Editor’s Note: Jenny Bowen, founder and CEO of Half the Sky, is the author of Wish You Happy Forever, which chronicles her personal and professional journey to transform Chinese orphanages—and the lives of the neglected girls who live in them—from a state of quiet despair to one of vibrant promise. Wish You Happy Forever is available for pre-order now and is released March 11.
What inspired you to write this book, both personally and professionally?
I think it’s safe to say that Half the Sky’s experience in China is unique. Before I started the organization, I was a filmmaker and a screenwriter, so as events began to unfold, I just knew I was living a great story. More than once, during one of those extraordinary, what we came to call China Moments, I’d think to myself, “This has to go in the book.” But, of course, when you’re living the story, it’s almost impossible to tear yourself away long enough to write it. It was my good fortune that the Skoll Foundation entered into a partnership with HarperOne—specifically to tell stories like ours. When given the opportunity, I jumped.
We’ve been working in China for more than 15 years and have had tremendous impact on that country’s child welfare system. But we’ve always worked quietly. Building a trusting partnership with government was critical if we wanted to touch the lives of children who were wards of the state. If we were really going to help bring change to an ailing welfare system, it was more important for us to acknowledge the contributions of our government partners than to take credit for our own. Because we’ve always been sort of a stealth organization, we know that some of our long-time supporters around the world still aren’t sure exactly what it is we do; they are just glad we’re out there doing it. I am thrilled to finally have the chance to tell our story.
Over the years, how has the foundation’s work evolved?
Given that Half the Sky was founded by a passionate but ignorant adoptive mother — one who knew nothing about child development, government relations, or even the Chinese language, but who simply wanted to find a way to bring love into the lives of institutionalized children — and that today, we are charged with helping to change the face of orphan care in China, I’d say the shift has been seismic. In other words, more transformation than evolution.
We began with reluctant permission to set up a one-year pilot program in two orphanages. Some friend of a friend in government arranged it, probably just to make me go away. We didn’t know what we were doing but we knew that if we failed, we’d be gone. No one else had done what we were trying to do. There were no examples. There was no one to teach us. Through careful observation of the children, through trial and error, we soon, and of necessity, became our own expert authorities.
I was a filmmaker. I knew how to start with a blank piece of paper. I knew the story I wanted to tell. I just had to figure out how to find our way to the happy ending I imagined. We’re not there yet, but we’re definitely out of the tunnel of those early days and the road ahead is clear, or at least as clear as it can be when the landscape is so complex.
Throughout this journey, what were some of the most difficult challenges you had to overcome?
As you’d expect, trying to help bring about a sea change inside a gargantuan bureaucracy on the other side of the world brought certain challenges. We were locked out of provinces and sometimes irritated officials in others. Although, from the beginning, we partnered with government at all levels, we didn’t legally exist until 2008. That meant we couldn’t have bank accounts or hire employees or sign local contracts. Getting things done was never simple. And then there were the natural disasters.
Like 99% of all nonprofit organizations, by far our greatest challenge has been insufficient resources. Even after Half the Sky became one of a tiny handful of foreign organizations that was legally registered, we were not allowed to raise funds in China. And during our first ten years, there were no funds to be raised anyway. Child welfare was certainly not a priority. Sometimes I don’t know how we’ve managed to come so far. Sheer tenacity, I guess. Today, we have a new Chinese sister organization, ChunHui Children’s Foundation, that is allowed to solicit funds locally, so we are hopeful for the future. But China is huge. There is an almost unimaginable amount of work yet to be done, and plenty of challenges ahead.
Conversely, what were some of the most edifying achievements you’ve had along the way?
For the first several years, each time we approached a new province, a new city, introducing our work and requesting permission to set up a Half the Sky children’s center inside the government welfare institution, it was like starting over. Selling our work to skeptics became my new career. We were strangers and we had no or insufficient “guanxi” (special personal connections). I was a foreigner, and we were not offering money, but rather, programs that resided inside government institutions. Why in the world should they trust us?
But then, in 2005, I was invited as a “foreign expert” to attend China’s first national conference focused on the care of orphaned children. Besides being given the privilege of speaking to a hall full of child welfare administrators and government officials about my dreams for China’s orphaned and abandoned children, I heard the word “nurture” for the first time on government lips. This leader was announcing China’s new focus on the importance of offering nurturing care to institutionalized children. It was as if I’d written his speech!
I realized then that even though it often felt like we were toiling in a fog of bureaucratic indifference, the officials responsible for child welfare policy had been listening all along. And after that day, a true partnership with the central government began to take shape. There have been many fine moments since then, but that one was definitely the turning point.
How did you ultimately partner with the government on a national program to train child welfare workers?
Incredibly, we were invited! In early 2010, at a joint symposium on nurture (by then we were holding such gatherings biannually) with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, we announced that Half the Sky was going to begin a transition from establishing and operating programs to becoming solely a training and mentoring organization. This was an effort to eventually put ourselves out of business and turn all we’d built over to the local Chinese, and we’d been moving in this direction for some years. Now we felt that China was almost ready to assume ownership of the programs. This was the first public announcement. We told the assembled orphanage directors that, once the transition was complete, we would no longer be supporting program operations or creating new children’s centers, but that we would continue to train and guide others for as long as we might be needed.
Later that year, our partners at the Ministry of Civil Affairs told us they now felt the urgency and invited Half the Sky to become full partners in a joint initiative to train the nation. It was an amazing offer. Of course, I said yes. I didn’t know how such an initiative could be funded, but I knew that no other organization would likely be asked. If we didn’t agree, it wouldn’t happen. This was one of those times when I had absolute confirmation that Half the Sky was blessed. I returned to my apartment and received a phone call from one of our funding partners inviting me to an event. I told her about the ministry’s invitation, and, almost miraculously, her organization, the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, became the primary funding partner of a multi-year initiative that the Chinese government came to call the Rainbow Program. Together, we are helping China reimagine its entire child welfare system.
What are some of the lessons you might share with other social entrepreneurs looking to scale their work to the national level?
I can only speak to what has been effective for Half the Sky in China. I’m fairly certain that there’s no other country quite like it. For us, the government partnership — and that means government at every level, from central to village — has been absolutely critical. There are many effective NGOs working in China that, despite their contributions, may never go to scale, simply because they haven’t been able to build the necessary relationships with government. It’s a popular misconception that China has one central authority and everyone follows the leader. The reality is almost the opposite. You can never have too many friends.
Beyond that, and this may apply anywhere, I’d say that if you want to go to scale, you’d be wise to put considerable energy into two things: make sure you’ve built your own organizational capacity, that you have a solid management team that understands and shares your goals and second, listen to the locals. Really listen. Be certain that what you have to offer truly fills a need.
Then, be brave. Believe in your dream.
What are the two or three biggest takeaways you want readers to walk away with?
First, the need for humans to love and be loved is as fundamental to our wellbeing as food and shelter. If we nurture our children, our children will learn to care for others. What Half the Sky (or any similar organization) is doing for abandoned children on the other side of the world should matter to all of us. How those children are raised, how they look upon their fellow humans, affects us all. And second, perfectly ordinary people can play a part in making the world a better place.