According to a recent article in The Economist, over the past 25 years half a million non-governmental organizations have registered in China. Another 1.5 million social entities have not registered and are effectively functioning illegally. Many others are registered as businesses.
For a country that has done its best to keep the lid on the development of civil society, these numbers are quite impressive. However, as is often the case in China, the numbers tell only part of the story. In reality the number of functioning, truly independent non-profit organizations focused on serving society is considerably smaller. Those of sufficient scale to make a difference beyond just their own local area are fewer still.
Consider, for example:
Government-organized NGOs (otherwise known as GONGOs), account for a significant number of the total organizations. This Orwellian-sounding term refers to an entity set up by or on behalf of a government agency to further its respective mission. Although appearing as independent organizations, GONGOs are directly supervised, if not also staffed and funded, by their parent government entities.
Many other social organizations exist solely for the benefit of their members or paying clients. According to Karen Liu, Managing Director of Social Venture Group, a consultancy in Shanghai, the majority of registered nonprofit organizations are not philanthropically focused. Speaking last April at the International Association of Advisors in Philanthropy conference, China: A Time of Promise, Liu noted that many for-profit educational ventures, matchmaking agencies, and various clubs and associations are included among China's registered nonprofits.
Among those that are independently run and philanthropically focused, says Liu, only about three to five thousand across all sectors nationwide have achieved a basic degree of scale. (Liu defines basic scale as having been in existence for at least three years, having at least three full-time staff, and having successfully carried out at least three projects.)
Finally, Liu says, among these 3,000-5,000 organizations, only one or two hundred are in a position to significantly innovate, expand, and/or replicate.
Although the government has tacitly acknowledged its role and in many cases even encouraged its development, the nonprofit sector remains weak. External constraints, including the lack of a coherent legislative framework and tight restrictions on raising funds from the public, exacerbate internal limitations such as an inability to attract and retain qualified staff. China's "third sector" is sizeable, but it still has a long way to go.
Image credit: 太平镇灾民营领取午饭, by Joshua and Eva, via Flickr
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