The nonprofit sector in China is evolving rapidly. To overcome its most immediate challenge—a lack of technical expertise—BSR is supporting a new, cross-sector partnership among a multinational company (HP), a U.S.-based nonprofit (the Taproot Foundation), a local nonprofit (Huizeren), and a local foundation (the Narada Foundation) to harness business’ human capital to build the capacity of emerging nonprofit organizations. This partnership is part of BSR’s CiYuan initiative, ( a multi-year effort launched in 2010 to support the development of China’s nascent philanthropic sector.

The Challenge

China’s extraordinary economic development may have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and promoted hundreds of millions more to the middle classes, but it has also had significant environmental consequences and threatened social stability by increasing the income gaps in society. During this unique time, the country has the opportunity to strengthen its charitable sector and provide an outlet for the public to contribute their ideas, time, and skills to the country’s development. While such channels are still in infancy, the situation is changing rapidly.

Volunteering can play a key role in addressing China’s development needs by matching the supply of specialized skills to the demand, and tapping the time and energy of the millions of Chinese who want to contribute to society but currently lack opportunities and channels to do so. Since the push to recruit volunteers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics began in 2007, and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake inflamed many Chinese citizens’ desire to participate in disaster relief, volunteering in China has garnered a great deal of attention. In addition, volunteering around these events—as well as the Shanghai Expo and the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou—has drawn the interest of and encouragement by the government. In response to requests for volunteer opportunities, companies such as China Mobile, Bayer, and HP have set up employee volunteering associations. HP’s association has 900 participants, 500 of whom are in Beijing. The role of corporate volunteers has received comparatively less attention than volunteering in general, but companies are now recognizing how strategic volunteering—by leveraging their employees’ skills—can demonstrate their commitments to communities and build loyalty among their staff.

Pro Bono Services and China

While NGOs in China are still young and undeveloped, there has been progress in the last five years. Many groups have funded and implemented capacity-building programs for NGOs and NGO leaders, and interest and participation in volunteering has surged in the last three years. However, the majority of this volunteering—though not all by any means—has been unskilled (for example, planting trees or painting schools). To date, human capital has only been put to limited use to build the capacity of NGOs, despite their immense need for professional skills like marketing and communications, graphic design, and IT infrastructure expertise.

Companies and NGOs would both benefit from a professional intermediary to facilitate effective skilled volunteering (also known as pro bono work). This groundbreaking partnership aims to do just that.


The Taproot Foundation’s Innovative Model

The Taproot Foundation’s Service Grant Program facilitates professionals who want to donate their expertise to drive social change by ensuring: 1) the right needs at the right NGOs are identified; 2) the right skills are sourced from volunteers; and 3) volunteers’ skills are applied effectively through a careful process of matching and management. BSR is delighted to bring this model of skilled volunteering to the Chinese context. Since its inception in 2001, the Taproot Foundation has engaged professionals in the United States in more than 780,000 hours of pro bono services on more than 1,300 projects. While facilitating effective pro bono volunteering takes effort, it is worth it: For every dollar it costs Taproot to run the program, they are able to provide 13 dollars of pro bono services to NGOs.

Taproot’s innovative funding model is based on companies and foundations that give grants to NGOs. These grants are then supplemented by additional funding to Taproot to provide pro bono volunteers for their NGO grantees. For example, a US$1 million grant to an NGO could be supplemented with an additional US$50,000 to Taproot to improve the NGO’s effectiveness. Additionally, Taproot’s project staffing model includes a team of five pro bono volunteers, one of which is solely focused on project management. This ensures that the team stays on track.

BSR as Partnership Innovator

BSR reached out to the Taproot Foundation to explore interest in adapting their model in China as part of CiYuan. After visiting China for a CiYuan advisory board meeting in September 2010, Aaron Hurst, CEO of the Taproot Foundation, immediately understood the value their model could bring to the Chinese context and its relevance to building NGO capacity in the country. As part of this partnership, the Taproot Foundation is making US$50,000 available in pro bono staff time and more than US$1 million in intellectual property to Huizeren, a local NGO that specializes in volunteer services and was selected by BSR to implement a local version of Taproot’s Service Grant Program. Huizeren is not only the leading NGO in this space, but the organization also has experience working with the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and several companies throughout China.

BSR also engaged the Narada Foundation ( as a contributing funder in this partnership with the goal of developing an economically sustainable business model for the future. Narada, a leading local foundation dedicated to building nonprofit capacity in China, has made grants to more than 100 local NGOs in the past four years; their grantees will be some of the first to benefit from the program. HP will also provide Huizeren with funding as well as pro bono support in the form of technical expertise and relevant IT systems and software.

As the project develops, BSR, the Taproot Foundation, and HP will continue to support Huizeren by helping the organization build its capacity to manage volunteers; attract broader company interest; measure Huizeren’s impact on NGOs, volunteers, and participating companies; and create a viable business model.

Marks of Success

As the program develops, there will be several indications of success that will hopefully encourage similar partnership models to form across different geographies. These include:

  1. NGOs are able to recruit and manage skilled volunteers who provide useful services to support their mission.
  2. Volunteers have the opportunities to apply their skills effectively to improve NGO performance.
  3. Companies can efficiently manage their pro bono/skilled volunteer programs, thus increasing their positive impact on NGOs, volunteers, and the company.
  4. NGOs, businesses, and volunteers recognize the value of sharing expertise and skills-based volunteering and the importance of all sectors working together to make a greater social impact.

Looking Forward

Within two years, BSR expects to have 20 participating companies that will provide 125 volunteers to build the capacity of 25 NGOs in Beijing and Shanghai. Eventually, this program will serve as the backbone of a nationwide campaign by Huizeren to advocate for skilled, pro bono services.

Ultimately, this partnership will advance the dual business and social benefits that the pro bono services model brings to China—and prove the utility of bold partnerships to solve pressing social and environmental issues. Through pro bono volunteering, business will build both technical skills and passion among employees, bolster the capacity of their NGO partners, and promote positive brand recognition among their customers. The success of the program will also encourage the development of similar partnerships in other geographies.

BSR looks forward to working with businesses and nonprofits alike to create and evolve innovative partnerships.