International Donors and Domestic NGOs Need to Establish Equitable Partnerships

China Development Brief, No.45 (Spring 2010)

中文 English

This article is part of our special issue on New Trends in Philanthropy and Civil Society in China (Summer, 2011). While many of the other articles in this issue examine the rise of Chinese foundations and their possible impact on the NGO sector, this article examines the role and impact of international funders which have traditionally been the most important supporters of grassroots NGOs in China

It interviews the author of a survey that asked Chinese NGOs to evaluate their international donors. The survey finds that, while NGOs are getting a growing share of their funding from Chinese foundations, funding from international donors is still very important to NGOs. The survey also identifies a number of areas for improvement in the NGO-donor relationship. It calls for donors to establish a more equitable relationship with NGOs, and to view funding as an opportunity to help NGOs develop and strengthen their capacity, rather than to impose additional burdens on NGOs.   Some of those burdens include onerous application and reporting requirements, and excessive emphasis on project funding without providing funding for staff and administrative costs that are needed to manage the project. The lessons culled from this survey are important for international donors who want to improve their performance and effectiveness, but they may be even more critical for Chinese foundations which are only starting to learn how to work with grassroots NGOs.

In June 2010, local NGOs participated in the first ever large-scale evaluation of international donor organizations in the inaugural “Survey on International Donors by Chinese NGOs” (支持中国草根民间组织国际资助方评估). The survey included feedback from 110 Chinese organizations evaluating 122 different international funders. China Development Brief (CDB, 中国发展简报) had the opportunity to speak with Bo Meng, international consultant and program officer for the Capacity Building & Assessment Center (CBAC, 倍能组织能力建设与评估中心), the primary organizer of the survey.

The growth of local NGOs has always been closely tied to the aid provided by international donors. Although the dollar amount of financing has steadily declined in the wake of China’s economic growth, international aid still plays a decisive role in the funding and capacity building of Chinese NGOs. Not surprisingly, many challenges still exist in the relationships between international donors and local NGOs, and these challenges, in turn, could help determine the future growth and development of Chinese civil society.

According to CBAC’s report, “The relationship between donors and NGOs still follows a traditional top-down model, wherein the donor provides funding and the NGO must accept the conditions and terms set by the donor. The two sides have yet to establish a more equitable partnership, something also evidenced in the culture of “upward accountability.” In the current state of affairs, funding recipients are responsible for detailing how grants were spent and the results they achieved, whereas donors themselves have little or no accountability. Seldom do they ask, “What problems and difficulties, does this funding relationship produce and how can we improve it?” The current top-down form of evaluation has resulted in lost opportunities to improve the funding system itself, discouraged recipients from innovating, and implicitly punished recipients who have encountered difficulties in their operations not taken into account by donors.

A closer look at donor organizations indicates that the donor-recipient relationship varies significantly according to the donor’s overall funding strategy. “A strong partnership generally indicates a good funding relationship; on the other hand, a good funding relationship does not necessarily indicate a strong partnership.” Bo Meng points out that foundations that focus on providing comprehensive support for Chinese organizations often enjoy good relationships with their partners. In contrast, organizations that both run their own programs and provide funding to Chinese groups often treat Chinese NGOs as mere functionaries, a working relationship with definite room for improvement.

According to Bo Meng, a significant proportion of donors are still accustomed to unilaterally setting the parameters of the funding relationship. They still view the relationship as a top-down, patron-recipient model, and not as an equitable partnership. Thus, Chinese NGOs and international donors still have a significant ways to go in establishing genuine partnerships.

Bo Meng acknowledges that blame for the current system does not lie wholly with donors. In fact, NGOs have their own reasons for preserving the status quo. After all, within the wider context of international aid, Chinese grassroots NGOs and their funders are stakeholders in the same system—they simply represent different links in the chain.

According to the report, a majority of Chinese NGOs reported spending an inordinate amount of time and resources navigating the bureaucracy of donor organizations, indicating a funding process that benefits neither side of the relationship.

Furthermore, the majority of Chinese NGOs reported primarily receiving funding for projects, saying many donors decline to cover basic operational and administrative costs. Bo Meng believes that international donors would be well-advised to diversify their funding strategies. He further acknowledges that this sort of transition toward more comprehensive funding may require donors first to educate their own financial backers about peculiarities in the structure and regulations of China’s civil society and the special needs that Chinese NGOs have as a result.

One interesting finding of the survey was how the donor organizations’ individual program representatives affected the overall relationship between donor organizations and NGOs. Bo Meng explained, “Sometimes an NGO’s satisfactory rating of a donor had nothing to do with the organization itself, but rather reflected a positive relationship with the particular program officer dealing with the NGO.”

In addition, the report indicated that large, well-established donors with resources and personnel in China did not necessarily enjoy a better relationship with Chinese NGOs than donors without these advantages. In fact, the latter often showed more willingness to cooperate with Chinese NGOs. The question of how to more effectively marshal the domestic resources of well-established donor organizations clearly deserves further consideration.

Individual personalities also remain an influential variable in the relationship between donors and NGOs.  In the survey, Bo Meng discovered that “there are a number NGOs who work closely with a given foundation, but constantly worry that, if the foundation’s contact person changes, then the entire relationship will be threatened.

“Foundations, in addition to evaluating funding recipients, also need to look inward and evaluate their own performance at fixed intervals. This sort of practice remains exceedingly rare.” Bo Meng adds.

Another incipient problem lies in Chinese NGOs’ unwillingness to express dissatisfaction with a donor, even at the end of the relationship, for fear of jeopardizing future funding opportunities. Donors, meanwhile, fear that any sort of conflict, if publicized, could influence their ability to fundraise, and thus tend to resolve disputes as quietly as possible.

“If you don’t approach the partnership as equals, it is difficult to achieve the optimum result. A cooperative partnership must be built on a foundation of mutual respect.” Bo Meng says.

“Chinese NGOs are often the targets of appraisal, whereas donors are seldom subject to evaluation.” In the process of collaboration, “domestic non-profits are unlikely to communicate very candidly with donors,” even when the donor might try to elicit feedback. According to Bo Meng, the survey was undertaken in response to this situation.

Bo Meng believes that addressing the way Chinese NGOs interact with international donors is an important aspect of capacity building. Thus, this survey conforms with CBAC’s core mission.

Before joining CBAC, Bo Meng worked for the German MISEREOR Foundation, allocating grants to grassroots organizations in China. This experience on the other side of the funding divide has given Bo Meng exceptional insight into the dilemmas faced by donors and NGOs alike. In his role at CBAC, Bo Meng is very sensitive to the respective roles played by donors and NGOs.

Bo Meng says the purpose of the survey was not to publish a formal evaluation of international donors, but rather to give feedback to these organizations and let them know how they are perceived by local NGOs. He hopes it can be a starting point for improved relationships between the two.

In the course of our conversation, Bo Meng also pointed out that the operating environment for Chinese NGOs is in the midst of change. As foreign aid continues to shrink, competition for funding will grow increasingly fierce. Chinese NGOs have already encountered difficulties in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis when international funding dried up and many organizations that had grown to rely on international donors were suddenly on their own. This experience and the ensuing controversy over the roles of foreign vs. domestic funding also may have helped to heighten incipient tensions in the relationships between Chinese NGOs and foreign donors.

The rise of Chinese foundations raises the possibility of a new source of funding for NGOs, a conclusion supported by the report’s finding that Chinese NGOs are relying less and less on foreign donors, and instead are cultivating new sources of funding. According to the report, “if foreign donors were to cut off funding within the next two years, of the 100 or so NGOs in the survey, only about 16% would be forced to cease operating.” Bo Meng admits that “although this is a significant percentage, it’s far less than we had expected.” Furthermore, he believes that this report will be an excellent resource for the growing number of private foundations in China as they establish their own working relationships with Chinese NGOs.  [Editor’s Note: A number of the articles in this special issue address the rise of private foundations and their evolving relationship with Chinese NGOs.]

The “Survey on International Donors by Chinese NGOs” was a joint project of CBAC and the Institute for Civil Society (ICS, 公民与社会发展研究中心) of Sun Yat-sen University, with the support of the Social Resources Institute (SRI, 社会资源研究所), NGOCN.net (NGO发展交流网), and others. As of this article’s original publication, Bo Meng was preparing the final draft of the report for dispersal to international foundations operating in China, as well as publication on NGOCN.net and the websites of CBAC and SRI. Bo Meng further hopes to hold a workshop for the organizations that were the subject of this report to gauge their reactions to the results. Together with ICS he is considering repeating the survey every two years, in addition to conducting case studies and training for donor organizations, with the ultimate goal of creating a platform for dialog between donors and NGOs and improving this vital relationship.

(The complete results of the “Survey on International Donors by Chinese NGOs” can be found online at http://www.sojump.com/jq/91269.aspx; interested parties may contact Bo Meng directly at bomeng@pactchina.org)

资助方与受助方需建立平等的伙伴关系

王辉

中国发展简报2010春季刊第45卷

 

2009年6月启动的 “支持中国草根民间组织国际资助方评估”项目,首次通过本土受助机构为国际资助方“打分”。迄今为止,项目共获得110份本土组织的反馈问卷,涉及122家国际资助方。《中国发展简报》采访了项目的主要发起机构——倍能组织能力建设与评估中心(以下简称“倍能”)的国际顾问、项目负责人博盟,他披露了调研得出的初步结论。

本土NGO的发展壮大,一直跟国外的资助密切相关。尽管这几年本土NGO从国外获得的资助额度,随着中国经济实力的增加而日趋减少,但国际资助方在本土NGO的资金支持、能力建设等方面,仍有着举足轻重的作用。检视本土NGO与国外资助方关系中存在的诸多挑战和困惑,对公民社会未来的成长有着积极的意义。

调研发现,“目前资助方和草根NGO之间的关系,仍处于上下关系决定的合作模式,仍是传统的资助关系(donor-ship)占主导,即资助方提供资助,而受助方一定要接受资助方提出的条件。还不是伙伴关系(partnership),” 评估文化也仍然表现出资助方和受助方的上下关系。大部分评估的基本功能是“upward accountability” (即 向资助方说明受助方是如何花钱的,产生了什么效果等),但资助方很少问:我们双方合作时产生了哪些问题,并如何去改进它。因此,评估给资助方和受助方带来的共同学习机会就太少了。此外,这种评估文化,往往不是鼓励受助方从评估中获得学习成长的机会,而是惩罚因执行项目而出现不当的受助方。

但具体细分到有着不同资助策略的资助方,与受助方的关系又存在较大的差异。“好的伙伴关系,同时也是一个好的资助关系,但反过来,好的资助关系未必等同于好的伙伴关系”。博盟指出,那些专门为草根NGO提供全面支持的资助型基金会,其资助关系令人满意,原因在于资助理念易被受助方所接受;而对半执行—半资助的资助方,甚至是那些只要求NGO为其“打工”的资助方来说,由于资助方会更侧重于NGO项目的执行机制,所以在合作关系上可能还需提高。

博盟说,目前相当大的一部分资助方,是在比较封闭的情况下制定与本土NGO合作的条件和游戏规则,而不是由双方共同决定。这主要归因于资助方与NGO目前仍是资助与被资助的关系,而不是一种伙伴关系。中国本土NGO和国际资助方要形成真正的伙伴关系,还需要走一段比较长的路。

当然,博盟认为现在这种伙伴关系的欠缺,也不能全怪资助方。草根NGO也有自身原因,他们尚无与资助方保持合作伙伴关系的平等意识。其实国外资助方与中国草根NGO一样,同处全球的资助链条之中,唯一不同的是他们处在资助链条的不同位置。

调查还发现,大部分的国内NGO认为,在与国际资助方合作过程中,付出的时间、沟通等成本很高,国际资助方存在不同程度“官僚”习气,这些无疑都影响到资助过程中双方的关系。

此外,大部分国内NGO获得资助是以项目为本,对机构的行政费用、项目管理费用等项目之外的费用,很多资助方不予支持。博盟认为,为什么没有更多的国际资助方去考虑资助的多样化,也是一个值得反馈给资助方的问题。可能这需要国际资助方向自己的捐赠对象说明中国本土NGO的实际发展现状,从而给予切实可行的支持。

另外,调研团队通过围绕资助方的项目代表而进行的资助关系评价,得到了有兴趣的发现。博盟解释,“有时候本土NGO对资助方的评价是好的,不一定是跟这个资助机构有关,而是与代表这个机构的人有关系。”

此外,调研中也发现到,花钱多且在国内拥有庞大支持体系的资助方,并不一定比那些在国内既没有办公室也没有工作人员的资助方更受草根NGO的喜欢,而往往后者更愿意与NGO一起合作。如何更好利用资助方国内的工作体系给双方的合作带来支持,也值得思考。

所以个人也可能是影响资助关系的不确定性因素。通过调查博盟发现,“有些目前与基金会合作密切的NGO,最大的担心就是基金会换了人(项目代表),也就换了合作关系和项目。”

“基金会在对被资助方进行评估外,也需要对自己的整个系统,包括它的员工代表、工作效率以及程序等等做定期的评估,并提出建议。但目前来说,这种机会和建议很少。”博盟补充道。

另一方面,当本土NGO遇到问题,也不愿冒风险,为表达对某个资助方或项目代表的不满而进行投诉,怕因此影响到本机构生存发展,哪怕资助关系已经结束。而资助方通常担心一旦发生问题会影响到自身在国际上的筹款,所以通常也会息事宁人,不公开与NGO合作中的矛盾。

“如果不能在一个平等的基础上进行谈判协商,也就很难得到一个很好的结果。只有在平等交流的基础上,才能培育或摸索出一个好的合作方式。”博盟说。

“中国本土NGO很多时候是作为国际资助评估的评估对象,但资助方的工作却很少被评估。”在合作过程中,“国内的公益组织也并不一定会坦率地告诉资助方相关情况”,当资助方想了解来自草根NGO的反馈和意见,却不得要领。博盟解释启动这个项目的缘由。

博盟认为机构的能力除了内部的因素决定外,在外部因素中,与资助方的关系也是能力建设中很重要的一部分。所以,将资助方与本土NGO之间的关系,作为评估和推动本土NGO能力提升的内容。这样的切入点符合倍能作为一家为本土NGO提供能力建设的机构的思路。

此外,博盟在成为倍能的顾问之前,曾负责德国米索尔基金会在华资助草根NGO的项目。这段作为资助方的工作经历,让他较为清楚了解到资助方在资助本土NGO时遇到的窘境和困惑。从米索尔基金会到本土能力建设机构——倍能的经历,让他对本土NGO与国外资助方的角色和关系有很高的敏感度。

博盟说,项目不试图去撰写一个客观评价资助方的研究报告,而是更多地想要通过此次评估给国际资助方一个反馈,即在中国民间组织的眼中,国际资助方是怎么样的,让NGO发出声音。项目希望为本土NGO和国际资助方搭建桥梁,建立一种良好的资助关系。

采访中博盟还提及,本土NGO的发展环境正在发生变化,将影响到资助方与受助方的关系。未来几年国际资助规模的下降,会给本土NGO带来越来越大的竞争压力。在2008年,国外资助方因金融危机的影响,减少了对中国草根NGO的资助,使得一些一直依赖国外资助方存活的草根NGO面临断炊之虞,由此引发的“洋奶”与“母奶”的争论,也让本土民间机构与国际资助方之间的关系变得相当微妙。

不过,日益崛起的国内基金会将越来越多地资助本土草根机构,为本土组织筹款的多元化提供了可能,这正在被项目得到的一个出乎意料的发现所印证:本土NGO对国际资助方的依赖性在逐渐减弱,越来越多地开始动员其他的资源。调查数据表明,“如果资助方在2年的时间里终止合作关系,那么这100多家NGO中将被迫关闭机构的,比例仅为16%。”博盟说,“虽然这也是一个挺高的比例,但比我们想象中要少很多。”在博盟看来,由于国内的非公募基金会经验尚不成熟,这次调研可以为他们提供一个学习的机会,帮助他们在与受助的民间机构之间找好定位。

“支持中国草根民间组织国际资助方评估”项目由倍能与中山大学公民与社会发展研究中心共同发起,社会资源研究所、NGO发展交流网等机构参与。目前,博盟作为执笔人正在撰写最终报告,预计在2010年4月份左右反馈给在华的国际资助方,并在NGO发 展交流网、社会资源研究和《中国发展简报》等机构的网站发布。博盟还希望届时举办一个针对资助方反馈的工作坊,邀请此次评估项目涉及的大基金会来参加,向其反馈研究结果。他目前和中山大学公民与社会发展研究中心考虑在未来每两年继续做一次调研,结合案例分析和资助方培训,成立资助方和NGO 之间的沟通平台,推动资助关系的转变。

 

(“支持中国草根民间组织国际资助方评估问卷调查”的在线网址:http://www.sojump.com/jq/91269.aspx;感兴趣的读者可发邮件向博盟索要评估报告:bomeng@pactchina.org并与他交流、咨询)

CDB Staff Writer

Translated by Michael Schmale

Reviewed by Michael Schmale

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