Sheila Seiler joined BEAN in 2009 after making a New Years resolution to be more social. BEAN Shanghai ( http://shanghai.beanonline.org/ ) is the biggest community outreach organization in Shanghai with about 1,800 members that hosts volunteer events every weekend and social and networking activities several times per month.
How did BEAN start ?
BEAN – Shanghai started two years ago by a woman named Aimee Haynes who had been a member of BEAN – Seattle, which is the first BEAN internationally. BEAN – Shanghai is the second BEAN branch and now there are branches all over the world: New York, Seoul, Hong Kong, and so on. In Seattle, BEAN was primarily a networking and social group that occasionally participated in volunteer events. But for Shanghai, Aimee set it up as a volunteer organization that hosts networking nights and social activities a few times a month. She began it because she was frustrated by the lack of volunteer activities and programs in Shanghai, so decided to create them herself. Since then, she’s left to go to law school in Philadelphia, but comes back to visit at least once a year (and this year, three times).
How many members belong to BEAN ?
BEAN officially has 1,800 members and a third of those members are active. We define an “active” member as someone who volunteers or attends an event at least once a quarter. Some people come out every weekend, some once a month, some once a quarter, and some just stay members because they like getting the newsletter each week.
What are the biggest challenges you face in operating a charity organization in Shanghai ? Have you faced any unique ( to China ) legal issues ?
Our largest challenge by far is creating enough events to accommodate the demand. People in Shanghai are really excited about the chance to work hands on with orphans, disabled adults, migrant students, the elderly, even abandoned animals- really anyone in need. We feel that our role in Shanghai is to support that enthusiasm by making sure that we provide quality volunteer programs for busy working professionals. This means that we want to make sure that our volunteers don’t need to attend a lengthy orientation, pay membership dues, sign a long-term commitment, or even speak Chinese or English in order to get involved. Regarding legal issues, we’re extremely careful to make sure that everything we do demonstrates that we’re a friend to China and that we’re here to help in whatever way we can.
How does BEAN use social media to promote its events ?
BEAN – Shanghai was originally a Facebook group that would post events that people could attend by writing in. Almost two years ago, we got our website, provided by the BEAN – Seattle team, which became a better way of featuring volunteer opportunities. We were really lucky that the website was up and running before Facebook got blocked because I think that the organization would have suffered if we hadn’t been prepared. Besides the website, we also have a weekly newsletter so that people can stay informed without even having to log in. We post large-scale events on magazine websites and blogs like Shanghaiist, but by far our greatest tool in getting the message out there has been the BEAN website. We keep meaning to update more on Twitter and maybe this article will be a good impetus for us to start that up again.
What has been the single most powerful force in the growth of BEAN ?
Last year we changed our focus from primarily focusing on the needs of the charity and the people in need who we help to considering with equal importance the needs of the volunteer. We realized that by stripping away language requirements, we were able to attract more Chinese volunteers. By making sure that all of our events are located near public transport, we were able to attract volunteers of different social classes. By having a team of confident, trained leaders, we were able to focus on supporting the volunteers so that they could do the best work possible- basically, taking the fear out of volunteering. This made our events more fun and engaging for the volunteers, which made them want to come back to other BEAN events, which gave us a strong following of committed people. We now have a huge base of loyal members who look forward to their weekends because they’re often more enriching or enlightening than what they get to do at work. Having such a strong base has made it so that we can tackle more challenging projects, which has then helped take many of our charities to the next level by providing them with resources, funding, and volunteers that they never would have otherwise had.
Can you tell us what happened at BEAN’s most recent event ?
This past Saturday we went to our sponsored elder care center to do our monthly visit with them. Each time we go, we play western games like Jenga and Chinese games like mah jong and Chinese chess. Our volunteers really like teaching the elderly how to play different games and the elderly people enjoy teasing the younger generation about their mah jong skills. For the people at this elder care center, our visit each month is often the only time they get intellectual stimulation, extra care and attention, and the feeling like they’re important and not forgotten. For the volunteers, they can practice their Chinese or bond with someone who’s unconditionally happy to see them. The event was supposed to last an hour and a half, but it lasted almost three hours because no one wanted to leave. It’s a great example of how considering both the needs of the volunteer and the population we serve benefits everyone.
Can you tell us a little bit about an upcoming BEAN event ?
We host volunteer events every Saturday and Sunday, networking nights one Monday each month, and social events once or twice a month. Our social events always focus on some aspect of Chinese culture or are something that’s better to do in a large group than with yourself or just a few friends. Our next big event is Rocksgiving for Charity, a charity concert that we’re hosting with Shanghaiist on the American Thanksgiving on November 25. We’ve found four amazing bands, including Boys Climbing Ropes, who will play for free, and are in the process of contacting sponsors for the event. It’ll be at Lune and should be an amazing night- and all for charity!
What words of encouragement do you have for those who are considering joining BEAN ?
If you’re looking for something fun and rewarding to do on the weekend, then this could be a great fit for you. If you’re looking to experience something new that you’d never be able to do otherwise or to see a different side of the city, then we’ve got that covered too. If you want to donate your time or skills to others without having to dedicate every weekend to it, then we can help you with that. If you’re looking to meet *real* Chinese or foreign friends, then this could be a good way to meet some really fun people. Actually, that last point is important- all of my best friends who are Chinese are people I’ve met through BEAN and the same goes for most of my laowai friends here. What better way to make an instant connection with someone than by undertaking some project together or participating in an event with a bunch of people you’ve never met?
I am now officially a BEAN member. Join me !
Signing up is quick and easy. Now I can view photos of previous events to see if I may be keen to attend a similar event in the future. I look forward to seeing you at an upcoming BEAN event !