It was a chilly evening in February 2012 when we — a group of seven or eight people — gathered in a poorly lit attic over a traditional Shanghainese house. We ranged from young to middle-aged, and solemnly sat eating, drinking tea, and discussing how to set up our organization.
We were all from an organization called the Grassroots Community (GC) — a group set up by university students and white-collar workers that mainly provided legal assistance, environmental protection, and rural education services to local communities.
Since 2000, organizations like ours had been developing on a massive scale. Many young people were signing up, driven by an idealism of the society they wanted to live in. All were seeking social ideals they had so far been unable to find in their own work: equality, justice, and freedom. GC was one of the first groups established.
We were lucky to be operating during a period of heightening environmental awareness in Shanghai. In 2009, the local government launched a new set of environmental initiatives in preparation for the world’s fair that would be hosted the following year: Expo 2010.
One of these initiative asked people to trade in trash harmful to the environment — like batteries or electronics — for gifts and prizes. Many local communities in Shanghai pitched in and organized educational drives aimed at encouraging people to sort their trash for recycling.
We applied to manage one of these drives in the area our office was located in. By 2012, our “Trash for Prizes” drive had been running for three years, and hordes of volunteers and local residents had become involved.
Apart from raising awareness, we also began involving ourselves more deeply with community development. In 2011, we chose the Yangbo residential community in central Shanghai’s Jing’an District as the next place to launch a trash-sorting initiative.
Within three months, about 90 percent of residents in our area were consistently sorting their trash, splitting them into 11 different categories – much more than the five categories required by the city government. The story of our district went viral, and we became the recycling hotspot of the city.
Unfortunately, while things looked balmy on the surface, many of the NGOs like GC were plagued by administrative inefficiencies and a clearly-defined organizational structure. This was the reason our group was collecting in a dusty attic in 2012. Our passion for helping people had begun to mask our shortcomings — a “we’ll-do-anything-we-can” attitude often resulted in well-intentioned activities making matters worse or fostering resentment.
After a decade of breakneck development, GC was looking at a perfect storm of serious problems: a lack of professionalism, inefficient project management, lack of consensus among members, and fundraising issues. The government and the public were increasingly coming to demand a greater professionalism from these operations, and a large number of specialized nongovernmental organizations were beginning to appear.
It was against this backdrop that we decided to create IFINE. One of GC’s core members made the decision to split off, seeing that specialization was critical to the evolution and effectiveness of NGOs in China. He aimed to found a new, more efficient organization, and use it to promote one of the causes that mattered to him most: waste management.
I was the first person recruited. My background was in journalism, but I had dabbled in NGO work since 2003. As someone who had floated about in that sector for so many years, it felt about time to start getting more hands on. It wasn’t important what the project was — what mattered was getting to the heart of my community, taking action, and changing the world for the better.
I had spent 2010 in Taiwan, where I ended up meeting many excellent NGO workers who had launched a number of community building projects. This inspired me. People like me, born in the 1970s, had witnessed the appearance of a number of problems in Chinese society as the country underwent rapid development in the second half of the 20th century. These included a lack of equality, runaway environmental pollution, and the destruction of public order, among others.
IFINE was blessed to have so many good heads working for them. On top of myself, two other founding members were recruited — one with a background in finance, and one who had the means to offer us funding.
But at that time, registering as a non-profit in Shanghai was still very difficult, and we would face an uphill battle if we decided to leave GC. To become official, a company had to first find an affiliated public work unit, like a government department, but this was difficult since most of them were unwilling to pair with new-fangled and disorganized NGOs. We were seen as a potential liability.
Things were looking bleak when we were suddenly approached by the head of a district-level government department of science and technology. The fame that had come with our trash recycling initiative at GC had proved our legitimacy. We were over the moon and immediately began the registration proceedings.
District-level NGOs are required to hold at least 100,000 yuan (about $15,200) in funding. We exhausted all the channels we had to get the money, including asking our board of directors for donations, but we finally got enough.
Six months later, after dozens of official stamps and countless signatures, we collected our registration papers. In August 2012, IFINE was born.
(Header image: An event promotes trash sorting in a shopping mall in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, April 18, 2015. Ge Teng/VCG)