Government Procurement Promotes Social Work Agencies

China Development Brief, no.47 (Fall 2010)

中文 English

Introduction: The following is a dense but very interesting article on a cutting-edge trend in China: the flowering of nonprofit (and some for-profit) social work agencies that are appearing in Chinese cities with the support of government funding and support. Many of these agencies are private, nonprofit organizations but they also have close ties with local governments and communities that give them space, legal status and funding to provide services to the elderly, women, the disabled, children and other groups in China’s urban communities. This growing collaboration between local governments and social work agencies can be seen as part of the Chinese government’s recent efforts to promote social management and innovation in order to better meet the needs and manage the conflicts that arise at the community level. Whether these social work agencies will develop into more independent actors that can play a role in shaping resource decisions made by local governments will bear watching.

Like a gust of fresh air, 11 social work agencies emerged in Beijing during the first eight months of 2010.

Similar social work agencies have appeared in Shanghai, Guangzhou and other places, and their importance is that they receive government funding for their goods and services and also to hire accredited social workers to work in communities, schools and hospitals.

In June 2009, Beijing’s Dongcheng District set up its first “social work agency”, known as Zhu Ren(Helping Others, 助人). Zhu Ren’s founder Li Xin explains the term “social work agency” originated from more familiar agencies like law firms or accountancy firms: “The goal is to let residents know that we are providing similar professional services.”

Other social work agencies emerged later in Beijing with names like Ren Zhu (Benevolent Assistant,仁助) , Yue Qun (Happy Group, 悦群), and and Mu You (Harmonious Friends, 睦友). The rate at which these agencies have grown since 2009 has been startling. The development of social work agencies had been slow after 2002 when the Beijing Social Work Association (北京社工协会)was founded under the supervision of the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau. Now, Beijing has at least 18 social work agencies and Social Work Associations1.

This new trend of creating social work organizations is intended to address the social problems inherent in the transition process. The 16th Party Congress (in 2002) clearly stated the following goals in its “Decision on Building a Socialist Harmonious Society”: “Develop social work human resources. To create a socialist harmonious society, we need to develop appropriate organizational structures and social work personnel”. As a result of government policies at all levels, and the work of local governments, the social work profession has made rapid progress. For example, the Beijing Social Development Office issued the “1+4”series of documents which guide social construction, party building in the social sphere, development of social organizations, community management and supervision, and social work management2.

From the beginning of 2008, under the guidance of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, China initiated national qualifying exams for social workers and social work assistants. Around the same time, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other places began establishing social service agencies. Jobs in grassroots community service stations began to open up for recent social work graduates or experienced social workers.
“The government has realized that setting up social work agencies can ease social conflicts and respond to the needs of society,” says Zhang Yang, project leader at the Jinlin Social Service Centre (近邻社会服务中心). He believes the current government push is needed for the time being as it allows different experiences to shape decisions about government resources.

All roads lead to “social work agencies”

If we take the familiar saying that “All roads lead to Rome”, then at present, we can say, “All roads lead to social work agencies”.

Beijing’s 18 registered social work agencies basically have one thing in common: they were founded by institutes of higher education and their graduates with the support of government policy. They are therefore set for a smooth journey.

Several agencies have been founded by recent graduates with investment and support from their colleges. These include Zhu Ren located in Nanluoguxiang, and Mu You, Ren Zhu and Yue Qun, all located in Xicheng district. Two of these agencies, Zhu Ren and Ren Zhu, are supported by the Beijing Youth Politics College (北京青年政治学院). Yue Qun is supported by the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture (北京建筑工程学院 ), while Mu You collaborates with the China Youth University for Political Science (中国青年政治学院).

Agency staff are typically social work graduates. The staff at Zhu Ren, initially consisted of two males and eight females who were either classmates of the founder, Li Xin, or alumni of the same college. Ren Zhu draws mainly from college and university students, and was founded with Li Xin’s help. Ren Zhu’s current director, Anna is also a graduate of China Youth University for Political Sciences. Anna previously worked at Zhu Ren. Zhu Ren and Ren Zhu are essentially sister organizations.
With the exception of Mu You, these social work agencies are registered with the district Civil Affairs Bureau as non-profits3. Mu You is not yet registered as a non-profit, though it is run as one. It carries out its own projects by “attaching” itself to the Xicheng District Social Work Association (西城区社会工作联合会)4. Mu You’s manager, Pan Xing, says Mu You will become an independent, registered organization when the time is ripe.

In response to government policies, some of Beijing’s surrounding counties have begun to actively promote social work. Some college professors have stepped forward to found their own social work agencies, for instance Wen Xin (Warm Heart 温心) in Changping County and Beijing Lv Xiang (Beijing Green Harbour 北京绿港) in Shunyi District. Ma Zechun, a professor at Beijing College of Agriculture (北京农学院) confirmed that the creation of Wen Xin stemmed largely from the Beijing Municipal Party Committee’s Social Work Commission’s (北京市委社工委) desire to generate “real experiences” for the Changping district government. This view was seconded by Zhang Yang of the Jinlin Social Services Center. Zhang understands the strategic issues, having participated in the Beijing Social Work Commission’s founding ceremonies for 10 community social work agencies5.

Jinlin was founded this year under the auspices of the Chaoyang District Agricultural Committee (朝阳区农委). It had previously worked in migrant communities such as Shange village (善各庄). Two social work agencies with similar backgrounds and concerns are Chaoyang District’s On Action Social Work Agency (朝阳区在行动社工事务所) and Beijing’s Facilitator (北京协作者社会工作发展中心). The three agencies – Jinlin, On Action, and Facilitator — were all originally registered as commercial organizations but have transformed themselves into non-profits registered with the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau.

These three agencies have developed, benefiting from the government’s readiness to acknowledge and make use of the experience and approach of nonprofits. The NGOs have also benefited from their improved status to develop their services. The heads of all three agencies said the government has offered them the olive branch of official registration.

Behind the scenes of Facilitator’s “probationary experience”, besides the dramatic one-time event of being asked by the government to register, of greater importance is more than seven years’ accumulated experience and exploration of effective methods, including models that can be extended and replicated elsewhere. Examples include integration of locally-appropriate social work experiences such as the People’s Theatre (民众戏剧)and Mature Small Groups (成长小组). Facilitator has also set up local offices in Nanjing and Zhuhai.
Li Tao (李涛), founder of Facilitator, said the biggest change has been a reduction in unnecessary pressures. For instance, since the agencies no longer have to explain their role and status to others, they have greater scope for their activities. At present, Facilitator is discussing two projects with Beijing’s Dongcheng District Civil Affairs Bureau (东城区民政局). The first is working with Dongcheng District’s neighborhood and community service stations (社区服务站) to train community service station workers. The second project, initiated by the district Civil Affairs Bureau, would establish a Dongcheng District Association of Social Workers (城区社会工作者协会) to provide practical support and professional training to the district’s social work agencies. The aim is to ensure that its grassroots social work agencies can eventually become sustainable and service-oriented organizations.

In the course of these interviews, the author also discovered a unique social work agency called Hope Social Work (Houpu 厚朴). Its structure is different from that of the agencies co-founded by colleges and recent graduates. It also differs from Jinlin and Facilitator which are nonprofits originally registered as commercial enterprises. Hope Social Work was started with corporate investment.

Hope was set up because an IT company wanted to use social work to help the firm fulfill its corporate social responsibilities, and shape its corporate image. Hope’s chairperson, Zheng Siyu, explained that she is a company employee who is carrying out projects for the public good under the company’s sponsorship. The company hopes to improve its own service training and gain public recognition through its social work program. Hope has so far hired two social workers, supported and paid by the parent company.

Although Zheng Siyu graduated from Beijing University of Agriculture, she lacked the support of a university at the outset, and so had to develop resources piecemeal relying on her own initiative. She contacted the heads of Social Work departments at five Beijing colleges who could provide Hope with supervision. Hope also signed a development agreement with Capital Normal University (首都师范大学) to create a work experience program for its social work students. Each week, Hope emails the various supervisors for their advice and recommendations. If there is an urgent issue, Hope telephones them, or asks for direct, face-to-face assistance.

“One Association-Four Agencies” development path

Near Xinjiekou subway station, the offices of the Xicheng District Social Work Association and four social work agencies – Hope, Mu You, Yue Qun and Ren Zhu — are squeezed into a seventh floor room of an office building. Each agency has its own office space, generally with two people sharing a cubicle. These office facilities are provided free of charge by the Social Work Association so that the agencies can interact with each other, and gain from peer supervision. Hope’s Zheng Siyu says she still hopes to have a separate office that would be more conducive to casework and group work.

Although Ren Zhu and Yue Qun both display name plates here, they do not have anybody working in this office. Pan Xing, the director of Mu You explained that these two agencies have offices in other locations. Mu You itself has only two people in this tiny space. Its other five social workers are based in a hospital, senior citizens agency and a community site office.

These four social work agencies make up the membership of Xicheng District Social Work Association. They receive support services, such as office space, projects, supervision and so on. The relationship between Xicheng District Social Work Association and these four has been dubbed the “One Association-Four Agencies” (or 1+4) model.

In addition to his role as Mu You’s director Pan Xing is also the deputy secretary general of Xicheng District’s Social Work Association6.

Within the “one association-four agencies” model, the independently-registered agencies Ren Zhu, Yue Qun and Hope carry out their own projects. Only Mu You has to apply for funding and projects through the Xicheng District Social Work Association. At the same time, the Association can apply on behalf of the four agencies for funding for social construction special projects administered by the Beijing Social Work Committee (社工委). Payments from this special fund cannot go directly to any of the four agencies; instead they are deposited into the Association’s account. The Association receives a 10 percent management fee to monitor project implementation, Pan Xing explained. Member organizations can apply for emergency support from this money.

Currently, Yue Qun and Ren Zhu are developing school-assigned service teams to help students solve personal, family and academic problems. Yue Qun serves primary school students, whereas Ren Zhu is working with vocational colleges. Mu You is concentrating on the needs of the elderly, while Hope is focused on enhancing the capacity of grassroots community workers and community organizations.

The four social work agencies maintain and operate their projects through government contracting. At the same time, they are constantly making adjustments in accordance with their own organizational capacity or external demands. For instance, Yue Qun is attempting to take on Xicheng District’s neighborhood mental illness rehabilitation project.

In Dongcheng District, Zhu Ren was Beijing’s first district-level social work agency when it launched in 2009. After more than one year, Zhu Ren is developing services for the elderly and pregnant women funded through government contracts. At the same time it is undertaking a number of community surveys, and training and assessment activities, commissioned by the district government and neighborhood committees.

Independence and sustainability under government procurement

Many social work agencies expressed the view that government procurement enables them to maintain their project work structures. However, their hope is to diversify their resources so they can design their own projects and not simply rely on the government as the sole or principal funding source.

Mu Youhopes to gain enough experience in serving the elderly to influence the government, and to allow elder care homes, hospitals and neighborhoods to purchase its services directly, rather than continue to rely on applying for special funds through the Xicheng District Social Work Association. This would be the opportunity for Mu You to strengthen its independent development.

Similarly, Beijing Facilitator’s founder Li Tao also believes agencies cannot wholly rely on government procurement. He hopes to secure greater independence by diversifying his funding sources and carrying out strategic planning and positioning. When cooperating with the government, if no way can be found to undertake services then frank communication with agencies is needed in order to make adjustments.

Zhang Yang of Jilin Social Service Center takes the position that if problems arise, they will communicate and consult with the government to find space for cooperation while also striving for independence. He notes that since their cooperation (with the government) is recent, difficulties have not yet appeared.

Many of the social work agencies interviewed said that any risk to independence brought on by government procurement has yet to emerge, but noted it was worthwhile to be cautious.

Yang Jing, a professor at the China Women’s College’s (中华女子学院) Social Work department, contends that government procurement is the future direction of social work. As social work is about paying attention to people and altering people’s work, she thinks it is sure to take root in communities. What’s more, transforming people is not a one-time project, so the government needs to be aware of providing sustainable support. At the same time, social service agencies cannot forfeit their professional and independent status to the government’s purchasing system. She believes that for social work agencies to depend continuously on government projects to support themselves is not in itself grounds for criticism. However, she argues there needs to be some interconnection between the various projects in order to have dynamic, sustainable work that can change a community and its inhabitants. The government cannot look upon social workers as emergency services or “fire-fighters”. It needs a developmental perspective to remedy problems, she says.

Yang Jing repeatedly stressed that social work should be committed to nurturing the community’s own strength and mobilizing community resources to solve community problems. Social work agencies are outside entities that cannot provide sustainable services within a community for the long term. Otherwise, the service will be disrupted once the agency leaves, she says. “They should be rooted in the community for a minimum of three to five years”, she added.

In her view, in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and other places where social work agencies are just emerging, their first steps in promoting themselves consist of “just activities and more activities”. They are not attaching importance to fostering community capacity building and integration. Social workers sent into communities by these organizations mainly provide a series of activities. When the activity ends, there is nothing left, it is not sustainable, she says.

Beijing University of Agriculture’s Ma Zechun thinks that social work projects still lack a professional group that can act as a third party to assess them. This indirectly affects the efficiency of the government’s procurement system.

Finally, Yang Jing raised a problem that cannot be ignored, namely that some commercial organizations see the government procurement system as a business opportunity. They have begun to register as social work agencies, and to make profits. She said similar cases are emerging in several places, and it is necessary to be aware of this trend in the Beijing area.

  1. Social work agencies should be distinguished from Social Work Associations. The latter are set up through local Civil Affairs bureaus and act as the supervising or coordinating unit for social work agencies in their jurisdiction. The former tend to be private nonprofits set up by social work majors who graduated from college. 

  2. Editor’s Note: 1+4 refers to a management model whereby one Social Work Association administers social work agencies in four different neighborhoods. This model is explained further down in this article. 

  3. Editor’s Note: the Chinese term used here is minfei, one of three legal categories of nonprofits similar to service providers. 

  4. Editor’s Note: The Chinese terminology used in this sentence is “guakao” or literally “attached to”. Some NGOs gain a formal identity by “attaching” themselves to a legally-registered organization, which serves as a kind of fiscal sponsor, rather than register themselves. These NGOs may operate as independent entities even though they are not technically legal persons. 

  5. Editor’s Note: this paragraph reveals the existence of a little-known agency, the Beijing Party Committee’s Social Work Commission, recently merged with the Beijing City Social Construction Work Office. These two agencies, which are not part of the Civil Affairs system, were set up to address a wide range of social issues that come under the heading of “social construction” (shehui jianshe), not just social work. 

  6. Editor’s Note: the personnel overlap between the Association and these agencies illustrates the close ties between local governments and these social work agencies. 



中国发展简报2010秋季刊 忽如一夜春风来,今年前8个月里,北京出现了11家社工事务所。此外,类似的社工机构在上海、广州等地也已蔚然成风,它们主要是通过政府或其他主体提供资金购买服务,事务所派驻社工人员到需要社工提供服务的场所,如社区、学校、医院等。



这 些社工事务以井喷之势成立起来,与目前的社会转型过程出现的诸多社会问题或社会矛盾亟待解决有很大的关系。党的十六届六中全会《中共中央关于构建社会主义 和谐社会的决定》曾明确提出:“建设宏大的社会工作人才队伍。造就一支结构合理、素质优良的社会工作人才队伍,是构建社会主义和谐社会的迫切需要。” 自上而下政策的推行,各地方政府的主动介入,出台相关促进性规定,极大推动了各地的社工事业发展。例如,北京市社会建设办出台了“1+4”系列文件。这些文件涵盖社会建设、社会领域党建、社会组织发展以及社区管理与社工管理等内容。







发所内的员工基本上都是社会工作专业毕业生,如助人刚成立时,有2名男生和8名 女生这样的一个庞大的草创队伍,都是创办人李鑫的同学或同门校友。而仁助作为在西城区成立的另一家以高职院校学生为主要服务人群的社工机构,起初也是由李 鑫参与建立,现在的负责人安娜也是北京青年政治学院的毕业生。在仁助未成立之前,安娜曾是助人的工作人员。助人和仁助更像是姊妹机构。而睦友、厚朴也基本 是这种情况。






协 作者创办人李涛说,转变身份的最大变化是一些不必要的压力减少了,比如以后不用老是跟别人解释自己的身份属性问题,还意味以后活动空间更大。目前,协作者 和东城区民政局正在洽谈两个项目。一是为东城区的街道和社区服务站的社区工作者进行培训,二是在区民政局的推动下,未来成立东城区社会工作者协会,为区内 社工事务所及社工提供经验支持和专业培训。这意味着协作者慢慢由服务性的草根机构转变成一个支持性的服务机构。


厚朴成立的缘由,是一家IT公 司希望透过社工事务所的项目来助其履行企业社会责任和塑造企业的形象。厚朴的理事长郑丝雨告诉笔者,她曾是该公司下某公益项目的工作人员,因将社工等方法 运用其中,使得培训服务更为丰富,得到公司的赏识。后经双方商讨,一拍即合成立了厚朴。目前,厚朴招募的两名社工的工资也是这家企业支持的。

尽管郑丝雨毕业于北京农学院,但因开始的时候缺乏高校支持,只能靠自己一点一点去开拓督导资源。经过努力,联系到北京5所本地高校的社工专业系主任为之提供督导服务,而且首都师范大学的社工专业还与厚朴签订了共建协议,成为该校学生的实习基地。厚朴每周通过电邮将机构的服务通讯发送给督导,由他们提供意见或建议。如果事情紧急的话,则采用电话或面对面的方式请求直接帮助。 “一会四所”的发展路径

在新街口地铁站附近的某个机关楼7层的房间里,厚朴、睦友、悦群和仁助社工事务所和西城区社工联合会等几家机构挤在一起,每个机构拥有自己的办公位,2个人共用一个办公位的情形时常可见。这些办公位是由西城区社工联合会免费提供的,这些事务所在一起也可以相互交流和朋辈督导。但郑丝雨更希望厚朴能有一个独立的办公室,更有利于个案工作和小组工作的开展。当时笔者并不理解,但步入这个房间时,终于明白她的想法。 隔断的办公位虽挂着仁助、悦群的标牌,但没人在这里办公。睦友的负责人潘星解释,这2家机构在别的地方有办公地点。仁助因挂靠在新街口街道下,在街道办有一个自己的办公室,而定位在“驻校社工”的悦群,选择将办公的地方设在月坛街道三里河第三小学。在这个不大的空间里,睦友也仅有2个人在其中办公,包括潘星在内,其余的5个社工都在医院、养老机构以及社区等服务场所办公。





这4家 社工事务所,通过政府购买的项目维持运转,同时也在积极根据机构的能力或主推部门的要求在不断调整自己的定位。如悦群在驻校社工项目的同时,也在尝试承接 西城区社工委委托的月坛街道精神病人康复项目。

在东城区,刚刚起步的助人是北京市第一个区级社工机构 。尽管如此,一年多来,助人还是基于突出的需求,通过政府购买开展了一些与老年人群和生育妇女有关的服务。同时,还承接一些来自区政府或街道委托的社区调查和培训、评估活动。 政府购买下的独立性和持续性 多家社工事务所表示,尽管有政府的购买可以维持机构的项目运作,但更希望有多元的资源,通过自己设计来获得项目,而不仅仅只依靠向政府单一主体申请项目。


Translated by Mary Hennock

Reviewed by Jessica Teets

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