The Shenzhen Charity Fair: Charity Banquet or Awkward Show?

China Development Brief no 60 (Winter 2014)

中文 English

Introduction: The Shenzhen 2014 Charity Fair was held a few months ago. In this article, Chen Qian’er looks back on the 2013 edition which raised a few important questions on the meaning of this kind of events in China.

Sun Yanhong was incredibly excited to be in Shenzhen despite having taken a 28-hour train ride on the cheapest seats. As the director of a grassroots NGO in Zhengzhou, Sun Yanhong’s aim on her trip was to attend Shenzhen’s charity fair. Starting on September 21st  2013, the fair was held for 3 consecutive days in the Shenzhen’s Convention and Exhibition Center, and 828 charities and other similar organizations attended, showcasing their projects from different regions of the country.

It was her first time attending, and Sun Yanhong spent the entire day running around the 30,000 sq. meter exhibition hall, speaking to her counterparts about their experiences. She also attended a forum on the development of public welfare. After three days, she felt she had benefitted tremendously.

On the other hand, this bustling charity fair attracted some negative responses. Zhang Zhiquan (pseudonym), who attended the first two editions of the Fair on behalf of a national public foundation, felt that the exhibition focused more on “form than reality”, and looked as an entertainment show for people within the industry. The founder of the “One Kilogram More” project, An Zhu, criticized the fair as ‘ridiculous’, and more and more distant from the essence of welfare and civil society. Moreover, there were several organizations that felt the fair was inaccessible to people outside the industry.

This was the second time the Ministry of Civil Affairs partnered with the Shenzhen Civil Affairs Bureau in attempting to organize such a big exchange platform bringing together public interest organizations from all over the country. Just as people in the industry were getting optimistic and enthusiastic, doubts and criticisms began to appear, and An Zhu even wrote a blog entry titled ‘100 reasons not to go to the charity fair’. The exhibition was plagued by questions regarding how it could establish transparency and ensure fair participation; how it could tangibly contribute to the public good; and how it could portray itself.

I’m not the only one doing charity in China

In her hometown of Zhengzhou, Sun Yanhong has been working in the public interest sector for thirteen years. She worked in a bank when she was younger, but became a full-time mother after the birth of her child. When her child grew up, she began planning to ‘try to do something again’, and that brought her into the welfare sector.

“I wasn’t looking for a stable income, but to help others, and realize my own self-worth”, Sun Yanhong said. Her initial impression of welfare services was limited to social workers appearing on foreign films, it is only later that she started relying on herself to read and speak to college professors in Zhengzhou to learn more about the industry.

In 2001, Sun Yanhong took 300,000 yuan from her personal savings, and opened a service for the elderly, youth and children of migrant workers. Over a year ago, her organization officially registered as a social service center, and today it employs 20 full-time social workers. On the outside, it looks like everything is progressing smoothly, but Sun Yanhong always feels helpless about funding, staffing, and other policy-related issues. “It feels like there isn’t a door in front, but neither is there a way back”, she said.

Attending the Shenzhen charity fair has changed her mentality. She realized there are many people in China doing the work she does, that she is not the only one, and that the ranges of issue they tackle are very broad. After listening to the challenges her peers faced, she felt prouder and stronger.

In this year’s charity fair, although the number of exhibitors and the area space of the exhibitions were small, the content and the crowds were dazzling. There were organizations coming form places as far as Tibet and Yinchuan meeting with local Shenzhen organizations. Some of the organizations’ beneficiaries were youth and children, the elderly, the disabled, or other disadvantaged groups; others focused on community development, or on sexual and gender related issues.

According to the nature of the project, the hall was divided into 8 zones: “disaster relief”, “social organizations”, “corporate social responsibility and foundations”, “international cooperation and Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan”, “charity in the city”, “innovation in charity”, “public interest sector experiences” and “environment”. Although there were many themes, many of the organizations were grassroots NGOs: they represented 628 of the 828 participants, compared to 260 in the first charity fair.

This was, according to the director of Tsinghua University’s Innovation and Social Responsibility Research Center Deng Guosheng, one of the fair’s best selling points. “Grassroots representation was high, and the number of museums and state-owned enterprises was comparatively lower, therefore the fair seemed more pragmatic”.

Some grassroots NGOs even meticulously planned their exhibits, using interactive and creative methods to shed light on societal problems, the predicaments of underprivileged groups, or the results of their projects, such that even casual audiences who didn’t understand much about the industry could still easily learn something.

The Western Sunshine Foundation obtained support from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and used simple wooden boards to erect a labyrinth: visitors walked through a dark and narrow alley, experiencing the life of left-behind children (children whose parents go to the city to seek employment). Through the alley, cinematic clips play recordings of left-behind children, and there are props such as simple beds from the countryside, a letter a child wrote to his father who was working odd jobs in the city, and, finally, a small desk for visitors to write back to the children.

A group of environmental NGOs teamed together to organize a “garbage collection” activity, which sent workers to collect trash from the event and classify them according to recyclability, spreading environmental awareness. A group focusing on rare diseases invited some patients to share their stories, and launched a “human library”, allowing visitors to understand a patient’s view of the world.

In the “social organizations” zone, Sun Yanhong’s organization used nine square meters of space to showcase their project. An overseas foundation’s representative told Sun Yanhong to “let him know should she need any help” after seeing her exhibition.

This encouraged Sun Yanhong. “My story touched some people”, she said, adding that she still felt excited thinking about the fair. Prior to this, because funding was limited, Sun Yanhong never travelled for work.

Public funding here is a one-way street

Unlike Sun Yanhong, many people in the industry already sense problems arising with the charity fair. For the representative of a national public foundation, Zhang Zhiquan, the fair’s most important goal is to facilitate the transfer of resources from charities to beneficiaries and promote a dialogue between organizations and beneficiaries. The event organized put in a considerable amount of effort in inviting both charities and beneficiaries to the fair, but beneficiaries were significantly underrepresented.

“As an NGO, on the one hand we must face our beneficiaries, and on the other funders. In the fair, we cannot simply have organizations discuss on how they should operate. The fair’s main purpose should be to establish a dialogue between NGOs and funders, including foundations, provincial governments and CSR departments of companies.” Zhang Zhiquan also added “in this regard, the fair’s current impact is not too ostensible. Public interest resources are a one-way street, and there isn’t a two-way flow, or a demand-side”.

This year is Zhang Zhiquan’s second year attending the event, and he observed that the majority of the attendees are from the sector, especially people who are new to the sector. Only a few Shenzhen citizens come, and the ones who do are only interested in what local foundations do; the rest is people from grassroots NGOs seeking funding, or industry insiders who go ask around if “the people we know came today”.

Although most foundations attending the event were grant-making foundations, Zhang Zhiquan said that it was not easy to find organizations to fund at the fair. “Most of our funding targets are organizations working in isolated mountain areas, and they did not make it to the fair”, he said. In fact, most of the booths occupied by grassroots NGOs were rather cold. Although the organizers publically declared that the fair’s moto was “nationwide universal participation, comprehensive charity event”, most of the general public did not attend.

“This fair is more like a gathering of industry insiders,” Zhang Zhiquan said. Some colleagues joked that the event was “busier at night than it was during the day”: the exhibition was during the day, and the night was livelier and more about networking within the industry.

It looks like a show, but in the backstage, public interest sectors workers began investigating the actual cost of the event. At the fair, most booths are nine square meters large and the booths are set-up by the organizers, although organizations have to bring their own panels and exhibits, and most cannot afford to. In addition, the fair also provides bigger booths of eighteen and thirty-six square meters, which are taken by NGOs with better financial resources that can afford to decorate their booths well.

A member of a grassroots NGO began investigating by asking staff of the bigger booths how much they spent in total. According to that investigation, led by the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology, the 66 environmental NGOs in the “Green China” section spent about 900,000-1,000,000 RMB altogether, the One Foundation’s booth cost approximately 350,000 RMB, the China Children’s Charity Relief Foundation spent 35,000 RMB, the China Environmental Protection Foundation spent 10,000 RMB, and Amity Foundation 9,000 RMB.

However, when he asked the Shenzhen Welfare Foundation how much their booth cost, he was always told that the “person in charge wasn’t around”. The Women’s Development Foundation’s response was more alarming, with replies such as “what do you want” or “don’t quote me”.

“Charity is about improving society’s situation, on the one hand, we need to think of how to provide the best service at the lowest cost, and on the other of how to obtain funding, donation and support at the lowest cost”, Zhang Zhiquan said. In this year’s event, his organization’s takeaways were limited, and he was not too keen about attending next year.

In this regard Deng Guosheng had similar opinions. In his view, “NGOs don’t need to participate every year, or the cost would be too high. Not only is the cost high, but attending too frequently would result in diminishing marginal returns.”

How distant is the fair from public interest?

“Would participating in the fair worthwhile?” While some public interest organizations are pondering the question of cost effectiveness, others are asking how distant the fair is from public interest.

On the surface, everything is understandable: the people here are NGO workers, the fair is about charity, and its slogan is “charity makes China more beautiful”. The organizers even branded Shenzhen as a “charity mall”, where “charity and love are provided”, and the discussions are about the development, growth and innovation of charities.

Is everything too joyous? Is there something hidden or forgotten?

“The entire event seems pointless. Before, when we spoke of NGOs, we also spoke of civil society. Now, we speak of social organizations and charities, and we start meetings talking about building organizational skills to provide growth. It looks bustling and professional on the outside, but it is really strange and useless. We have so-called organizations but what about social issues? They have been thrown away a long time ago.” In his blog, An Zhu bluntly raised these criticisms.

Beauty, innovation and love are compelling words, but if you want to know about the current plight of China’s underprivileged, or if you want to know about China’s social problems, the fair would not be a good place to start. On the contrary, on the stage set-up by the government, charities and public interest organizations cannot prevent being censored, and some slightly sensitive organizations did not have the opportunity to register and present their activities.

The “LGBT Rights Advocacy China” organization raised this point, adding that China currently has hundreds of organizations working on LGBT rights, but not one was qualified to enter the fair, because such groups have long found it difficult to obtain registration with Civil Affairs. Some of them managed to borrow others’ booth space to promote their organization, but from 22nd Sep 2013, on the second day of the fair’s opening, event staff broke into these booths and demanded that organizations remove all LGBT related material, or face the threat of being kicked out of the event.

To a certain extent, the “government sets the stage and people sing” model inevitably restricts the development of the charity sector. “The government cannot do charity work. The nature of this public service model is that it comes from the people!” In a discussion in the fair, Yuan Yue, the chairman of Horizon Research Consultancy Group, raised this point while some of the leaders of the Shenzhen Civil Affairs Bureau were listening in the audience, and was much applauded by the audience. Although the government did not directly speak at the fair, it organized the event, and these questions challenged the government’s degree of openness and courage.

After attending the fair, Sun Yanhong returned to Zhengzhou, and continued managing her community service center and getting headaches because of problems such as the fact she had no way of getting tax-exemptions. She left a stack of name cards she obtained at the fair in an office drawer, thinking her peers and the businessmen she met once because she was meant to might be able to help her one day.

Zhang Zhiquan mentioned that many of his peers might not want to attend next year’s event. “The Shenzhen government is still liberal and efficient, but it’s hard to say if they can better the fair’s image and quality”, he said.

深圳慈展会:公益盛宴?还是尴尬的自娱自乐?

尽管坐了28个小时的硬座火车,抵达深圳那天,孙艳红还是兴奋不已。作为郑州市一家草根公益组织的主任,孙艳红这趟的任务是去参加中国公益慈善项目交流展。自2013年9月21日起,这个展会连续3天在深圳会展中心举办,828家与公益慈善行业相关的机构参与其中,集中展示来自全国不同区域的慈善项目。

在3万平方米的展厅里,第一次参加这个展会的孙艳红整天跑来跑去,忙着与素未谋面的同行交流经验,参加一个又一个讨论公益发展的论坛和沙龙。3天下来,她感觉收获颇丰,“学到了好多”。

然而,另一边厢,这一场热闹的公益盛宴已经开始引发一些公益人的反思。连续两届代表某全国性公募基金会参展的张智权(为保护受访对象,文中张智权为化名)

表示,他越发感觉这场展会“形式大于实际”,更像是一场业内人士自娱自乐的聚会。而“多背一公斤”项目的发起人安猪更批评展会“不知所谓”,离公益与公民社会的要义越来越远。此外,一些公益机构对展会“准入资格”的质疑也不绝于耳。

这次展会是国家民政部第二次联手深圳民政局,尝试为来自全国的公益慈善机构搭建一个交流融合的大舞台。当一些公益人还抱有高昂的登台热情时,质疑与批判的声音也开始汇聚,在微博上,安猪甚至想总结“不去慈展会的100个理由”。无论如何,寻找更清晰的定位、确立更透明公平的参展机制、更好地回应公益的核心精神,眼下都成了摆在展会主办方面前的一道道难题。

原来全国有这么多人在做公益,不仅我一个

在老家郑州,孙艳红投身公益行业已有13年。年轻时她在银行工作,生小孩后转做全职妈妈,直到小孩长大些,她开始谋划“重新做点事”,才把眼光投向公益行业。

“我不是只想重新找个饭碗,做公益是去帮助别人,可以体现自己的价值。”孙艳红说,起初她对公益只有模糊的概念,印象最深的是外国电影里经常出现的社工,后来靠着自己看书和不断请教郑州的一些大学教授,才对这个行业了解更多。

2001年孙艳红拿出自家的三十万积蓄,开展老人、青少年和外来工子弟的服务。一年多前玖久社会工作服务中心正式注册,眼下有全职社工20名。表面看来一切慢慢爬上轨道,但孙艳红还是常常因为经费、人手和相关政策问题而感到“手足无措”。“那种感觉就是,前面没门,后退又无路。” 孙艳红说。

参加中国公益慈善项目交流展(以下简称慈展会)后,孙艳红有了不一样的感觉。“原来全国这么多人都在做公益,不仅我一个,而且做的领域还很广。” 孙艳红说,她听了许多同行的甜酸苦辣,感觉很有共鸣,自己更有力量。

在今年的慈展会上,尽管参展机构数量和展会面积都比第一届慈展会小,众多的展示内容还是让人看得眼花缭乱,一时间,远至西藏、银川,近在深圳的组织都聚集在同一展馆,他们有的服务青少年儿童,有的着重社区发展,有的关注性与性别的议题,又或老年人、残疾人等弱势社群的需求。

按照项目性质,展厅分成“救灾救助”、“社会组织”、“企业社会责任和基金会”、“国际合作和港澳台”、“慈善之城”、“慈善创新”、“公益体验”和“生态公益”等八大展区。虽然主题很多,但主角还是草根非政府组织:828家参展机构中,有629家与孙艳红的机构相似的草根NGO,而在第一届慈展会中,草根组织只有260家。

在出席了这场慈展会的清华大学创新与社会责任研究中心主任邓国胜看来,这是第二届慈展会的一大亮点。“草根NGO这次非常活跃,相比之下,这次参展的国企和地方馆少了,展会显得更加实事求是。”邓国胜这样评价。

一些草根NGO更精心设计了展览馆或体验活动,用互动的、富有创意的方式来展示社会问题、弱势社群的困境又或他们的项目成果,即便是对公益和慈善不甚了解的参观者,也可以轻松地走近公益。

西部阳光基金会得到香港中文大学建筑系的义务支持,用质朴的木板搭建起一个迷宫般的体验馆:穿过黑暗狭小的过道,一步步体验留守儿童的内心世界,参观者可以从中看到一部记录留守儿童生活的纪录片、一张从农村运来的简陋床铺、一封孩子写给外出打工的父亲的信,最后,还可以在小书桌前给孩子们留言。

一群关注环保的NGO则联合推出活动“收垃圾喽”,派出工作人员收取展会垃圾后现场进行垃圾分类,传播环保意识。一家关注罕见病的公益组织则邀请了几位罕见病人亲自到场分享经历,开展“真人图书馆”,让参观者透过真人了解罕见病人的世界。

在社会组织展区,孙艳红的机构也在一个约9平米的展位里展示自己的项目,有一个海外基金会的人看了展示后对孙艳红说:“有需要的话可以给我打电话,我可以帮助你。”

这让孙艳红倍受鼓舞。“我的故事确实感动了一些人。”至今回想今年参展经历,她仍然有些激动。在此之前,因为“经费有限”,孙艳红几乎不曾到外地交流。

这儿的公益资源只不过在单向流动

不过与孙艳红不一样,不少公益人已经敏锐地嗅到慈展会的种种问题。在代表某全国性公募基金会的张智权看来,行业展会最重要的是实现资源对接,供需两方的交流融合,慈展会花了很多人力物力聚拢了属于“供给方”的慈善服务,但来参观的“需求方”少之又少。

“作为NGO,一方面要面对自己的受益人和自己服务的社区,另一方面就是支助方。在展会上,我们不可能把受益人统统拉来讨论如何开展服务,展会的重要意义是对接NGO和资助方,包括基金会、地方政府和企业的CSR部门。”张智权分析说,“但在这方面,展会目前的效果非常不明显,公益资源只是在单向流动,没有循环起来,就是没有买方。”

今年是张智权第二年带队参加慈展会,在他的观察中,来逛展位的人“大部分是公益同行、特别是刚刚加入NGO的业内人员”,还有极少数的深圳市民;他们来到展位前,一般是去了解他们的基金会在做什么,或是草根组织的工作人员去寻求资助,还有不少业内同行会去问问“我认识的人今天有没有来”。

虽然其供职的基金会属于资助型基金会,但张智权表示,在展会现场确立资助对象并不容易。“我们的对象大多在很偏远的山区,这些组织很多甚至根本就没有来深圳参展。”张智权说。

确实,在慈展会现场,许多草根组织的展位显得有点冷清。尽管慈展会公开宣称,展会的定位是“全民参与的全国性、综合性慈善盛会”,但去展位参观的普通市民少之又少。

“这个展会更像一个NGO业内人士的聚会。”张智权说,一些同行调侃说,来参展是“晚上比白天忙”:白天看管展位,要应对的人其实不多,到了晚上,则是更热闹的、以“交流感情”为主的业内聚会。

在这样一场看似自娱自乐的聚会背后,也有公益人开始调查它的成本到底有多少。在展会现场,绝大多数展位是大约9平米的小展位,这些展位由主办方事先搭建,进驻的草根NGO只是带来展板和展品,大多没有再花钱布置。但除此以外,展会也提供18平米和36平米的两种大展位,进驻的是财力较为充足的NGO,展位大多采取精装布置,某些展位看上去所费不菲。

一位来自草根NGO的工作人员就在展会现场直接展开调查,他走到这些展位前询问值班的工作人员他们布展到底花了多少钱。据调查,由阿拉善See生态环保组织牵头,其中涵括66家环保组织的“给绿中国”展区布置费用高达90-100万;壹基金展区的布展费用大概35万;中华少年儿童慈善救助基金会花了3.5万元;中华环保基金会花了1万元;爱德基金会花费约9000元。

不过,当这位草根NGO人前往询问深圳市福利事业基金会的工作人员布展费用时,得到的反馈一直是“负责人不在”。而妇女发展基金会的回应则更加警惕,不断反问“你要干什么”和“你不要想套我的话”。

“公益也是讲求效益的,一方面我们要想着怎么用最低的成本让服务对象得到最好的服务,另一方面也要想,怎么用最低的成本得到捐赠和支助。”张智权表示,在今年的慈展会上,他们机构的实际收获非常有限,明年他们参展的“动力不大”。

对此,邓国胜也持有相似的看法,在他看来,“慈展会没必要每年都办,否则成本太高。不仅组织成本高,而且频率太高会导致NGO每次参会的收获边际递减。”

慈展会离公益到底有多远?

“参加慈展会到底划不划算?”当一些公益机构正在仔细琢磨这个有关成本效益的问题时,另一边厢,一些公益人发出了更具批判性的声音——“慈展会距离公益到底有多远”?

表面来看,一切无可厚非:这里聚集的是公益人,展示的是公益项目,“慈善,让中国更美丽”是展会口号,东道主深圳的展区还将深圳描述成“慈善Mall”,打出醒目口号“这里供应慈善和爱”,各大沙龙和论坛讨论的也是公益组织的发展、成长和创新。

但转念想想,这一切是不是过于喜气洋洋?在这背后,我们是不是隐藏或遗忘了什么?

“整场慈展会下来,好无聊。之前谈到NGO起码还会联想到公民社会,现在都讲社会组织和慈善事业,一开会就是能力建设组织成长,看上去热闹又专业,但总觉得好陌生和不知所谓。所谓的组织是出来了但是社会问题呢?早被抛到一边了。”在微博上,安猪直截了当地这样批评。

美丽、创新和爱都是让人炫目的词藻,但如果你想认识当下中国的社会问题或弱势社群的困境的话,慈展会确实不是一个最好的去处。事实上,在这个由政府搭建的舞台上,慈善和公益不可避免地披上被政府的剪刀预先裁剪的衣裳,一些较为敏感的非政府组织根本没有获得登台亮相的机会。

非盈利组织“同志平等权益促进会”就指出批评,国内目前有几百家同性恋公益组织,却没有一家获得今年慈展会的“准入资格”,因为这些组织长期难以取得合法的民政注册。部分机构不得不借助其他公益机构的展位来放置资料,但就在2013年9月22日,慈展会开幕的第二天,展会的工作人员就闯入一家NGO的展位,要求撤掉摊位上所有关于同性恋、同志社群的宣传资料,不然该公益组织机构将被撤展。

从某种程度上说,“政府搭台、民间唱戏”的模式不可避免地制约着慈展会的发展。“政府是不可能搞好公益的。公益的本质是什么,就是民间创造的公共服务模式!”在慈展会的其中一场论坛中,零点研究咨询集团董事长袁岳当着台下深圳民政局的一些领导的面这样表示,观众席上爆发热烈掌声。

反观慈展会,尽管政府并没有直接上台演出,但她能搭建一个多大的舞台、一个什么定位的舞台,这些问题依旧持续拷问着政府,挑战着政府的胆量和宽容度。

参加慈展会之后,孙艳红返回郑州,继续管理社区服务中心,偶尔还会因为机构无法获得免税资格等问题而头疼。她将自己从慈展会上交换而来的一大叠名片仔细存放在办公室的抽屉里,想着那些有过一面之缘的同行或商人或许有天能帮助自己。

而张智权则表示,他身边的许多同行都说明年不去参加慈展会了。“深圳政府还是开放、开明和注重效益的,但是否能迅速调整好慈展会的定位,这我不敢说。”张智权这样认为。

The author served as a reporter for China Youth Daily, and is currently working in a Hong Kong NGO working on public education

Translated by Chuck Li

Edited by CDB Staff

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