Seeking a Japanese Model of Nonprofit Infrastructure Building

 - Case of Sendai-Miyagi NPO Support Center


Busy Person

Three days ago, he was in Hokkaido, northernmost major island of Japan. Last two days he was in two cities in Shikoku (a southern major island) on another speaking tour. Today (interview date: 10/24/00) in his home city Sendai, Tetsuo Kato, representative board member of Sendai-Miyagi NPO (Nonprofit Organanization) Support Center, will have an afternoon presentation on NPOs for government officials from Miyagi Prefecture. (Sendai, 200 miles north of Tokyo,  is the prefectural seat of Miyagi). Tomorrow, he will address (luckily in the same city) to a group of parliamentarians (Congress members) working for legislation of nonprofit tax deductions.

Kato is one of the busiest persons in Japan's nonprofit sector. "Probably they expect I can talk on practical things such as how to manage a NPO or how to partner with the government. Maybe my talk is easier to understand than university professors," guesses Kato in attempting explation of his continuing busy days. Kato, who manages one of the most successful NPO centers in Japan, is on talking tour 10 to 15 days a month.

"Even though the NPO Law was created, people in Japan still don't know what NPO really is. We still focus on basic concept," says Kato. He talks not only to NPO people but also to government officials.  "Government people tend to use volunteers as convenient supplemental labor for their government work. Volunteer groups sometimes lack a specific mission, focusing just on 'doing volunteer work'."

Create a Model

Kato's Sendai-Miyagi NPO Support Center ( was organized in November 1997. It was one of the first NPO support centers that were springing up at that time, with the eyes for a passage of the NPO Law they were fighting for. The law was indeed passed in March 1998, enabling small grassroots groups to incorporate for the first time in Japanese history. The Sendai-Miyagi NPO Support Center and other similar centers around the nation help community groups to incorporate, provide management advice, gather and disseminate information on other nonprofit activities to help build networking.

After 3 years now, the Sendai-Miyagi Center has 16 staff members and an annual budget of more than 60 million yen ($600,000). Though not too big if in the American nonprofit seas, they are one of the biggest in Japan, surely the biggest nonprofit support center among dozens that were formed around the nation. With 11 of its 16 staff members and half of its budget, the Sendai-Miyagi NPO Support Center manages Sendai Civic Activities Support Center, a city government-built 4-story incubator facility, which provides office, meeting, information-sharing spaces for various community groups in Sendai. The Sendai-Miyagi NPO Support Center won this city contract in an open competitive bidding.

Foundation money helped initiate this successful model. Nippon Foundation, the biggest in Japan with annual grants of more than 39 billion yen ($350 million), invested 26 million yen ($236,000) in the Sendai-Miyagi NPO Support Center in the last 3 years. Nippon Foundation now plays a large role in nonprofit infrastructure building in Japan, with annual grants of 1.3 billion yen to 433 projects for nonprofit and volunteer activities (See their Web site: As one of the first and largest grants to such groups, the Sendai-Miyagi Center case is closely watched by those concerned in this field.

"Yes, we are biggest. So we have biggest difficulties, a big challenge," says Kato. "We have to make a successful model, powerful enough to substantially advance the current conditions of Japan's nonprofit sector. We need to show the model to governments as well as to foundations."

Local Infrastructure to Support Nonprofits

The current emphasis of Sendai-Miyagi NPO Support Center is to develop a local infrastructure to independently support nonprofit activities. This May, they formed Support Resource System Committee with 35 local businesses, labor unions, and consumer co-ops. They try to create an infrastructure through which local money, volunteers, skills, equipment and other "support resources" are channeled to the nonprofit sector. "Eventually we would like to form a community foundation-type structure," Kato says.

What they face may be similar to challenges for the nonprofit sectors in other Asian and newly emerging democracies. The American nonprofit sector may have faced this challenge a century ago.
Imagine how you can organize your nonprofit group where there is no tax deduction for nonprofit activities, let alone for contributors to such groups.  And nonprofit legal status itself became obtainable only 2 years ago. Volunteering and corporate citizenship is still considered largely foreign. The government tends to function as the sole provider of public services (with a strong grip of regulating civil and business communities). Grantmaking foundations number 600, instead of 30,000 as in the U. S. Without all those resources you may take for granted in your society, how can you organize a nonprofit of your current size?

More than 110 years ago, the American nonprofit sector invented community chest and other united community fundraising structure. The concept of philanthropy advanced around the turn of the century, with formation of private foundations, and community foundations. The system of tax deductions for contributions, bulk mail discount for nonprofits....all those followed. Japan and other emerging democracies are facing the challenge to establish them all now.

"The American models may not necessary work for everything, but surely we can learn from their experiences," says Kato. They frequently visit the U. S. and invite American nonprofit leaders to learn from each other. Domestically, the Sendai-Miiyagi Center organizes numerous workshop and training classes for the community people. In September 1999, they, working with Tokyo-based Japan NPO Support Center, organized the 3rd National NPO Forum in Sendai, which attracted 1000 participants around the country. The conference prompted an extensive coverage on Japan's nonprofit sector by Chronicle of Philanthropy, a major American nonprofit monthly. See Stephen G. Greene's feature article "Activists on the Move in Japan" in its December 2, 1999 issue, for more detail about current developments in Japan's nonprofit sector.

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