Why China’s Social Sector Can’t Achieve “Collective Impact”

August 13, 2012
  • Nina Zhou

    Former Communications Associate, CiYuan, BSR

Nina Zhou, Communications Associate, CiYuan , BSR

The phrase "collective impact"—initiatives that have used centralized resources and process to support a common agenda that pays off for all parties—has become a buzzword in the West, but in China, it hasn’t been well studied.

We do have a similar concept, qun [in Chinese], an idea proposed by the Social Policy Research Centre of CASS’s Yang Tuan, to promote cross-sector collaboration among sectors. But unlike “collective impact,” which also emphasizes the importance of strong leadership among the partners, qun does not define how to cooperate and work together. 

At a recent media workshop I attended in Beijing, “collective impact”—with its particular emphasis on the how—was introduced to an audience of 15 thoughtful journalists.

I left that discussion realizing that there are two main barriers to collective impact in China:

  1. Lack of horizontal collaboration among grassroots NGOs: According to Stanford Social Innovation Review’s paper on collective impact, horizontal and vertical networks are both needed to support large-scale social change. China has supported vertical networks—or partnerships across different industries—through various activities, including Lenovo’s venture philanthropy program, last November’s Shanghai Philanthropy Partnership Days, and the "Charity Fair" in Shenzhen in July. But China lacks horizontal partnerships—partnerships within the same industry or sector —which help extend the impact widely rather than creating isolated effect by single organization.

    Horizontal partnerships are difficult to develop here because there is still such a strong competition for money offered through foundation grants. While China has more than 2,500 nonprofit organizations, less than 40 foundations have ever provided grant.

  2. Lack of organizations that serve as a “backbone” to create and manage collective impact: In the West, organizations such as Strive Partnership or Partners for a Competitive Workforce have a certain “convening power” that allow them to take the lead in aligning groups or managing governance across a multitude of organizations and individuals within a network. Outside of government, there are few such organizations in China. China’s Innovation Initiative for Nonprofits, or IINP, brings together stakeholders from government, academia, and NGOs to share knowledge and support innovation among NGOs, but still faces challenges associated with finding partners with a mission that aligns closely with the program’s vision and diversifying its funding sources beyond its corporate partner in order for the program to have greater impact. IINP is also driven by business, and China needs a more diverse array of “backbone” organizations that are led by foundations.

Most of foundations in China are “project-implementing” while a handful are also the “resource-controllers." One of the most talked-about topics in China this year has been how foundations in the “resource-controller” category will transform to “grant-offering” organizations. It may take years for us to develop a localized collective impact model here, but I left the media workshop convinced that we need to explore opportunities through research on best practices, the specific groups that might support progress, and an examination of the motivators and barriers behind those practices.

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