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Is Your Organization a Fit for China?


Over the years many foreign faith-based entities have made what might best be described as a "survey trip" to China. The purpose is ostensibly to understand what is happening on the ground and to discern whether, and how, their particular organization could begin a China work.

The trip is often couched in terms such as, "We're just here to listen and learn" and "We don't have an agenda." Yet subconsciously those making the trip are already beginning to formulate plans of what their China involvement could look like. Every person they meet, every situation they encounter, each location they visit is filtered through this mental grid.

Opportunities can be found wherever one looks in China, and plans can come together rather quickly, particularly when busy organizational leaders are on a tight schedule and feeling pressured to have something to show for all the time and expense of making the trip. It is therefore easy to get sucked in to activities that may seem fruitful at the outset, but these may eventually prove to be a drain on the organization and, in the end, not a great fit.

Perhaps those considering China would be better served by a more hardnosed approach that assumes the "null hypothesis" (that there really is no place for us in China) and begins with these questions:

  1. Have we objectively demonstrated a felt need for what our organization has to offer? How? Simply asking those you meet in China about it might elicit a host of positive responses, but for the wrong reasons. (They may actually be more interested in connections or influence you are perceived to have, or resources you may bring, than in the actual service you intend to provide.)
  2. Who else is doing or has tried doing something similar? What have they learned? Discovering what works and what doesn't in China is a costly and time-consuming endeavor. Why not draw on the experience of others who have already paid the price?
  3. What are the unique environmental factorspolitical, cultural, economic, etc. that will affect our ability to do it? Just because something was wildly successful in another part of the world, it doesn't mean it is going to work in China.
  4. Given these factors, how will it look differently in China? Here is where organizational practices (and traditions) meet the realities of China. How flexible are you willing to be?
  5. How will it be sustained over time? More than a few grand beginnings in China have fizzled due to a lack of organizational follow through, or simply a lack of sustained interest, leaving behind unfinished projects and disillusioned local partners.

Answering these questions will not ensure long-term success in China. However, should there emerge a clear sense of purpose and organizational commitment, the answers to these questions can provide a starting point for moving forward. In reality, many organizations end up doing things in China that they would not have expected going inactivities that prove far more fruitful perhaps than those they had assumed they would be undertaking initially. They arrive at this point through careful listening, relationship building, and looking honestly at their unique strengths and resources in light of the realities of China.

Answering these questions will not ensure long-term success in China. However, should there emerge a clear sense of purpose and organizational commitment, the answers to these questions can provide a starting point for moving forward. In reality, many organizations end up doing things in China that they would not have expected going inactivities that prove far more fruitful perhaps than those they had assumed they would be undertaking initially. They arrive at this point through careful listening, relationship building, and looking honestly at their unique strengths and resources in light of the realities of China.

Image credit: Photo Op, by Taunu Tuk, via Flickr

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. 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... View Full Bio