This episode is part of the National Committee’s Coronavirus Impact Series.

Ford Foundation’s China Director, Elizabeth Knup, considers COVID-19’s potential to change the NGO landscape in China moving forward. She also discusses how her organization has adjusted to work during the epidemic and shares some of the ways Ford-funded NGOs are responding to the crisis.

Speaker Bio

Elizabeth D. Knup is the regional director in China for the Ford Foundation, overseeing all grant making in the country from Ford’s Beijing office. Prior to joining Ford in 2013, she served simultaneously as chief representative of Pearson PLC, one of the world’s foremost education and publishing companies, and as president of Pearson Education in China. Ms. Knup serves on the board of directors of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and is the member of the program committee of that board.


How has the coronavirus and subsequent health policies implemented by the Chinese government affected the Ford Foundation’s operations in China, and how has your organization adapted its programs?

Elizabeth Knup: The Ford Foundation, as an institution, doesn’t really execute its own programs. We fund others to execute their programs. So our staff, like most people in China, have been working from home. This is now the sixth week of work-from-home policy in our office. We are considered non-essential to the running of the economy, and so we’ve been a bit more flexible about the work from home and are really going along with how the staff are feeling. This week, in fact, everyone will go to work for one day of the week. So that’s following, not only the policies, but the overall desire on the part of the Chinese government and authorities to contain the spread of the virus.

In terms of our work, about 40 percent of the work of the Ford Foundation involves meeting with grantees, visiting their sites, and participating in their convenings, so none of that is happening right now, either because the government is not allowing it to happen, or because people simply want social distance, or to self-quarantine. That part of the work has now moved to the phone, and probably has diminished a bit.

For desk work, research, and actual grant making, that kind of work is continuing remotely, which has been interesting. The team has been really creative about how to stay connected, even though they’re each in their own home.

How has the Chinese government responded to or worked with your organization in its relief efforts?

Knup: So here, again, our programming hasn’t adapted that much. At the same time, the team really wanted to have the Foundation make a contribution to the relief efforts, particularly in Wuhan, in Hubei province. So we did work with our professional supervisory unit, which is the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, to make a sizable donation of a million dollars for them to then transfer and use in the epicenter-affected areas, for frontline medical workers and medical needs.

We’ve also made about $300,000 to $500,000 worth of grants to NGOs that are also providing a frontline response. These are grantees of ours who are working in frontline communities, to help them to beef up the work that they are doing.

What type of civic engagement has your organization observed in response to the coronavirus? And, has the Ford Foundation or have other NGOs been able to tap into this public volunteerism?

Knup: One of our grantees is an organization committed to volunteerism, and they seek to engage white-collar professionals in volunteer work across all aspects of civic engagement. So this organization has really taken advantage of this moment to try to work with government to make it possible for more people to volunteer. My understanding is that the Beijing government itself has made a statement about the need for volunteers and so there is an opening, and this civil society organization is seeking to use that opening to strengthen capacity for volunteer organizing. So that’s one example.

Another example is another grantee of ours that’s a Chinese foundation that is basically working with the financial support of a coalition of Chinese foundations and the Ford Foundation to re-energize a foundation network that was established after the Wenchuan (Sichuan) earthquake in 2008—not only in the face of this particular crisis, but to then build a network and a platform for Chinese domestic foundations to bring their resources together and be more powerful together than they could be on their own.

And finally we have another grantee that works with migrant worker families, and is seeking to try to bring services to underserved or more vulnerable populations. And Ford is also committed to thinking about disability in our grant making, and trying to see the disabled populations in China as also vulnerable or less likely to be able to fend for themselves in this period of time. So seeing that our grantees are able to help hose vulnerable populations find the resources they need, particularly in this moment of crisis.

Is there a possibility that NGO roles in civil society will expand post-crisis?

Knup: This is a really interesting question, and obviously, it remains to be seen exactly how this will develop. Evidence from the Wenchuan earthquake period would suggest that a crisis like this mobilizes individual people as well as civil society NGOs, and non-governmental organizations to really contribute, not only to the relief, but then afterwards to ongoing efforts related to the crisis.

This is another major crisis in China that has affected a lot of human beings. What we see, number one, is that, already a lot of NGOs, particularly Chinese domestic foundations and civil society organizations that mobilize volunteers and that work with migrant worker families, etc., are mobilizing to do whatever is necessary in the relief mode. But now there are also people thinking about whether or not, after the crisis has passed, there will be an opportunity to do more research and thinking around questions of governance and accountability. So that is more from the academic community and the policy-oriented communities that are thinking about whether this is a moment we can have this conversation. I think that remains to be seen.