美国的Urban Institute，Foundation Center以及GuideStar等数据机构，为学者和公众提供了关于美国基金会的详实息础信息，以这些数据为基础产生了大量学术文章，推动了知识生产，而这些知识又进一步推动了整个领域的发展以及政府决策。但在中国，这样的生态还未形成。
Scholarly interest in civil society in contemporary China began in the mid-1980s. Studies on Chinese civil society have various theoretical and practical implications, for example, the state–society relationship and the democratization process in China. However, although China is becoming an important and rapidly growing political and economic power, our knowledge about Chinese civil society remains limited. The majority of previous studies on Chinese civil society are dominated by paradigms originating in Western political philosophy or the so-called “Anglosphere” cultures, for example, the Tocquevillian civil society paradigm, which regards civil society as a necessary power to check the state, or the “state-corporatism” paradigm, which considers civil society as a dependency of the state. However, none of these paradigms can provide sufficient explanations for understanding Chinese civil society. The lack of cultural diversity and indigenous paradigms is a major challenge but little progress has been made since the 1980s.
A major challenge for making progress on this research topic is the lack of data for empirical studies on which new theories can be built and tested. In the United States, data extracted from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) 990 Forms (Form 990, Form 990-EZ, Form 990-PF, and Form 990-N) has boosted knowledge production on civil society and the nonprofit sector. However, unlike the United States, where there are numerous institutions that provide database services to scholars (e.g., GuideStar, Urban Institute, and Foundation Center, etc.), few counterparts in China have emerged and none of them can adequately serve academic research –– the datasets are neither structured for research purposes nor easily accessible.
In responding to this critical data scarcity challenge, we built a database for studying Chinese foundations – the Research Infrastructure of Chinese Foundations parenRICF). The foundation (jijinhui) is one of the three organizational forms of registered NGOs. The other two are membership-based association (shehui tuanti) and social service organization (shehui fuwu jigou, formerly named as minban feiqiye danwei). Among these three organizational forms, foundations are the most developed organizational form and dominant civic power in China, and they are critical for strategically preserving the autonomy of civil society from state control.
The structure of the RICF is designed and normalized according to the Three Normal Forms. The database schema consists of three major themes: a basic organizational profile of foundations (i.e., basic profile, board member, supervisor, staff, and related party tables), program information (i.e., program information, major program, program relationship, and major recipient tables), and financial information (i.e., financial position, financial activities, cash flow, activity overview, and large donation tables). The RICF’s data quality can be measured by four criteria: data source reputation and credibility, completeness, accuracy, and timeliness. Data records are properly versioned, allowing verification and replication for research purposes.