A More Inclusive Society for Children with Autism
Every April 2nd, on the World Autism Awareness Day, millions of people in China will change their social media profile picture to a blue background, advocating for more social inclusion for children with autism. The campaign was initiated in 2012 by the Shenzhen One Foundation (referred to as One Foundation hereafter), a philanthropic foundation in China, the first one qualified to raise money from the public.
In 2021, the One Foundation will be hosting the 10th “Blue Campaign” raising awareness for autism: campaigns on social media where millions participate, dozens of celebrities and influencers engaging and spreading the messages, mainstream media broadcasting, offline events. It is one of the most successful bottom-up social campaigns for its impact on the public’s awareness, but it does not end there.
In addition to advocacy, One Foundation also worked to cultivate more professional social organization to work on solving the issue in a more systematic manner. Endeavors on pushing policymaking forward is also part of the problem-solving process. Just recently on March 7th, on the annual National People’s Congress and the Chinese Political Consultative Conference (NPC&CPPCC) held in Beijing, Mr. Minhong Yu, a national delegate of the CPPCC, a key entrepreneur in China’s education sector, and a member of One Foundation’s board of trustees, submitted an advice to improve the early screening, diagnosing and rehabilitation training of autism in China, suggesting to include autism early screening into the routine physical examination of children, to reinforce the infrastructure of recognition, referral and re-screening after the early screening, and also to include the fee of re-screening into the public healthcare system.
About 10 years ago, most Chinese probably has never heard about autism. Today, special schools, rehabilitations centers, parents’ supporting groups exit in most provinces in China, and national policies are considering the need of this vulnerable group.
The “Blue Campaign” and the advocacy of autism is an example of One Foundation’s philosophy of solving social issues as a nonprofit organization in China. The social sector, or non-governmental sector differs in every nation. Social organizations need to practically analyze the actual context they operate in, find their role to conduct their work and solve issues they focus on most efficiently. The problems and sufferings might be all similar for all human beings, but the ways and logics of solving them almost certainly would be largely different.
One Foundation is a good case of developing its unique theory of change to suit the social environment it works in and takes steps gradually in its projects. China is a country that witnessed unprecedented economic growth over the past 4 decades, and an unsurprisingly facing systematic inequality. Compared to many other developing countries, China has a strong and powerful government firmly determined on solving social inequality. The poverty alleviation campaign over the past decade, for example, showed that the government can be truly efficient to mobilize all social resources when it decides to reach certain goals. The social sector in China naturally is not as visible as in many other developing countries, but there is still room and need for its existence. Nonprofit organizations in China functions as supporting forces to follow the government’s agenda and fill up the voids where government policies have not yet been executed.
A Journey to be a Charity Foundation for All
Initiated in 2007 by one of the most famous Kung-fu movie stars Mr. Jet Li, One Foundation went through several stages from being a project subordinated to another institution, being an independent but private foundation, to finally becoming a public charity foundation registered in the city of Shenzhen, a special economic zone in southern China where many pilots and pioneer moves appeared over the past 40 years of the country’s reform and opening up. The motto of One Foundation is “Charity by All, Doing What I Can" (Chinese: 尽我所能，人人公益)”.
In its initial days, the social sector in China is relatively weak. People’s donation habit or awareness in engaging in philanthropic work does not exist, especially for the general public. People would assume it’s the wealthy’s responsibility to “help the poor”, or the government’s job to conduct redistribute and create a more equal society. The only occasion people would actively donate was when big natural disasters happened. One Foundation came with a strong message: if each person donates one Yuan each day (1 person, 1 Yuan, 1 day), we would be able to collect billions and help a huge amount of people in need or solve a big issue. The main value One Foundation wants to convey is that everyone can engage in building a better society. Both donors and beneficiaries can benefit from the act of kindness. It can be a very small act, but if you stick to the habit, it will make a big difference. One Foundation developed its 3 pillars: disaster relief, children’s welfare, and philanthropic sector support and innovation.
The “4-ring Theory” to Solve Social Issues
The unique theory of change concluded by the One Foundation is called the “4-ring theory”, representing all aspects of solving a certain social problem. The 1st ring is the direct beneficiary. In the case of raising awareness of autism (the project is called “Ocean Heaven” named after an advocating movie), the core of the problem are helping the autism children and their families, or the direct beneficiaries. The 2ndring are empowering the grassroot social organizations working on solving the issue, be it treatment centers, special schools, parent groups, or advocacy groups. The 3rd ring is policy advice, to advocate for legislative change or social welfare policy change so certain vulnerable groups can be included and taken care of.. The 4th ring is the ultimate public behavior change when it became a common sense with enough public awareness, support network, and policy support. In an ideal world, all autism children will be diagnosed early enough to start necessary interference, and all potential mental and financial support to the children and the family is accessible to those in need.
One Foundation designs projects trying to solve an issue from all 4 aspects, synchronized as well as in steps. Identifying the beneficiaries, their real needs, and the real solution is always the first and core step to start design a project, deciding the detailed methods – it might be money, in kind, people, tools, awareness, etc. Then, the project and its methodology would be communicated to local grassroot NGOs who are willing to undertake the execution, so a certain social issue is solved in scale rather than scattered. The local, grassroots, often small nonprofit organizations, called “OF partners” by One Foundation, are usually more on-the-ground. They are focused on one issue, are relatively professional on the issue, and they have access to the beneficiaries in need already. One Foundation works alongside these partners on the issue, while empowering them with various tools. Local partners might have the passion and connections, but they lack project and financial management, fundraising, and resource allocation capacity. One Foundation gave them trainings, supervision on projects, and funding support so they can grow from volunteer-based organizations to be professional and independent social organizations. While conducting projects, media coverage, public communication, events and activities will be conducted at local and national levels, to raise public awareness, advocate for policy changes, and eventually behavior change in the whole society.
In its 3 pillars, One Foundation’s multiple projects focusing on various issue can be categorized into different stages of empowering grassroot organizations. The basic level are mainly local volunteer groups, veteran associations, or outdoor/athletic enthusiasts, and they participated heavily in natural disaster relief and first-aid material distribution. They work on accepting goods donation and delivering, which doesn’t require high professional skills. The next level is also entry-level, but a bit more complicated. Organizations need to be legal social organization entity with local connections, with the ability to identify beneficiaries in need, and help delivering the “warm packages”, a box of well-designed winter clothes and gears to keep children from remote areas from cold. The next level requires teaching skills and connecting local schools and communities, these organizations can work on “Children Safety” project, a supplementary lecture given to school kids on safety awareness. The can also work on “Clean Water Project”, distributing water purifier machines to schools, communities, and water filtering bottles to kids and train them to develop good habit in drinking and using clean water, hand-washing, etc. The “Children Service Station” project requires the highest professionalism, partners need experience and existing local resources to undertake the project. The “Children Service Station” provides quality company for leftover children, whose parents are domestic migrant workers, by hiring a full-time social worker, opening and operating a physical space in less developed regions. With the 4-ring theory and projects designed with different level of professionalism, One Foundation strives to conducting the projects on emergent disaster relief and children’s welfare while empowering its local grassroots partners all over the nation.
The author currently works for the “Children Service Station” in One Foundation. Our main job is top project design, identifying and analyzing problems, developing executable solutions. We supervise local partners with monthly reports, online trainings and offline retreats, connecting external resources so they can serve the children more effectively and professionally. During our recent visits to some stations in Guizhou province, many school teachers and parents gave us positive feedback on how our station have changed the children’s behavior and mental health status. Many children expressed their hope that our service station can accompany them forever. We felt truly inspired and motivated to work harder on making our project better. With 3 full-time team members in One Foundation, we are managing over 600 stations in 22 provinces operated by hundreds of partners. There are still space to be improved for serving our beneficiaries, and we need to work on the other “rings” like policy advocacy and public behavior, but the current structure does enabled us to make a big impact and reach out to as many beneficiaries and local NGOs with very limited human resource investment.