In the middle of April 2015 I sat in on a board meeting for a prominent non-profit consulting NPO in Southeast Michigan when someone at the table brought up the term “capacity building.” Up to that point, the meeting was little more than a slow cadence of financial figures met by fish-eyed stares. Debate erupted when the CEO and other staff at the table stressed to the board that evaluation of NPO operations is increasingly dominated by demand from funders for post-hoc evidence-based evaluations. In a U.S. non-profit world dominated by semantic fads, “capacity building” has been declared dead.
Once our group met with the NPO Development Center (NDC) in Shanghai in late May, it wasn’t hard to notice that “capacity building” was proudly referenced as a core mission at least a dozen times. In a fledgling social sector like China’s, grassroots groups often emerge and start operating with very little (if any) experience in operating a grassroots group and attracting sustainable funding streams.
With support from the Ford Foundation, the Chinese government itself, and other individual donors, it doesn’t seem like NDC’s rhetoric is any outlier from the status quo. In comparison with the Michigan NPO mentioned above, it is especially interesting that emphasis of NDC’s mission was already dominated by auditing and other summative evaluation services for consumption by funders, rather than formative, demand-sided evaluation.
The high point of the meeting came when the NDC staff declared – in direct contrast to every previous meeting we had with Chinese NGOs – that the outlook for China’s civil society was hopeful and poised for growth. Given NDC’s attachment to funder clients, however, this opinion might make more sense. It might also fall short, however, in remaining blind to the vast majority of social organizations that remain untouched by such high-powered funders and run on the fumes of volunteer labor. Other groups we met with on the trip were struggling to pay the bills despite expenses that are dwarfed by similar NPOs in the US.
The fact remains that new legislative moves by the CCP are showing signs of further choking out international funding streams for Chinese NGOs without advancing counterbalancing legislation to incentivize a domestic philanthropic environment. Without such moves, it won’t matter how well-organized and efficient China’s social organizations become. Without better funding channels, an audit-happy NPO culture will merely be whipping a dying horse.
– Ryan E.