What Should China’s NPOs Do to Promote Rural Education?

In this summary of a longer published article1, Professor Zhou goes beyond the truism that NPOs have a role to play in filling gaps in government services, by offering specific insights and recommendations on what those gaps are in the area of rural compulsory education, and how Chinese NPOs can better fill those gaps. Based on her study of 464 Chinese NPOs working in the rural education sector, she recommends that NPOs focus less on expensive infrastructural improvements, such as building new schools, and more on tending to the emotional and psychological needs of students and teachers in rural schools where the need is great and NPOs have a competitive advantage.

Since 1949, China has made impressive improvements in education. However, significant regional inequalities still exist, in that the western and inland rural regions are lagging behind the eastern and southern coastal urban areas. In order to mobilize societal resources to support educational equality, particularly the improvement of compulsory education in rural China, the government has encouraged various sectors to make contributions. The nonprofit sector has been an active participant in this campaign since the 1980s. However, to date, we do not have systematic knowledge regarding the involvement of nonprofit organizations (NPOs). How many organizations are there? What do they look like? What are their working strategies? What are their strengths, limitations, challenges and needs?

The above questions are hard to answer, because there is no database of NPOs involved in rural compulsory education.  The government may have some information on officially registered organizations. However, due to barriers in the registration system and other obstacles, many NPOs in China are not registered with the government.

Thanks to the internet, we were able to snowball (滚雪球抽样)464 rural compulsory education NPOs2. Over two thirds of the organizations are relatively young and were formed within the last decade.  Among them, 85 are located in Beijing, clearly reflecting the city’s role as the political center of China. The eastern and southern coastal provinces (e.g. Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Shanghai) tend to have more organizations than western, northern and inland areas. As a southwestern province, Sichuan is an exception. The reason might be that the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake relief efforts led to the establishment of more organizations.

Although every one of the 464 organizations claims to be “philanthropic”, “charitable”, or “nonprofit”, only about half (47.4%) of them are registered with the government as NPOs. The rest have various legal identities, such as business entities (企业/公司) (12), entities within a legal institution (机关、团体企业事业单位内部组织,简称“内部团体”)(e.g. a student club in a university) (96), and entities associated with a legal institution (挂靠其他机构的组织)(18). There are also 87 organizations with no legal identity at all (in addition to 31 organizations whose registration status cannot be identified). This means they are technically illegal, and the government may shut them down and take away their assets at any time.

A better understanding of these NPOs can be gained by looking not at their official identity, but at their “background”: Who founded them? Who provide financial support for them? Where did their connections and resources come from? Who authorized them to do what they are doing? Seventy-six organizations (16.4 percent) in the sample have clear government background in that they were established by retired government officials, the government or people’s organizations (人民团体)such as the Communist Youth League (共青团). Not surprisingly, 95 percent of these organizations have legal NPO status. Sixty organizations (12.9 percent) were established by corporations, entrepreneurs (企业家), or chambers of commerce. Roughly 95 percent of these corporate-organized NPOs have legal NPO status, mostly as foundations. Hence, it seems that the NPO registration system gives a green light to people with government connections, and people with money. University students and sometimes faculty members are in a special position, in that any entity within a university (大学内部团体) (e.g. a student club) is exempted from registration.  Seventy-two organizations (15.5 percent) in this sample are of this type. There are also organizations founded by famous individuals (e.g., movie stars and athletes), and by religious institutions (churches and temples). However these are less common. The biggest category of organizations identified here are grassroots organizations (草根组织), which means organizations established by common citizens who are not politically powerful, nor rich, nor famous. In the sample presented here, 174 organizations (37.5 percent) have grassroots background, and only 25 of them have legal NPO status. Roughly half of them have no legal identity at all, making them the most vulnerable of all.

Several findings emerged from our study of the work carried out by this sample of NPOs:

1)  NPOs in China are providing a variety of services to promote rural compulsory education. The most popular types of services are one-to-one financial aid (一对一帮扶)(provided by 42% of the organizations in the study), followed by establishing libraries in rural schools (30.4%), financial aid to rural students (农村学生奖、助学金) (28.9 percent), and in-kind donations (实物捐助)to rural schools (27.8%). Organizations with legal NPO status, particularly those with governmental background are more likely to be involved in large-scale, expensive, and complex projects, such as infrastructure improvements. Organizations without legal NPO status, particularly those of grassroots background, are more likely to involve in labor intensive projects, such as home visits (上门探访), and short-term volunteer teaching (短期支教). This is probably shaped by their own resource structure: while the formal NPOs are wealthy and politically powerful, the informal ones have a large pool of volunteers.

2) The popularity of programs does not necessarily reflect the needs of rural communities. Some critical areas, such as the emotional needs of rural children and the psychological well-being of rural teachers (农村教师与学生的心理健康), have not received much attention. Few organizations are providing services to address these needs. Furthermore, the popularity of programs does not tell us the about service quality. For example, while many organizations are building libraries in rural schools, very few provide services to maintain libraries. As a result, libraries in rural schools often became a storage room for books. Short-term volunteer teaching is another popular program with questionable quality. Previous research revealed that volunteer teachers deployed by some of these organizations are ill-prepared, and make little positive impact on the students’ academic achievements. Although they may have some creative strategies that stimulate the interests of rural students, since they stay only a short time, students would then have a hard time readjusting to the teaching style of their own teacher.

3) A comparison of NPO services with the government’s rural compulsory education promotion programs showed that some of the service areas overlap significantly, and that the government’s scale of work is much larger. For example, the biggest school builder among all NPOs is the China Youth Development Foundation (中国青少年发展基金会)which constructed 16,355 primary schools from 1989 to the present. The government’s “Nationwide Rebuilding of High-risk Primary and Middle School Buildings” (全国中小学危房改造工程)project, however, between 2001 and 2005 alone, re-built 60,833 schools. The China Youth Volunteer Association (中国青年志愿者协会), which sent more long-term volunteer teachers than all other NPOs, deployed 4,172 teachers from 1999 to 2009. The government, however, deployed 104,621 special-position teachers (特岗教师)from 2007-2009 alone. It is clear that the government is much more powerful than NPOs. Currently, NPOs only occupy a small share of the market because the government has not allocated enough resources in these areas. If the government decides to expand the scale of the public programs, NPOs would be crowded out. In fact, in the past, many NPOs were providing financial aid to cover tuition and miscellaneous fees. However, after the government implemented the “Two Exemptions, One Subsidy” program3 (两免一补), NPOs found that their services were no longer needed and had to change their financial aid programs either to cover living expenses or to support high school and college education.

4) There are also programs that are unique to NPOs, such as counseling, home visits, letter exchanges (通信/交笔友), and teacher organizing (组织教研组或教师互助组). Although these programs are less popular, they address the emotional, physical, and professional needs of rural students and teachers, which are crucial to their well being. The personal nature of these needs call for private intervention. It is thus impossible for the government to respond with large-scale public programs. As a result, NPOs working in these areas tend not to face government competition. Hence to avoid being crowded out by the government, and to better utilize societal resources, NPOs should focus on areas of need where they have competitive advantages. By creating programs which the government is not providing now and not likely to provide in the future, NPOs together with the government will be able to cover a wider range of societal needs.

Of course, filling in the service gaps not only means creating programs, but also providing quality services. Since Chinese NPOs are quite young, it is not surprising that they have yet to develop skills to plan, implement and evaluate their programs. Several strategies can be adopted to help the NPOs improve service quality:

The first is to improve the quality of the nonprofit workforce. According to the government, among registered NPOs, only 27% of their employees are educated beyond junior college level. It is questionable whether these employees possess sufficient knowledge and skills to handle the complicated task of program management. If training could be provided to current employees, organizations would be able to conduct more accurate needs assessment, and make more efficient use of their limited resources.

The second is to improve communication between NPOs. When we conducted this research, many of the organizations we contacted were eager to find out about others working in the same field so as to share resources, exchange experiences, and collaborate to provide better services. Knowledge about the work of other NPOs is crucial to avoiding duplication and to learning about service gaps. Currently, some organizations, such as the China Foundation Center, have started to provide a platform for NPOs to network.

The third is to promote government-NPO collaboration. For example, various local governments have adopted a nonprofit incubator (NPI) model (公益孵化器). This model fosters the development of grassroots organizations by providing them with free office space, office equipment, capacity-building programs, funding, and registration help. When NPOs possess sufficient skills to provide services, the government could incorporate them into the public system through purchase of services, which will provide NPOs with resources to pursue further development. The government of Shenzhen, for instance, shifted a large portion of the government’s welfare responsibility to the nonprofit sector, streamlining government bureaucracy and improving quality of services for citizens.

The fourth is to learn from international Nongovernmental Organizations (INGOs). Although INGOs are not included in this study, many of these organizations (e.g. Save the Children, UNICEF, UNESCO, ActionAid International, and World Vision) are actively involved in promoting rural education in China. These INGOs typically have a long history and have accumulated valuable experiences, knowledge and skills, which they could share with indigenous Chinese NPOs. Hence, Chinese NPOs may want to seek out INGOs for guidance in areas such as program planning, implementation, and evaluation.

The fifth is to empower the service recipients (or beneficiaries) (服务受众). By listening to those they serve, organizations can learn whether their services are efficiently and effectively meeting the needs of the recipients (beneficiaries), and whether the programs are implemented in a culturally appropriate way. However right now, the service recipients (beneficiaries) in poverty-stricken rural China are not empowered to voice their concerns or to demand better services. The government will either need to adopt policies to protect recipients (beneficiaries) of NPO services just as it does for consumers in the commercial sector, or NPOs will need to take the initiative to listen to their clients.

Finally, individual Chinese citizens, as donors and volunteers, can also play an active role in improving NPO services. Because they are contributing their time and money, they can demand better accountability and transparency, urging NPOs to evaluate their programs, and make the results available to the public. Then, effective programs can be identified, and replicated, while ineffective programs can be modified.

In conclusion, our study finds that Chinese NPOs are filling critical services gaps within the rural compulsory education system. Because they are so young, they suffer from the “growing pains” of all newly established entities. Their efforts are not well-organized, and sometimes of questionable quality. However, when NPOs are given proper support to professionalize their services, better share information among themselves, and listen to their recipients’ feedback, they will become more mature, be better able to fill service gaps efficiently and effectively, and thereby contribute more to improving the accessibility and quality of rural compulsory education.


  1. Zhou, H. (2012) Promoting Compulsory Education in Rural China: What are the NPOs Doing? Frontiers of Education in China, 7(4): 576-607. 

  2. This study used a snowball sample (滚雪球抽样) of Chinese NPOs, employing the definition of “self-identification and peer recognition”, which required an organization to self-identify as an NPO and be recognized as a peer by at least one other NPO. Some exclusion criteria (排除法则)were developed during the sampling process (抽样过程), guided by the Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project’s criteria for NPOs: institutional form; not-for-profit; self-governing; and voluntary. The sampling started with three known sources of NPOs: (1) organizations that participated in a conference called “Responding to Changes: Action and Reflection of Education NPOs (“应对变化:教育NGO的行动与思考”分享交流会) (Beijing, 2009)”, (2) student organizations from the Project 211 institutions (“211工程”院校的学生组织), and (3) the China Foundation Center’s (基金会中心网)database. 

  3. “Two Exemptions, One Subsidy” refers to free text books, tuition and miscellaneous fee waiver, and subsidies for boarding expenses. Rural compulsory education students under poverty line can get this benefit. 

Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Chinese University of Hong Kong

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