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Social Innovation in China

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On my recent trip to China I visited the Non Profit Incubator (NPI), which is a nonprofit that promotes social innovation and cultivates social entrepreneurs in China by providing crucial support to start-up and small- to medium-sized grassroots NGOs and social enterprises. I was very impressed that in China, now we have a nonprofit incubator and an incubation park that is focused on strengthening the nonprofit and social enterprise sector.

The founders of NPI are taking the lessons from the rapid evolution of the private sector in China and integrating ideas and resources they have learned from business and applying it to the development and strengthening of civil society. I have seen over the last few years an increasing number of business leaders bringing their knowledge and resources and applying it to the nonprofit and social enterprise sector -- Fuping Development Institute (FDI) in Beijing being one of them.

In 2007 NPI introduced the concept of venture philanthropy, and today the venture philanthropy funds exceed RMB 50 million and support more than 300 nonprofits and social enterprises. In 2010 NPI designed and operated the Shanghai Social Innovation Park, which I had the opportunity to visit, where I met with a number of social enterprises that are pushing the envelope of creativity.

One social enterprise called the World of Art Brut Culture (WABC) was started by a young entrepreneur to focus on people with autism and other disabilities. He gets them to express themselves through their art and then sells this art reproduced on posters, T-shirts, mugs, etc., providing a meaningful economic opportunity for those who otherwise have limited opportunities. Since its inception, the SIP has hosted numerous large-scale events, including the China NGO Projects Exhibition, which have earned widespread recognition. NPI also hosted the Microsoft NGO Connection Day in March and November 2011 with over 200 NGO representatives, and together with Microsoft China, NPI launched the first China NGO IT Application Survey Report.

The NPI isn't slowing down; in fact, it is now embarking on its most ambitious effort: the NEST Shanghai: A Nexus of Social Innovation and Community Development. This is a multi-million-dollar effort on the site of the old Shanghai Municipal Orphanage, which was started by Chinese philanthropist Mr. Lu Bo Hong as a home for Shanghai's orphaned and destitute. Funded in part by the Shanghai Ministry of Civil Affairs, this ambitious project includes restoration of heritage buildings, such as the stone gateway, the terraced dormitories, and the red art-deco building, which will house a museum celebrating the public service achievements in China's history, to create a unique incubation and social innovation center that will draw in people from all over Shanghai and eventually become a globally important center for social innovation.

I had the opportunity to visit to this large site, comprising over 24,000 square meters, and the team got me to imagine what the place would look like once completed. Shanghai is full of ultra-modern buildings but has also taken care to protect some of its traditional buildings. As the restoration continues, I can only imagine how this center will be full of energy and become a hub of partnership and innovation between government, the third sector, and businesses. The NEST is an effort to build on a rich tradition of charitable service and philanthropy by revitalizing and transforming a heritage site. In doing so, it will become a beacon for other such efforts to move traditional charitable endeavors into the 21st-century approach of venture philanthropy and social enterprise.