Whether or not it is stated clearly up front, most foreign nonprofit organizations in China have a long-term goal of turning their work over to local staff who can then continue the work long after the foreigners have left.
Achieving this goal is a long-term endeavor. A successful hand-off takes time.
Some organizations have been more intentional and so are further along in the process. Others may have verbalized the desire to “pass the baton,” yet find themselves stuck. Funding issues, a lack of qualified leadership, or other factors have stood in the way of moving forward with the process.
Now, however, the new Overseas NGO Law has suddenly speeded up the timetable for a number of organizations whose leaders have decided it is not viable to continue operating in China. They may have realized that their current activities would not fit the parameters of the new law. Or perhaps they have encountered roadblocks in seeking the necessary permissions from local officials. Given the growing anti-foreign sentiment in China, some have concluded that remaining in a formal leadership role would not be helpful to their Chinese colleagues. It may, in fact, make their lives more difficult.
Stepping aside, however, does not necessarily mean stepping away completely. Done well, it can mark the beginning of a new stage in the working relationship.
Whether foreign workers remain in country in different roles or continue the relationship from a distance, their focus shifts from being directly responsible for organizational outcomes to indirectly serving their local colleagues who are continuing the work.
Their mode of serving shifts from giving direction to modeling behaviors that they hope will be emulated in the lives of others. This modeling touches not only the realm of work, but can broaden to include family life, spiritual disciplines, personal development, one’s sense of vocation, and other areas.
Granted, one may argue that a good leader should have been modeling all along, which is true. Yet it may also be argued that the shift from authority figure to peer allows for greater transparency in opening up one’s life to others. Taking the relationship out of the confines of the workplace can provide the freedom to address areas of life that may have been off limits in an organizational setting.
While the practical outcome of such service may seem rather abstract compared with the measurable results achieved while directly pursuing organizational goals, the impact of modeling can be much more long-lasting. Asked what they gained most from foreigners serving in China, many Chinese respond that it was the example of how they lived their lives more than any particular project they accomplished or skill they imparted. In fact, modeling how to gracefully make a transition, especially when it is unexpected, may be an excellent first step for foreign workers as they embrace their new role.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio