China Development Brief, no. 48 (Winter 2010)
This short article provides an interesting glimpse into a grassroots autism NGO and its efforts to build good relationships with the local authorities and community. Like many other grassroots organizations in China, Shanghai’s Qing Cong Quan finds that cultivating good relations with local authorities, the media, businesses and the community is critical if it wants to survive and join the mainstream of society.
Since its founding as a private autism rehabilitation training center, Shanghai Qing Cong Quan (上海青聪泉儿童智能训练中心) has always been troubled by space issues. Three months ago we suffered a crisis when the landlords ordered us to move, and we almost ended up on the street. Many similar organizations have had similar experiences.
What Qing Cong Quan did was to appeal through the media in order to get the attention and support of the government and community regarding our space issues. It finally found a new building for its organization in Shanghai’s Changning District, at Hami and Tianshan Road. The space is over 500 square meters, and has convenient transportation. Some government departments are paying for 40 percent of the rent, and certain individuals provided support for renovations and relocation expenses. As a result, Qing Cong Quan was able to avert a crisis.
In the face of conflict and difficulties, should civil society organizations complain about society and the government, and put autism families and civil society organizations in opposition to the outside world? Or should these organizations engage with government and society? Qing Cong Quan believes the correct way is to adjust one’s attitude, stop hiding behind closed doors, come out into the open and tell others about our needs. Let people know about children’s problems, families’ difficulties, and society’s responsibility. Two years after the organization was established, we began this call to action. [Editor’s Note: Qing Cong Quan’s dilemma of either distancing itself from the government or working with the government is one faced by many nonprofits. More nonprofits are arguing that they can no longer remain at arms length from the government if they want to become part of the mainstream.]
At first, the district where Qing Cong Quan was located did not have any private children autism service organizations. Also government departments did not really understand or trust it. Over the next four years, Qing Cong Quan actively participated in various activities, such as the Disabled Persons Federation’s Forum on the Special Olympics, and charity sale events for children in disaster areas run jointly by the Street Office’s Party Members Volunteer Office and the district-level Communist Youth League committee. In addition, it always invited local authorities to major activities.
The Deputy Secretary of Changning District’s Civil Affairs bureau once brought his one-year old child to celebrate with our students at our Christmas Party. Through constant interaction and communication, it gradually assuaged the government’s concerns. Today, the Disabled Persons Federation, the Street Committee, and Civil Affairs office all support Qing Cong Quan. [Editor’s Note: The Street Committee is the lowest administrative level in China’s urban areas, and is sometimes known as the SubDistrict Administrative Office.] It has set up a children’s workroom at the Street Committee office, and is able to use many community resources for free. In addition, the Street Committee has been advocating to district leaders on its behalf, bestowing honor on the organization. The Disabled Persons Federation has introduced the organization to public schools in Changning Disrict, and every year gives it funding to develop. The district Communist Youth League committee has also been helping us secure more resources. Currently, Qing Cong Quan and the government enjoy a good relationship.
Qing Cong Quan’s experience over the six years since its establishment is that interaction with society is inseparable from media support. Media is a double-edged sword; its reporting reflects its own perspectives and can have negative effects if the organization does not know how to communicate with them. Moreover, parents of children with autism are extremely sensitive, and it is difficult to convince them to be interviewed, so if there are inaccurate reports, the organization gets blamed. To ensure that media reports have a positive effect, Qing Cong Quan has been using sincerity in communicating to reporters, truthfully speaking about children’s problems, parents’ despair, and the organization’s difficulties, and maintaining a professional attitude toward reporters. Through this process, it hopes to provide more accurate information through the media. The last two years, Qing Cong Quan has been mentioned 30 times in the media, including television interviews, live radio, magazines, internet, and newspaper, and has seen its social influence and credibility grow.
Qing Cong Quan has been seeing more and more volunteers as a result of media publicity. Autism training is highly specialized, and it has been a challenge figuring out how to best use volunteers. After much discussion, it organized volunteers into small groups based on their expertise and time, and delivered different services through these groups. Now, volunteers not only help us with traditional projects such as assisting in training or interacting with children, but have also been a big help in other areas such as procuring teaching materials, making handicrafts to sell, translating written materials, designing a website, organizing large events and engaging in social advocacy.
Qing Cong Yuan’s relationship with the business community has also been improving over the last few years. It began with business employees serving as volunteers, designing excursions where the employees accompanied the children. For businesses, this was an valuable team activity, and allowed them to be involved in social causes. Through this process, Qing Cong Yuan’s contacts in the business community grew. In addition to Korean and American companies, domestic Chinese companies also began joining in, donating materials and funds. They gradually went from participating in short-term activities to providing long-term support. Some companies have even begun to take an interest in our future development, such as teacher training.