Non-Profit Incubator (NPI) is a rare beast: an NGO that does not depend on donations or grants to fund its activity. Then again, NPI is unique in many ways.
Unlike most NGOs, NPI does not work directly “on the ground,” serving people through projects, volunteers, donations, or research. Instead, as its name suggests, NPI is “an incubator for NGOs and social enterprises,” nurturing them from undeveloped ideas or small, two to five person projects to become professional, self-sufficient organizations.
NPI provides selected non-profits with free or subsidized office space and supplies, IT support, mentoring, training, and, perhaps most importantly, a well-established network of government officials, business and individual donors, and other NGOs. Just a few examples include an annual Charity Fair held in Shenzhen to connect funders and non-profits and a project in association with tech companies (including Microsoft) and techsoup that provides IT software and hardware to non-profits for anything from well below market rates to free.
To date NPI has incubated more than 500 NGOs and social enterprises from its nine offices and more than thirty project sites stationed around China from Shanghai to Shenzhen and Inner Mongolia. It is currently the largest non-profit incubator in China, with a staff of about 250 around the country.
NPI sometimes receives criticism that “‘You are too big’ and ‘You are trying to do everything.’”
As one of the largest NGOs of its kind in China, NPI sometimes receives criticism that “‘You are too big’ and ‘You are trying to do everything.’” Indeed, “[NPI’s] business almost covers all the main fields of the philanthropy sector in China.” Nonetheless, my guide to NPI, Marketing and Communication Manager Jessica Chen, sees NPI’s size as an advantage enabling it to better achieve its mission. Its experiences so far seem to support this belief, and it is still expanding “very fast.”
Since its inception in 2006, NPI has broadened its mission. It now provides corporate social responsibility (CSR) services to companies, guiding and planning their philanthropy in China and providing them with a conduit to China’s fledgling non-profit sector. To date, NPI has worked with such well-known companies as Ford Motor and HSBC. This service explains the source of NPI’s economic independence – companies purchase NPI’s service, freeing them from reliance on donations. NPI designs CSR plans with their clients, or as they call them, “partners,” and aids in their implementation.
For example, Ford Motor came to NPI with the desire to support environmental protection. NPI designed several projects under that umbrella such as “incubating NGOs in the field of environmental protection.” Through their offices around China, NPI is now busy helping Ford Motor implement those projects.
NPI also implements projects from local and regional governments. One such project is on display as I visited Chen at NPI’s offices at Shanghai Gongyi Xintiandi (上海公益新天地), “the largest social innovation park in China” created by the Shanghai Ministry of Civil Affairs and operated by none other than NPI. This project is replicated (though generally on a much smaller scale) at its project sites around China, where NPI cooperates with local governments to cultivate local NGOs and social enterprises. Local governments “provide the spaces, the funding for decorations, and sometimes even local staff, and NPI serves as consultants to help them build up local NGO parks and incubate local NGOs.”
When asked what local governments desired in setting up the parks, Chen told me that generally they simply wanted to cultivate local non-profits but that specific aims could differ. For instance, Shanghai’s Ministry of Civil Affairs “preferred to support NGOs that work to better the local surroundings,” with a strong preference for social enterprises. Chen noted that, in the context of China, social enterprises are NGOs that A) “work to solve some social problem” and B) “have a successful business model,” meaning that they should not exclusively rely on donations.
“Sometimes they even say we are too close to the government. But I should say this: you have to maintain a good relationship with the government to make things go smoothly.” -Jessica Chen
At this point, we arrived at the topic that is unavoidable when discussing NGO operations in China: government relations. As is apparent in its many government projects and collaborations, NPI has excellent governmental relations. Chen admitted that “sometimes they even say we are too close to the government. But I should say this: you have to maintain a good relationship with the government to make things go smoothly.” Since its inception, NPI has worked extensively with local and regional governments to set up non-profit parks and to aid them in their attempts to support social enterprises.
However, that is not to say that government relations do not provide an enduring challenge for NPI. “There are challenges when policy changes or when the people who used to be in the position are reassigned.” Chen emphasized that while there “are a few examples” of new officials radically changing positions, for the most part NPI is challenged more by small alterations and lack of relationships with new government administrators. She stressed that government relations are “not a major challenge.”
“[Competition] is a very good way… to improve ourselves.” -Jessica Chen
According to Chen, NPI is currently facing two main challenges. First and foremost? “Competition.” When NPI began in 2006, “there [were] not many competitors in the industry, so when the government looked for providers, we were the only choice…. Now when the government wants to start a project, they will have one, two, three, even more other candidates – including us of course – competing for the project.” Chen said that she does not think competition has a deleterious influence. On the contrary, she thinks “it is a very good way… to improve ourselves.”
Beyond growing competition, NPI is also challenged by “a shortage of human resources.” This is, Chen explained, caused by a combination of lack of supply and high standards. Despite salaries comparable with mid-level positions in the business world, “many graduates might prefer to go to the business sector. For example, I myself went to law school, and most of my friends now work in banks.” Yet NPI cannot afford to lower hiring criteria, since it “deals with Fortune 500 companies. So we require [employees] to be equipped with many skills,” from project management to fluent English and a more ephemeral spirit of innovation. According to Chen, human resources “is a universal challenge for NGOs.”
“Many graduates might prefer to go to the business sector. For example, I myself went to law school, and most of my friends now work in banks.” -Jessica Chen
Non-Profit Incubator is indeed unique from many NGOs in its self-supporting business model, but it is typical in its need for help and support. What could they use most? They are always looking for volunteers to help translate their website, but could use other assistance as well. If you are interested in helping, it may be best to, as Casey Lartigue said in our interview with Teach North Korean Refugees, ask yourself “How can I help?” and get in touch ready to “do the thing that you can do well.”
(Author: Dylan Kolhoff)