are particularly concerned with how they can acquire more resources, “and older people should also have this vision.  In order for the sector to develop sustainably and to attract new people, it is important to develop a new ecology,” according to one young environmental protection practitioner.

Chinese University of Hong Kong researcher Wu Fengshi was addressing this intergenerational issue at a meeting one time and said “I think the first generation of NGO leaders had very broad experience in and understanding of Chinese society.  They possessed a great deal of wisdom in this area and were very broad-minded. The situation with the new generation of NGOs is a reflection of the changes China has experienced. Today’s post-1980s and post-1990s generations have not experienced political oppression, so they find it difficult to take political problems into account. It is worth considering how the older generation of public service workers might share and pass on their experiences? This is extremely important.

 随即在停工日后的11月10日,在NGO发 展交流网上,出现了一家国际机构的员工给机构负责人写的公开信。信中提到工作待遇问题、变相克扣工资和占用休息时间的问题:“和我的工作所承担职责、风险与压力相比,我没有得到合理的待遇,目前的待遇也落后于社会其他行业的发展,加上长期出现的拖欠工资、未按劳动合同约定每年及时的兑现工资增长、未按国家及云南相关规定要求购买住房公积金等问题,使我倍感生活压力很大;占用员工休息时间工作是需要有补偿假或者补偿金的,除非有紧急的事情,今后我拒绝在周末、节假日工作”。这封公开信将持续半年的公益人热议的薪酬问题一直延续到年尾。
 除了NGO发展交流网,今年下半年几家业界媒体频频发力,直指公益领域的薪酬和人才问题。这样集中火力强攻一个问题,在业界还算少见。《中国财富》是今年7月才改版的杂志,9月号的“血汗公益”专题,因略带噱头意味的“血汗”二字,将这个常谈的问题增加不少麻辣感;《社会创业家》今年第7期 “我的公益‘薪’”,除了发表业界同仁感受和故事,还透露出了一些不同类型组织的薪酬标准。《中国发展简报》的网站是业界招聘信息发布的重要平台,利用得 天独厚的优势,简报将去年的信息做了翔实的数据分析,并针对薪酬和人才培养问题举办了小型研讨会,后以专题形式刊发在今年的秋季刊上。
2010年底,数家基金会联合零点研究咨询集团调研公布了《中国公益人才发展现状及需求调研报告》报告显示:中国公益行业NGO从业者的薪资收入在5 000元以下的约占90%,2 000~3 000元段最为集中,占25.7%,无固定收入和月薪资在1000元以下的占到18.4%;20%以上的人平均每天工作12小时以上。
公 益领域的薪酬低是一个多年的现象,尤其是由于草根组织低薪资普遍存在,长久以来甚至被社会认为是理所当然。在网上的评论和跟帖中,经常可以看到的观点是,你愿意奉献爱心你就来,何必谈工资。甚至很多人以为这是退休的人发挥余热的地方。更有无知的媒体,津津乐道所谓零成本的行政费用,对行业的可持续发展真是 一大损害。近几年公益虽然闹得红红火火,但公益人却被社会边缘或者自我边缘。
今年大家以各自的形式发出自己的声音,正式宣告:该是到了正视草根组织公益人生存和职业发展问题的时候了! 业界呼吁:各类资助方的认知和导向有必要形成共识,从项目费用中人员成本的结构和比例改善开始吧。
这个现象持续了这么多年,业界也呼吁了很多年,为什么在这几年才开启了改变的进程?这和近几年公益领域不同群体的进入和行业构成发生变化有关。大家近距离看到,有的基金会员工年薪10万, 但是草根组织的人员成本却低得可怜,让民间组织觉得,不再有主人翁的角色,不是平等的合作伙伴关系,而是生态链条上的高端和低端的区别。政府购买增多,其中人员的成本占比也是问题。这种对比无疑会刺激行业发声。但真正改变格局的,是非公募基金会对行业发展的判断和基于判断的行动。
冯永锋两年前和同道发起创办了达尔问自然求知社。现在机构每年执行总额300万左右的项目。更让人羡慕嫉妒的是,达尔问的薪酬标准是3 000、5 000、8 000元乃至更多,即入职第一年是每月3 000元工资,第二年每月5 000元…… 在谈薪酬讳莫如深的惯例下,他丝毫不在意说出他们的工资标准。在银杏伙伴计划答辩会的最后,他评论道:“我最近感受很深的,NGO正 在成为一个行业,一个行业的标志就是工作人员的职位、待遇将越来越好,这种待遇不是说我们为了钱,不是说我们要得到很好的工资待遇,而是与之关联的很多东 西都要非常好。我去每个基金会的时候都很骄傲,对他们说,把钱给我们,因为只有我们这些人才能帮你把钱花好,所以在座的各位不管是18位还是全国的几百位,其实未来要很自豪地到基金会去说,你们赶紧把钱给我,只有我们才能帮你把钱花好 。”
孟维娜连续两届参加南都银杏伙伴候选人见面会,她认为,候选人的演讲表达比较“大同小异的优秀”,这让她有点着急。因为南都声称培育未来公益事业“领袖”,但目前的名单“重量级别”总体来说较轻,他们有一定的激情,但这些未来领袖很少能意识自己的问题,都是在说机构,说“事”不说“人”,或“说人”都是感恩 一类的真话,不说思想交锋的真话。
老 一代公益人对未来公益领袖的期待,是否就是年轻人成长的目标?在这个问题上,公益领域出现明显的代际差别。年轻人更强调“效率和效果的专业化程度”,而不是讨论宏大的问题。年轻人特别关注的,怎么让年轻人有更多的资源,“而且老一辈的人也应该有这种视野,就是这个行业是要可持续发展的,要有新的人进来,要 培养新的生态。”一位青年环保从业者如是说。

CDB Editor

Translated by Han Chen

Reviewed by Daniel Engel

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