As collaborative partnerships become commonplace for Chinese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to address a variety of complex social problems and foster the development of the Chinese civil society, the question of how they can expand their partnerships emerges.
A recent study by NNSI researchers, Sophia Fu and Michelle Shumate, highlight the significance of guanxi to help Chinese NGOs expand their collaboration networks and increase social impact. Fu and Shumate conducted an online survey among 119 Chinese NGOs from 2013 to 2015. They explored what factors determined the size and scope of Chinese NGOs’ collaboration networks. Size refers to the number of NGOs with which an NGO has partnerships. Spread describes the extent of the geographic locations of an NGO’s partners.
What are the main findings of the study?
- The most significant driving force of an NGO’s collaboration network is guanxi, or informal interpersonal connections. Specifically, an NGO’s board members serve as its guanxi to help the NGO develop and expand collaborative partnerships with other NGOs.
- An organization’s major working area influences its ability to expand collaboration networks. Compared to NGOs working in other program areas, Chinese NGOs working in education and research and social services were more likely to expand their networks geographically.
- An organization’s geographic location also influences the scope of their collaboration networks. NGOs headquartered in Shanghai and Sichuan were more likely to have local networks.
- However, Chinese NGOs’ skills and abilities were not related to the cultivation and expansion of their collaboration networks.
What is Guanxi? Why board members help NGOs develop collaboration networks?
- Guanxi is a strong cultural element that penetrates every aspect of social life in China. It describes the social connections that people develop strategically to secure favors based on mutual trust and commitment. In this study, board of directors serve as Chinese NGOs’ guanxi to attract collaborative partners.
- If the board member comes from another NGO, he/she serves directly helps connect the two NGOs. If the board member work in other types of organizations (e.g., businesses and governments), the board member’s association with the NGO may signal the NGO’s legitimacy and credibility to potential NGO partners. In both cases, board members serve as an NGO’s guanxi to attract organizational partners.
What are the implications for NGOs in China?
- NGOs in China need to strategically select their board members and tap the social capital of their board members. These board members may work in prominent NGOs, governments, big corporations, government-controlled media organizations, law firms, or universities.
- Alternatively, NGOs should strategically use the informal social connections of other groups, such as their hardcore volunteers and their big donors. As such, Chinese NGOs need to develop communication strategies for volunteer and donor management.
- NGO partnering in China has little to do with the organization’s unique skills and competencies. As such, Chinese NGOs should be cautious building their skills and abilities in hopes of expanding their collaboration networks.
In conclusion, Fu and Shumate’s study suggests that the cultural element of guanxi has penetrated the NGO sector in China. Guanxi is particularly important for Chinese NGOs because of the government’s stringent policy on the registration and civil activities of NGOs. Given the semi-authoritarian political environment in China, guanxi might play a crucial role in the development of Chinese civil society. It has the potential to achieve organizational goals beyond the limited capability of an NGO.
Fu, J.S., & Shumate, M. (in press). Understanding the size and spread of Chinese NGO networks. The Chinese Journal of Communication. doi: 10.1080/17544750.2016.1219756