文章 Articles

Challenges for young people at China’s NGOs

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.
Article image

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

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




To work at a non-profit it is truly a sacrificial job in my opinion. In no place in this world that I know of, will you a make a considerable amount of money in such work. In my opinion, this makes those who work for NGOs earn much more respect. Nevertheless, those who do work for an NGO deserve an average salary and a stable position just as Zhang wishes. I hope the Zhang life holds a bright future and he is able to support his family and live his dream. I believe the current restrictions on NGOs in China are making jobs unavailable in the sector. The current basis for not allowing them to have more than one similar NGO in one city or county and to not allow an NGO to grow outside a particular country does not makes sense. NGOs will not usurp the CCP current government control but will focus on its purpose to protect the environment, support human rights, etc.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



a whistleblowing case

In Beijing, there is a small private enterprise that claims to be from an international environmental protection organization. Its boss messes around in the name of the United Nations as well as environmental protection. Young employees of this enterprise have to swallow their pride and work with such a sham environmental protection organization for a bread-earning job.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



My personal experience

After dropping out from university, I am still following my dreams, yet with an idealistically pessimistic attitude. It is a very hard experience but I feel very happy, because I know I am doing the things that I truly enjoy. All the things I have done, such as serving as a relief volunteer in Chengdu city, teaching in Yunnan Province, and having part-time jobs in Beijing, I have done in pursuit of my goal to work in an NGO. Fortunately, I finally got an internship opportunity. Looking back and pondering, I found a little satisfaction in searching for the value of life, but the suffering is intolerable. I have always thought, if I cannot earn a living in this city, then what shall I do?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我已经投身于公益性组织长达八年, 也理解到它的挑战性和困难, 然而, 我鼓励我们每一个人都坚持, 因为我们都具有人性的美。由于每个人的坚持而使我们各个都抱着热诚!agefoundationng.org创立者 - JIDE TAIWO。秀錂译



Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我曾经为一家致力于刑事司法的国际NGO组织效力,我们的组织主要是为全世界的穷人赢得司法公正。我在工作中发现了很多程序运作的问题,同时很多热情积极工作的同事也的不到工作上的肯定。这几年的工作经验打破了我所有的梦想。 (本评论由Allen Ye翻译)

Dream died

I worked with an international NGO focusing on criminal justice last year. However, I figured out lots of problems in its program running. It aims to seek the fairness for the indigent defendants all over the world. But it treats its hard-working and warm-hearted staff very unfairly. This year's working experience breaks all my dreams in life.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我接受了一家昆明NGO的面试。在这里看到许多关于NGO的讨论,我感到非常高兴。相信这个论坛会对我做出正确选择有所帮助。虽然现在已经三十多岁,但我仍很希望在一家NGO中供职。因为在了解一些外国NGO的活动后,我相信中国NGO从业人员的前景十分明朗。我已经过了从社会得到锻炼和经验的年龄,我只是想告诉大家,慈善行为与帮助他人是人人可行,时时应做的平常之事。也许我很天真,但我志立于此。(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)

vocational option

I have accepted a chance of interview in a NGO in Kunming. I am glad to see so much discussion about NGOs. I think this forum will help me make correct options to some extent. I am over 30 ages, but I still have a strong desire to work in a NGO, for I think NGOers will have a bright future in China after knowing of some knowledges about NGOs' activity in foreign countries, in relief of natural desasters. I am beyond the age of seeking exercise and experience from society, I just want to tell others that charity and helping other people are ordinary things to do, a part of our daily life. Maybe I am naive but I have the will.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


I cannot understand what you are saying



本评论由Ming Li翻译

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




在生活压力下,很多优秀的年轻人都选择离开,至少会选择到国际NGO工作(资金充足而且很有身份)。除了生活的压力外,这还与社会缺乏对NGO的理解有很大关系:除了那些很著名的NGO,我们往往需要很长时间来解释我们的工作性质,而且往往得不到认同或被人理解为是“不怎么样的小企业”。这给年轻人造成了很强的不认同感 。





We need equality, mutual trust and joint success

*By Doufu Gan*

I hold an office at an NGO, so I quite agree with each point of view described below. Under life's pressures, many outstanding young people choose to leave, or at the very least choose to work for an international NGO (adequate funds and high status). Apart from life's pressures, this is also closely linked to society's lack of understanding towards NGOs. Apart from those few famous NGOs, we often need a very long time to describe the nature of our work. Moreover, we often do not get recognition, or are understood as being an "insignificant small enterprise". This creates a very strong feeling of lack of recognition among young people. NGO's own words often lack relevance to the real job, which makes many young people gradually lose "the will to fight", enthusiasm and passion to contribute to society. Moreover, because NGO's have no direct method of imitating others, their own management and work advances really cautiously and slowly from start to finish, or the situation exists that "rule of man" is greater than rule of "legal systems and institutions" (here it refers to systems). Lacking equality and unity is a very natural thing. On the other hand, NGO managers often bury their heads in work but ignore their own ability to develop...young people need to expand their career, continue studying and need self-sustainable development (abundance of physical and mental rest and opportunities to communicate feelings to loved ones and friends). All these things are what a social person needs, but who can guarantee these reasonable appeals? At the same time as many hope that young people are "dedicated", they forget to give, and how then can they establish enduring relations on such a basis?

Finally, we are overwhelmed by the pressure of English because there are very few opportunities in the country. I really hope the government, enterprises and society can establish consensus and collective development soon. This has advantages for everyone.
(Comment translated by Ellen Schliebitz).

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



NGO should playing a more important roles

NGOs and Scientists should play more active role in China's environmental movement.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我来自于SRI,一个非常年轻的中国本土NGO,其成员都是80后群体。但都拥有在商业和政府机构的工作经历。我想使用谨慎的理想主义者来形容自身:达成社会理想需要制度,策略,以及step by step的毅力。
1. NGO需要获得合法身份,而不是绝大多数都以工商注册的非营利机构存在。
2. 政府将自己从全能全包的角色中逐渐退出。很明显,现在NGO能发挥的领域,大部分都被政府及其管控下的事业单位控制着。


NGO's inner system and policies on it from outer world

It makes me feel upset that public welfare is seen as gratuitous. This is most obvious in China. I think NGOs only exist in China to help keep the Chinese market economy within its bottom line, provide a level playing field for various vested groups and lower the asymmetry of informations. I am from SRI, a very young Chinese NGO whose members are people born in the 1980s with experience in business or in government jobs. I like to describe myself as a prudential idealist and admit that institution, strategy and step-by-step perseverance are necessary to materialize an ideal. From the perspective of outer conditions, the challenge we are facing now is: 1. a legitimate identity for NGO, not an existence registered for a non-profit company as most Chinese NGOs currently do. 2. governments withdraw from a present role as an omnipotent body. it is very clear that the fields NGOs are in are controled by the governments or the undertaking institutions under them.

translated by Ming Li