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Challenges for young people at China’s NGOs

Dan Murphy

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Civil society groups not only play an important role in tackling China’s environmental crisis, they also employ the environmental leaders of tomorrow. Considering these young people will benefit the green groups of the future, says Dan Murphy.
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Zhang Tianming is a 23-year-old college graduate from Kunming, southwest China, with spiky, prematurely greying hair and great sense of humour. Zhang studied environmental science at a good university, and interned at a well-known Chinese environmental NGO. He helped to lead his campus green group and is passionate about environmental issues: it is his dream to work for a green NGO. His next job, however, is likely to be with a private company.

After graduation, Zhang worked for a short time with a “government-organised non-governmental organisation”, or GONGO. But he left after several months. It was poorly managed, he says, and career advancement was very difficult unless you had already worked in government.

Civil society plays an expanding role in China’s environmental issues. NGO directors are often public figures, well-connected in politics, academia or the media. But few observers spare a thought for the young workers at China’s green NGOs, who often lack the same social recognition, international connections, job security or prospects.


“My family has worked long, hard hours selling fruit in the market in order to support me and send me through school,” says Zhang. “Now I need to find a job to help support my family.” Zhang’s family says that the security, higher pay and enhanced social status that come from working with a private company or in government will provide him with a better future.

As China’s single-child generation think about caring for their ageing parents, Zhang is not alone in feeling family pressure on account of his work with an environmental group. Another young NGO worker I spoke to has hidden his true profession from his family, telling them for years that he works for a private company.

People are often unfamiliar with the NGO sector, and young staffers are often seen as having a low social status. At a recent meeting with the director of a local NGO and a group of Chinese and American students in the south China city of Nanjing, the questions from the US students centred on pollution and public policy. Many Chinese students, however, were more guarded. They questioned the role NGOs could play in Chinese society, and asked why anyone would work at an NGO, rather than a private company.

The rising cost of living and the threat of inflation have made this caution more acute. Many NGOs are supported by fixed-termed funding and are not financially self-sufficient. When it comes to cutting staff, young people are often the first to go, and finding a job in a different sector can be difficult. Prospective employers do not always value NGO sector experience.

Internships are financially challenging too. Interning for a green NGO during university, Zhang slept on the floor of the office to save money. Nonetheless, competition for jobs at Chinese NGOs is stiff, and there are relatively few outside Kunming and Beijing, which are known as China’s “NGO capitals”.

Another stumbling block is the education system. When Zhang was at university, his newly established environmental science programme lacked structure and proper organisation. Consequently, he and other students were forced to study independently.


There is some good news, however, for young people wanting to help the environment. Zhang first learned about green issues and NGO management while helping out with his university environmental group. For him, the organisation was a fantastic way to learn about the issues and gain leadership skills.

Last year I attended a meeting in Nanjing, largely organised by college students, which drew over 30 local green groups as well as reporters and a representative from the local environmental protection bureau. The event was a great success, and gave many students valuable experience organising and advertising for the event.

In the end, some of the same social pressures that make working at an NGO difficult can make it rewarding. Perhaps because many people misunderstand the work of green groups, there is a strong sense of camaraderie within the NGO community. Like many young people in China, Zhang’s interest means he still works as a volunteer for an environmental group during his spare time.

But what does the future hold for Zhang? If he was presented with an average-salaried, stable position at a green group, he says he would take it. But at least for now, Zhang will be putting his scientific knowledge and leadership skills to use at a company.

Lowering the hurdles that Zhang and young people like him face will be a difficult task, but it may be essential to train a new generation of NGO leaders in China.

Are you a young person working for an NGO in China? Or are you campaigning on green issues in the west? Did you find this article accurate, or do you have another story to tell? Leave a comment – and tell us about your experience.

Dan Murphy graduated from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Homepage photo by Joshua Wickerham via Flickr

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View from the UK

I'm a young person working for a green NGO in the UK, and I think the situation isn't that dissimilar to the one in China. For instance, many people do not understand the kind of work I do, or its relevance. While older people can gain a lot of respect for their work on environmental issues, a lot of young people don't understand why I would accept lower pay and work longer hours for something that seems rather obscure to them. And that's the key point: these issues aren't obscure at all, but young people still often don't understand why they are of such importance. No wonder so few of my friends tried to work in this sector... LL



Green NGOs

One world, one dream for green planet, however, my dream is defeated due to the pressure of the real world. I do cherish Mr.Zhang's courage, when it comes to the question of environment pollution, most of time, it can be attributed to economics and manufacturing. The feasibility of implementing a new system will be challenged by Chinese social anxiety, if it can fulfill its function is still open to question. Well, just keep watching...


这篇文章立意新颖,我很乐于承认在现有条件下,我们拥有比以往更多的备选方案,然而对于非政府组织,未来将面临的真正问题是如果没有资本融合能力,他们将无法继续发展并保持元气。当然,我也看到一些积极的变化,比如越来越多的公司有意于为那些所谓“草根阶层”提供资金上的帮助,但是令人遗憾的是,这些有意于投资民间公益组织的公司却苦于难以寻找并发现那些拥有专业管理团队,具备规范管理运营的组织。这也使我们常常徘徊在“十字路口”的原因, 但是我们将继续协助民间公益组织开发那些有商业投资前景的项目。

Interesting Article. There are Options

Interesting article, and I am happy to say that there are more options now than ever.

Where the real problem lies for NGOs in the future is that without the ability to fundraise, they cannot afford to develop and keep talent.

However, I see that changing very rapidly. more and more, companies are interested in funding grassroots groups, but they really struggle to find a group that has a strong management team, with strong program management skills, and will be able to scale out.

this is something we are addressing at Crossroads, and we will begin working with NGOs to help develop business plans that firms are interested in funding.




my personal experience echoes the author's sentiment

Young volunteer workers from around the world have to face the same dilemma – working overtime and overload, scarce social recognition, lack of a sense of self-fulfillment, plus meager incomes. Young volunteer workers from around the world have to face the same dilemma – working overtime and overload, scarce social recognition, lack of a sense of self-fulfillment, plus meager incomes. Thirdly, English has a depressing effect on China’s public welfare undertaking. It is a widespread and serious problem. Fourthly, young volunteers in China are currently facing another grave problem – soaring inflation. These young workers are mostly from less well-off families. They have to support their parents and themselves as well as their own family. Consequently they are burdened with much heavier duties than their counterparts in developed countries. Furthermore, it is usually difficult for them to change job. For these people whose first job is related to public welfare, they find it hard to take up a job in other occupational area. Employers in other sectors seldom recognize their work experience, talent and ability in their previous job. There are ample relevant examples in my social circle. Fifthly, for those who are lucky enough to work in a general public welfare organization, they have to overcome language barrier. During exchange visits, training, and work, any of them have to work as staff, volunteer, project manager, and interpreter, all roll into one. Besides, they also have to take political influence into count and work under political restraints. Unexpected organizational problems may occur as well.



a separate entity

I agree with UK person. I feel NGO work is often boxed out from the rest of society. It seems as if our work is not that well integrated with business and government work. I hope NGO work can be integrated with business strategy in the future as "china-crossroads" has pointed out. Also I think the employment issue works both ways in China. You have people who are passionate about environment but need to take a job that will bring in more money, but also there are people who are so desperate for a job (because unemployment after college is so high) that they will take a job with NGO, even if they don't know anything about environmental issues. This can lead to a lack of passion.



No mystification of NGOs

I agree with lonely shepherd’s opinion. Simply because of the marginalization of NGOs, those talented and concerned people should take the responsibility of bringing NGOs back to the mainstream of society.

However, newly graduated and inexperienced young people lack the very ability, experience, and social network needed for the mission, which makes NGOs the epitome of low efficiency, low quality, and low achievement (compared with mainstream sectors). This ends up a vicious cycle, in which lack of regulation, absence of social recognition, low revenue, and lack of attraction to the managerial talents form the chains of the cycle.

Actually there is no need to mystify NGOs. They need to be managed. The volunteers taking part in NGOs should come down to earth and adjust their roles to the need of the situation. They should blend themselves into society and create a strong social network so as to make NGOs thrive and prosper.



My personal experience

I am also a young person working for NGO.I started doing my current job since I graduated from the university. I think those young people who are working in NGO are elites. They work for NGOs not for money, but because of their passion, their social responsibilities, and also with the hope that they can realise their career dreams through NGO.




Currently doing my master degree, I have never been involved in any NGO job and I don't think I'd join any NGO after graduation. The financial pressure from life and family has made my dream to be Public Utility activist impossible to realize, at least in the recent years. I will still pay attention to the cause of environment protection and public beneift activites and even make some some contribution in my spare time.



The distance between dreams and reality

I am very glad to read articles on China's NGOs. In comparison to professional NGOs in western countries, NGOs in China as a whole face challenges not only from the pressure of working conditions, but also from the governance mechanism of the country.

As such, it is very difficult for China's NGOs to make necessary contribution to the society. The limitation imposed by the government policies is another factor which can not be ignored.

I am also considering if I shall choose to work for a NGO.



My personal view

I am currently working with an environmental NGO in Chengdu. I don’t feel any difference from working with other corporations. I really didn’t understand why NGO has remained a topic of controversy in the past. Until recently I came to realize that China’s NGO can play a very important role in China under its market-economy system.

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