How to enhance collaboration on environmental sustainability in China


Bowen Zhang


In the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis that has reminded everyone of the fragile interconnectivity between human beings and the ecosystem, China is showing greater willingness to prioritise environmental protection.

Beijing’s latest environmental guideline issued in March highlights collaboration efforts between the government, corporates and the public to build a ‘modernised environmental governance system’. Collaboration between the public and the private sector is a theme that SEE Foundation, one of only a few environmental grant-makers in China, is very familiar with as we have been contributing to the country’s environmental sustainability development over the last two decades.

With a philanthropic expenditure of USD 95 million in the past 12 years, the SEE Foundation has mobilised over 900 business leaders to jointly fund nearly 700 environmental non-for-profit organisations (NPOs), volunteer groups, and research institutions in China, which account for half of all the active entities in existence across the country. In addition, the Foundation acts as a system integrator by connecting large ‘servers’ like governments with ‘clients’ including corporates, NPOs, media, and the public. To facilitate effective connections, I will share with funders and resource providers the two-pronged approach that SEE Foundation takes to not only systemically tackle environmental issues but also build the ecosystem.

Inculcate NPOs with a business mindset

I believe that one of the main challenges an NPO faces is that it will likely stray away from its own mission if it is being led by whatever direction its funder(s) wants it to go. Instead, the NPO should focus its attention on profoundly understanding the social issues it strives to solve, developing a sound and reasonable programme, and asking itself whether its programme can complement the government efforts to tackle the issues. Therefore, funders should encourage NPOs to develop an entrepreneurial spirit, i.e. to work on solid solutions, test them in the market, survive the competition and only then think about growing bigger.

Through the Tough Grass grant-making programme that aims to cultivate strong environmental NPOs, SEE Foundation pairs entrepreneur donors with selected NPOs. In this case, the donor plays the role of both a financial supporter and a mentor, providing guidance to the NPOs along the way. These NPOs are expected to grow into bellwethers, leading their peers to develop together. In 2019, 146 entrepreneurs provided 2,500 hours of advice and consultancy through the Tough Grass programme, in addition to USD 43,000 general funding for each NPO for three years.

Support funders’ and government’s decision-making with proven practices

I am convinced that resource providers must develop a macro view of the environmental issues, understand domestic and international policies, and, when needed, borrow the brains of consultants and think-tanks. Since its establishment in 2008, the SEE Foundation has kept pace with the various issues addressed by the Chinese government and the focus of the international community, from desertification control in the Inner Mongolia region to nation-wide industrial pollution control, wild animal protection, ocean conservation, and climate action. The knowledge that we have gathered over the years has allowed us to share insights with philanthropists and support them in their decision-making process towards the right programmes.

The Foundation has also provided practical and innovative advice to governments and has always maintained effective communications with them. For instance, in the region where three major rivers in China are originated, we have funded trainings for ecological rangers and caretakers providing lessons learnt on how to establish national parks in the area. In 2017, SEE Foundation co-founded an alliance to protect natural reserves through social efforts, creating a platform and delivering best practices for the social sector to participate in guarding the privately protected areas.

Integration of all stakeholders to advance ecosystem building

To build an effective and efficient environmental philanthropic ecosystem, no stakeholders’ effort can be spared. SEE Foundation’s role is to take the lead in concerting the multifarious efforts from governments, corporates, NPOs, think-tanks, research institutions, and the public. Maximising and coordinating their respective advantages, I hope that we can continue addressing key environmental issues facing the world today and in the future. I call for other funders and resource providers to join us in mobilising all possible and valuable resources on this grand journey.

Bowen Zhang is the Deputy Secretary-General of SEE Foundation.

This article was first published on the AVPN climate blog.

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