GuideStar International's Blog

October 2, 2012

Cross-Border Philanthropy Grows Up as U.S. Treasury and IRS Rules Reduce Barriers to International Philanthropy

By Keisha Taylor

Giving overseas can be tedious and costly given the complexity of a vast and diverse global civil society sector. Charities, NPOs, NGOs, community-based organisations, foundations, and associations all work for social benefit, but are called and categorised differently depending on country. This can create complications for funders and donors wanting to give. Knowledge of the regulatory framework, the inner workings of the NGO, how best the NGO will be able to put resources to use, and even what help is needed to build capacity is often lacking.

This is why the announcement on 24 September that the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the IRS have recommended a significant change in the process for determining whether a foreign nongovernmental organization (NGO) meets U.S. standards for charitable giving is indeed an important one. Rules regarding the process of evaluating whether a non-U.S. NGO is equivalent to a U.S. public non-profit have not changed for 20 years.  In “Reliance Standards for Making Good Faith Determinations,” published in the Federal Register, Treasury and the IRS proposed regulations to lessen the administrative and financial burdens for U.S. grantmakers to engage in international philanthropy.

The  U.S. recently joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) to help make global development finance more open, shareable, standardized, and transparent. Similarly the proposed regulations also take us another step closer to building better and more streamlined grantmaking standards for NGOs worldwide. This can help to increase the effectiveness of cross-border philanthropy.

The U.S. has a long history of institutional philanthropy, —both corporations, government, and the American people have donated billions to causes not only in the U.S., but also overseas.  A look at the National Trust’s Chronological history of Philanthropy in America, shows that as far back as 1601, a Statute of Charitable Uses, enacted by Parliament became the cornerstone of Anglo-American law of philanthropy. The recent announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the Treasury and IRS rule changes is a milestone for global grantmaking.

Secretary Clinton Delivers Remarks at the Global Philanthropy Working Group Launch

Today the U.S. gives the most in Overseas Development Aid (ODA). While this refers to government as donor, thousands of corporations and millions of citizens have also provided money and resources overseas. However, in today’s recession stricken world, the way aid is given is being turned on its head. While the United States continues to be the largest donor by volume with net ODA flows of 30.7 US billion in 2011 (this represented a fall of -0.9% in real terms from 2010).

Governments, corporations, and citizens want to know more about the institutions they want to give to, and wish to avoid waste and corruption in foreign aid. The quantity and quality of NGO aid is not always held to account. While no two NGOs are the same, knowing more about the NGOs that receive overseas aid and its equivalence to U.S. NGOs will be a big help for accountability efforts.

Secretary Clinton noted in her remarks that the regulatory changes clear the way for the establishment of organizations that can serve as repositories for equivalency determinations. The Council of Foundations and TechSoup Global have been working together to create such a repository, called NGOsource, which they hope to launch as soon as possible. Today the equivalency determination (ED) process differs from grantmaker to grantmaker, is very costly (each ED can cost between $5,000 to $10,000) and if done improperly, may lead to inconsistent and subjective findings. NGOsource will make it easier and more affordable to evaluate whether a non-U.S. organisation is equivalent to a U.S. public charity through a centralized, streamlined, and standardized ED process.

Rebecca Masisak, co-CEO of TechSoup Global has said “Secretary Clinton’s announcement and the IRS guidance support a shared cross-sector vision of ways to reduce redundancy and lower costs and are a welcome signal from the government to grantmakers and their grantees.”
While Sheila Warren, director of NGOsource for TechSoup Global and an attorney with expertise on tax-exempt law said “The IRS guidance is an encouraging building block for the development of an equivalency determination repository that will enable private foundations to identify and grant to overseas NGOs with greater confidence and ease.”

This will undoubtedly take us one step closer to more effective cross-border philanthropy. This is especially important in today’s data-driven world where more transparent, reliable, and streamlined processes are needed to make it easier to realise social benefit globally.

You can read the entire press release on the announcement here.

Hear from experts about this issue at two upcoming events. On 4 October, the D.C. Bar will host a panel discussion in-person and via webinar. On 5 October, experts — including Sheila Warren, director of NGOsource for TechSoup Global — will discuss the rule change in a conference call briefing.

You can also receive updates about regulatory decisions affecting international grantmaking and about NGOsource by signing up online at www.ngosource.org/subscribe.

July 23, 2012

Technology, Data, and Indian Nonprofits: Enabling Philanthropy

By Keisha Taylor, communications manager at  TechSoup Global & for its GuideStar International program. This was first posted on the Techsoup.org blog

 Technology product donations, training, and nonprofit data are all part of TechSoup Global’s offering to civil society in India. Our BigTech program is run by our local partner, the NASSCOM Foundation in India. And the GuideStar India program was launched by our partner, Civil Society Information Systems (CSIS) India, through our GuideStar International program.

Nonprofits throughout India are now benefiting by getting high visibility and access to information and technology for their work.

 According to the Indian Central Statistical Office, there are 3.3 million NGOs in India. While the estimated number of operational NGOs is about one-third of that, there is little transparency on their activity.

GuideStar India is increasing the visibility of the nonprofit sector to multiple stakeholders by providing reliable information on more than 2,500 NGOs. It is also encouraging nonprofits to become better at reporting on their activities. GuideStar India is connecting the nonprofits on their site with those who need their help or want to lend support.

For example, the Surf Excel India’s Back to School Campaign reached out to needy children who go to learning centers and schools run by NGOs. Their Facebook campaign page engaged more than 800,000 fans during the campaign and sensitized them to the needs of poor children.

Their posts on Facebook also highlighted how fans could easily make a difference. The campaign gave exposure to 168 NGOs and raised 125,000 rupees in addition to in-kind donations.

GuideStar India put the Surf Excel team in touch with Child Survival India to provide essential teaching and reading materials to schoolchildren. The materials were donated by another school run by one of their Facebook fans.

Nonprofits in India are realizing that putting up their data voluntarily on GuideStar India can bring them resources and capacity-building opportunities. And donors and institutions looking for nonprofits find it convenient and efficient to access nonprofit information and connections through GuideStar India.

According to Fatima Lawrence, president of Lakkasandra Ashwini Mahila Sangha, a nonprofit featured on GuideStar India, “Opportunity knocks at your door only once, but GuideStar India knocks at your door again and again until you grab the opportunity!”

GuideStar India is also helping NGOs take advantage of the BigTech program and NASSCOM Foundation’s supportive technology activities.

Usha Pillai, chairperson of the IDEA Foundation, said, “Soon after being a part of GuideStar India, we got to attend an IT workshop conducted by NASSCOM Foundation. Our presence on the GuideStar India and a social networking site has helped us to get an industry donor looking for a small NGO. It is a phenomenal long-term value from GuideStar India to a small NGO like ours within a few months.”

Technology donations have also transformed nonprofit operations. The Hunger Project India helps those affected by hunger and victimized by social suppression in six Indian states. To help sustain their activities, they rely on accurate data monitoring and reporting.

However, data processing and collaboration were difficult because they used non-licensed and outdated software. Absence of effective antivirus applications slowed their computers, and there was limited uniformity and standardization in their infrastructure.

The Hunger Project India registered for and received a BigTech donation of Microsoft Windows 7 Professional Upgrade, Office Professional Plus 2010, and QuickHeal antivirus software.

Today, they use Microsoft Access for their data evaluation and database management. Microsoft Excel helps in preparation of their financial reports and accounting. Moreover, Quick Heal antivirus eliminated the viruses and resulted in a faster and more efficient functioning of the organization.

Bharani Sundarajan, program officer at The Hunger Project, said, “Participating in the BigTech program has had a positive outcome as it helped us maintain uniform and streamlined operations, along with being a time and energy saver. We are thrilled to be associated with it.”

Through its partners in India, TechSoup Global’s support to Indian NGOs is helping them to use and benefit from technology. Data on Indian nonprofits is also proving invaluable for visibility, transparency, and effectiveness of the sector.

June 27, 2012

Guardian Reports on TechSoup Global/Guardian Charity Data Seminar

Big data, open data, charity reporting and crowdsourcing were the order of the day at the recent Transforming your charity by bringing your data to life seminar that TechSoup Global hosted in collaboration with The Guardian. Today, the Guardian published an article about the seminar in their paper, titled: Getting to Grips with Big Data which gives a report of the seminar. The article focuses on why charities should start using ‘big data’ and ‘open data’ for the benefit of their communities. Also discussed were some of the difficulties charities face in knowing what tools to use, and understanding what data they should provide and collect to save money, be more effective and help the public. Videos of 2 of the speaker presentations are available (the other 2 will be posted next week) and you can find a copy of all presentations below.

Some key highlights:
Marnie Webb, Co-CEO and Paul van Haver, Director of Global Services of TechSoup Global Data Services highlighted the need for charities to help transform the way they engage with and service their community through the use of data. Watch the VIDEO! Presentation: We are “Big Data” (and so can you!)

We are “Big Data” (and so can you!)

View more PowerPoint from GuideStarintl

Dave Coplin, Director of Search, Bing, spoke about how big data is transforming how businesses are making decisions, the way it is being used for the popular Kinect, as well as the privacy issues. Watch the Video! Presentation: Big Data, Machine Learning and You

Karl Wilding of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) spoke of the work that the NCVO is doing to provide charity data and gain insights to the sector. He also spoke of the struggle to find sustainable ways to provide data openly. Presentation: Data @NCVO

Nathaniel Manning, Director of Business Development and Strategy at Ushahidi illustrated how they use crowdsourcing, big data and the opensource tools they have developed to help with disaster relief, political accountability and other development issues. Mobile phones were identified as one of the key ways that data is provided and collected in developing countries. Presentation: Ushahidi: Made in Africa

We are also hosting an international tweetchat on charities and data on Wednesday 27 June to discuss topics from the seminar on 10:00 a.m. Pacific time / 6:00 p.m. British Summer Time (BST). You can follow in our tweetchat room and comment on the article, seminar, presentations and tweetchat on twitter using #npdata.

 

January 6, 2012

International Transparency Initiative makes world giving open, shareable, standardized, transparent

By Keisha Taylor

This was originally posted on the TechSoup Global blog

The open data revolution has come to aid’ writes open data advocate Owen Barder (known for his work on development policy), and yet while the US is the world’s largest bilateral donor, Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index states that five of six US aid agencies are not very transparent. Why does this matter? Because the quality as well as the quantity of international aid is critical to the fate of the developing world (and the developed world’s as well!) and there are significant questions about whether aid is accomplishing its purposes. For example, aid may even be creating dependency rather than development in Africa, according to Dambiso Moyo’s book Dead Aid.

Thus, it is good news that the USA has now agreed to join the International Transparency Initiative (IATI) since that now means 80% of global development finance will be open, shareable, standardized, and transparent. This also complements the US foreign assistance dashboard, which is now available (but still in development).  US government agencies, partner country governments, CSOs and citizens can use it to research and track US foreign assistance investment.

IATI is the result of a conversation started among governments and bi-lateral/multilateral donors at the Paris High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, which resulted in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005. The Accra Agenda for Action was subsequently formulated to help implement the Declaration, and IATI was established in 2008 to provide support for the Agenda. But an IATI standard for publishing aid was only agreed upon in February 2011. Then, towards the end of last year, the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation provided an updated framework that the world’s donors, developing country governments, CSOs, and other aid stakeholders have agreed upon.

Now that America has joined IATI, it could possibly encourage Brazil, Russia, India and China (the “BRIC countries”) and other non-governmental US donors, donor countries, and aid recipient countries to do the same. Indeed BRIC countries, while not IATI signatories, have contributed to the Busan Partnership document.

As the world’s largest bilateral donor ($30 billion annually!), US participation in the movement towards open data, which includes open aid data, may be a gamechanger but only if they really start publishing much more data. On the other hand, open data is in no way an end in itself. If it is not used — and reused — it loses impact.

In my next post, I’ll explain why.

December 29, 2011

New Portal to Promote US Giving to Indian NGOs

Consul General Peter Haas and others listening to GuideStar India CEO, Pushpa Aman Singh speaking at the Roundtable

This was first posted on the GuideStar India blog

GuideStar India and the U.S. Department of State held a “Philanthropy in India Roundtable” on December 21 in Mumbai. Over 40 leaders from the Indian philanthropy sector discussed the creation of a new online portal that will assist private donors seeking to support Indian NGOs.

GuideStar India is an existing portal of fully searchable information on over 1400 registered NGOs in India, and will serve as the platform for the new portal which is designed to connect private U.S. donors with Indian NGOs and organizations. The group agreed that such a portal should also help address two critical needs:
(1) empowering and educating donors by introducing more information and transparency into the sector; and (2) strengthening capacity-building amongst Indian NGOs.

The new portal will aggregate NGO certifications provided by independent third parties and present the information in a format easily searchable and accessible by potential donors. Neither GuideStar nor the U.S. Government will rate or certify NGOs. The portal will empower donors and allow them to make better informed decisions. Indian NGOs, intermediaries, facilitators, foundations and other organizations and individuals involved in philanthropy in India will benefit through enhanced visibility.

The roundtable participants provided input on the design of the portal to GuideStar representatives. The diverse group of leaders gathered at the roundtable reflected the shared desire of the private sector, civil society and the U.S. State Department to explore new and creative ways to support Indian NGOs.

March 28, 2011

What Should a CSO Report and How Should They Report?

What an organisation chooses to say about their work sometimes differs from what is said in private and/or mundane reports that they are obligated to file. For instance, if fundraising is an important issue, as is the case with most CSOs, this will influence what they report to the respective funder. It may include basic information as well as objectives, financial records and achievements. Reporting also depends on a country’s legal and financial systems. If some information is not mandatory a CSO may be less likely to report it. However, information from a well developed report can be extracted for use in communications materials by CSOs. The more time an NGO invests in thorough reporting the more materials can possibly be made available for communications efforts.

CSOs can report via the Internet, mobile phones, radio as well as by using traditional offline methods. Using multiple channels then allows others to report on their behalf, increasing the perceived validity of the report. The more reports are available to help validate what an organisation communicates about its work, the more confident other stakeholders will be to spread the CSO’s message. That is if they find it interesting of course! A website report can be linked to, tweeted, posted on Facebook, and possibly integrated into other communications outlets, by the CSO as well as other individuals and organisations that are interested in their work. Within this new technological environment CSOs must therefore not only communicate but report. This type of reporting also facilitates two way communications where both reports and feedback from the public and other stakeholders can also be included to aid validation. Indeed the Kiva model shows just how intertwined communications and reporting can be.

A report by the UN Foundation and the Vodaphone Foundation titled Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in Mobile Use by NGOs found that “Eight-six percent of NGO employees are using mobile technology in their work. NGO representatives working on projects in Africa or Asia are more likely to be mobile technology users than their colleagues in areas with more ‘wired’ infrastructures. Ninety-nine percent of technology users characterize the impact of mobile technology as positive. Moreover, nearly a quarter describe this technology as “revolutionary” and another 31 percent say it would be difficult to do their jobs without it.” The way we communicate as well as report may indeed change, facilitated not only by social networking sites but by the mobile phone revolution and other new advances in technology.

Look out for the next post which will talk about the where, why and when of reporting!

November 3, 2010

Is proactive transparency the future of the right to information?

Helen Darbishire wrote an excellent paper, commissioned by the World Bank Institute titled Proactive Transparency: The future of the right to information? In it she examines a range of local and international government and civil society initiatives working to make government information ‘proactively transparent’. She looks at the benefits and challenges that that arise in doing so and her research and analysis provides significant support for the view that more information will be available in this way in the future.  She does her analysis within the framework of 4 “drivers of proactive disclosure”, which she argues governments have tended to adhere to in some form throughout history.  To summarise, these include:

1.       The public’s right to be informed about legislation and to in effect know what their rights are

2.       The use of information to hold governments to account

3.       Information as an enabler of public engagement and inclusive decision making

4.       Provision of information required to access government services

With these points in mind she reviews reports on national access to information laws and related practices in selected countries, which include Estonia, Chile, Hungary, Mexico, France, Peru, Slovenia, India, Macedonia, the UK, and the United States. She also examines International declarations, jurisprudence, and treaties, that contain transparency provisions. The treaties examined in detail include the UK’s Freedom of Information Act adopted in 2000 and entered into force in 2005, India’s 2005 Right to Information Act, Hungary’s 2005 e-FOIA, and Mexico’s Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information passed in 2002. She notes that at least 50 national constitutions and international courts have acknowledged the right of access to information as a human right but also points out that legislators are proceeding cautiously when defining what this really means.

Importantly, the author also highlights the work that key civil society organisations like Publish What You Fund, Aidinfo, the One World Trust and the International Aid Transparency Initiative are doing as they become increasingly influential in the development and enactment of freedom of information laws. However, as the author maintains it is essential that the information that people do receive is “organized and published so that it is: available, findable, relevant, comprehensible, free or low cost, and up-to-date”. Of importance will not only be the type of information being made available by the government but also whether this proactive transparency will translate into citizens, CSOs and other stakeholders also providing relevant information, which together can be utilised to help improve services and overall development effectiveness.  Read the paper Proactive Transparency: The future of the right to information?

October 13, 2010

Interview with Royi Biller, CEO, NPTech on GuideStar Israel

Royi Biller, CEO, NPTech

GuideStar Israel: an important step towards Israeli nonprofit visibility and transparency

For the first time anyone in Israel or the world at large can freely find information on all registered nonprofits (NPOs) in Israel. Launched on the 3rd of August 2010, GuideStar Israel has been a revolutionary step towards improving the visibility, transparency and accountability of Israeli nonprofits. Keisha Taylor (GuideStar International’s Communications Manager) had the opportunity to speak with Royi Biller, the CEO of NPTech, the nonprofit behind the launch of GuideStar Israel about the website, the information it contains and possibilities and hopes for its future.

Shaking up Israeli civil society

According to Mr. Biller since GuideStar Israel’s launch NPTech has overwhelmingly received “warm feedback and congratulations about the big revolution in accessibility to information about nonprofits. People who look at it from the capacity building and infrastructure point of view all understand that this is a very significant thing that took place.” The introduction of this database to Israeli nonprofits is indeed an important milestone in its civil society sector. One month after the launch there were already 200,000 visits to the site by 17,000 unique visitors and about 13,500 of the 30,000 Israeli nonprofits listed on the site had their profile viewed. According to Mr. Biller “these figures stunned us because we did not expect so many people to find interest in GuideStar and in nonprofit organisations.”

Finally, an online presence for all Israeli nonprofits

The impact of GuideStar is made even clearer when Mr. Biller, speaking about a recent university study, yet to be published, points out that it has shown that 50% of NPOs in Israel do not have a web presence. This was before the launch of GuideStar, which now provides a web presence for all. According to Biller, “GuideStar leaves no room for decision around whether they should be on the net or not (NPOs) can just make a decision to settle for the minimum information presented on GuideStar and not supply anything else.” It follows that this is a very big first step in moving the Israeli civil society sector online and it is an important one. Having a web presence can also potentially aid NPOs use of other online resources to help improve their effectiveness.

As Mr. Biller points out “What we see as our task is to help these nonprofits realise that this is something that is beneficial for them and then encourage them to make high quality content available through GuideStar. I am not sure GuideStar as a tool on its own would be able to push nonprofits towards using more ICT tools. I do think that once GuideStar becomes more and more a familiar brand name in Israel and people learn that GuideStar will be the one place, the one stop shop to look for nonprofits, which it is by the way, at the moment, these organisations will realise that their constituents are looking for them on the web.”

What’s available on GuideStar Israel?

The basic information available for almost all of the organisations listed on the site include the year of incorporation, charity number, legal status, the registered goals they are trying to reach, the address and the names of the founders.  The audited annual financial reports and narrative report for about 12,500 organisations registered with the Israeli Registrar of nonprofits are also available on the site, but more work has to be done to get this information for the remaining 17.5 thousand organisations that have yet to submit their reports. According to Mr. Biller “They may be active but not reporting, they may be inactive but not yet have taken any steps to undo the registration.  So there is a big group of organisations that don’t file their annual reports as they should, as the law requires.”

One of the more ambitious efforts undertaken before launch was the use of a technology application to blacken out the names, addresses, phone numbers and other personal information of individuals like employees and volunteers mentioned in the reports whose privacy needs to be protected by law. However, information on other individuals such as members of the critique committee and founders of the organisation remain visible. According to Mr. Biller “it (was) quite a complex separation where we had to teach a group of individuals to distinguish between people whose privacy should be protected versus those who are condemned to be publicly transparent because of the Law of Amutot, (the law of nonprofit organisations).”

Future plans

NPTech also has plans to integrate GuideStar Israel data into volunteering and microphilanthropy websites noting that “GuideStar will become not only a place to see information but also to take action, whether it’s to volunteer or to contribute through donations” They also plan to add more information sources to be accessed through government channels. This will not only include information from the Ministry of Justice (one of the GuideStar Israel partners, who provides most of the data) but also the Ministry of Finance, the tax authority, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Welfare. According to Mr. Biller “All these organisations have lots of data about nonprofit organisations … so our agreement with the government currently only entails the Justice Ministry but it leaves room for negotiation with other government agencies to add additional information sources.”

He also spoke about the need to have a translation engine on the site as a priority highlighting that “The only thing that people have found confusing up until now is the fact that the site is multilingual but the data is only in Hebrew.” There are also plans to make the site more text based, so that information currently only available in pdf format will be received in text form and can also be searchable on the site. According to Mr. Biller “Once we have the textual data then we can also perform all sorts of manipulation and analysis … such as geographical locations of nonprofits”. He also hopes that information on salaries would be made available pointing out that “nobody really knows what is the average salary or the average general and administrative expense in Israel for nonprofits”.

Speaking on the use of the site, he notes that at the moment visitors to the site are looking for a specific organisation rather than searching by phrase like ‘children at risk’, but suspects this will change over time, once they utilise the site more often. He also underscored the importance of organisations providing content which is more concise on GuideStar Israel and hopes that GuideStar Israel can improve NPO reporting. He advises nonprofits to utilise GuideStar to find donors, volunteers and other organisations they would like to form joint ventures with.

NPTech, TechSoup Global and GuideStar Israel

Mr. Biller also gave some insight into NPTech’s upcoming software donation programme with TechSoup Global, which he hopes will be launched by the end of this year. GuideStar International and TechSoup Global combined their operations in April of this year and as far as he is concerned, GuideStar and TechSoup are the two most important projects that should be implemented in Israel. He suggests that “TechSoup needs GuideStar for eligibility and vetting of organisations. GuideStar needs TechSoup because many organisations do not specifically realise the benefit of being transparent and so we would like to encourage them to do that.  One way to encourage them to do that is to supply them with free software, in exchange for their disclosure of information through GuideStar, then they have a motivation to contribute additional information.”

A survey done by NPTech two years ago revealed that the number one service requested by nonprofits was discounted software and according to Mr. Biller, Israel is a “Microsoft country” because of Microsoft’s Hebrew support. He cites “Microsoft as the single most important donor in TechSoup Israel.” The importance of the GuideStar International and TechSoup Global combination can most certainly be emphasised once this programme is implemented and hopefully the combined offering will be available soon.

Feedback and comments welcomed

NPTech also provides assistance to Israeli nonprofits who would like to map their technology needs and develop technology infrastructure within their organisation. If you would like to provide feedback on the GuideStar Israel site, or learn more about what is happening with GuideStar Israel you can visit their blog (currently available only in Hebrew) or/and follow them on Twitter @NPTechIsrael

Download the interview

October 7, 2010

Ci Yuan (China Philanthropy Incubator) programme launched

By Caroline Neligan, Director Partnerships and Development, GuideStar International and TechSoup Global

I recently travelled to China to participate on the International Advisory Board of the Ci Yuan (China Philanthropy Incubator) programme led by the US nonprofit group Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), in partnership with several Chinese and international organisations. Ci Yuan, known in English as the ‘China Philanthropy Incubator’, brings together influential Chinese and international representatives of the business, nonprofit, foundation, and government communities to advance both the quantity and quality of social investment in China.

In essence, there are 3 strands to the 3 year programme:

  • Building strong NGO-Corporate partnerships
  • Promoting civil society transparency & accountability
  • Fostering the foundation/philanthropic sector

The project was launched in Beijing on the 17th September and the International and Chinese Advisory Boards met at the same time.

Some Impressions of China’s Growing Civil Society Sector

This is a timely initiative. As China’s economy continues to grow, providing new opportunities for many, it is also generating increasing inequality between those that benefit from the booming economy and those that don’t.

The Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 is seen as a catalysing event when CSOs and philanthropists came to the fore to help those affected. It follows that the importance of civil society and a responsive philanthropic sector is gaining increasing attention both from the private sector but also from the government that recognises that it is unable to meet all the needs of all of its citizens. With this increased influence however, come demands for accountability and transparency of these organisations, from the government, but also from the public whose support these organisations also seek.

Many wealthy Chinese are aware of these growing social issues and are establishing civil society organisations (CSOs) to tackle the problems, or looking to donate to others already working on them. Ci Yuan considers its 3 programme areas to be key (although not complete) building blocks required for a strong foundation for philanthropy in China.

Against this background and focus on the growing influence of civil society, ways to promote giving, and build strong relationships with the growing foundation sector, business and government, it was perhaps natural that the corresponding demands for transparency and accountability were addressed as well as the barriers to transparency and incentives to encourage reporting.

China Charity Donation and Information Centre (CCDIC)

While in Beijing, I was given the opportunity to meet with The China Charity Donation and Information Centre (CCDIC) to discuss their work on CSO disclosure and to share our experience with GuideStar.

Established in 2008, and led by Peng Jianmei, who has extensive experience working in media, business and the philanthropy sector in China, CCDIC is a non profit organisation supported by, and working closely with, the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Its mission is to promote effectiveness and transparency of Chinese CSOs and of the sector as a whole. CCDIC has recently undertaken an apparently comprehensive mapping of transparency initiatives and reporting/information services both domestically and internationally as well as a needs assessment for Chinese civil society. They have developed a transparency and reporting standard that they will publish in October.

From these initial meetings it seemed that Peng Jianmei and her team share many of the values that we hold at TechSoup Global and GuideStar International, with respect to the value of CSOs for society and the importance of finding ways to encourage and enable them to describe their work to their many supporters and stakeholders, and to promote a holistic view and understanding of their goals, activities, achievements and needs. This means viewing reporting as more than filing a financial account and expecting people to assess the worth of the organisation and its work from this information alone. I hope that we will be able to build on these initial conversations in the future.

Reasons for Optimism

The people I met during this visit have a passion for social change and to ensuring that philanthropy in the country develops in strategic and innovative ways. The government and its GONGOs (government organised NGOs) are playing a key role in the transition from an all embracing Party State, used to controlling decision-making, to one where other sectors play an important role. This will surely not be a straight and easy path and there are obstacles to overcome however, this is an important time for Chinese civil society and philanthropy, and it would seem from the mood of the meeting, one of general optimism.

PDF Conference discusses Open Data and Social Media in Europe

Filed under: Access to information,Accountability,ICT for Development,Transparency — guidestarinternational @ 12:20
Tags: ,

By Caroline Neligan, Director Partnerships and Development, GuideStar International, TechSoup Global

The Personal Democracy Forum came to Europe on 4-5 October 2010 to learn more about Open Data and Social Media activities in the region and to bring together activists in the space to meet and exchange ideas. Some overarching questions asked in this conference were:

  • Is there a transparency movement?
  • Are there common threads?
  • Is it changing people’s lives?

My answer would be yes, yes, not yet – or at least, not fundamentally.

As you would expect from such an event, there was a rich conversation with lots of perspectives and so I won’t attempt here to distil this into a short report. But I think it is worth providing some overview and reactions to the key themes of open data and social media and the potential that exists to fundamentally change the way that citizens and government engage with one another.

In essence, people need to see that participation in e-government/governance makes a difference to their lives. But, there seemed to be more discussion of ‘impact’ in terms of how many people ‘like’ a ‘cause’ or made up a network.  But is this really impact? What was largely lacking was evidence of how social media platforms actually enable policy or legislative change.

However, this gap is not stressed with the intention of diminishing the event – the event was full of motivated, passionate people doing exciting work, rather that we are at the beginning of the journey that has lots of potential to be game changing but that is still in its early days.

I wasn’t aware of a delegates list (a pity) but of the 100 or so people in attendance, it seemed the majority were European activists with a policy/technology bent. There was some government representation; the UK Foreign Office, a representative for the German Christian Democrats, Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic MP as well as some participation from the European Union (although I’m not sure in what capacity).

Here is a link to the full agenda and speakers. I attended break out groups on Open Data/Open Government, Crisis Response and Transparency and Open Information in the US and Western Europe.

As is always the case in a regional gathering such as this, the differences between countries were as striking as the similarities. Marko Rakar from Croatia was one of the most powerful speakers of the event; his campaign for government transparency has left him a marked man by the government. He spoke with a mix of humility, humour and conviction that makes our complaints about government attitudes to transparency in other countries pale in comparison.

In this mix of contexts where government attitudes to open data range from inept, to inadequate, to obstructive and threatening (threatened?), Hakon Wium Lie observed that open data is in its infancy but he was emphatic that the laws that our countries are built upon is fundamental and that access to government data – that as tax payers we have already paid for – is a democratic and legal right. People need to be able to be able to access, understand and translate the data that is made available to make it useful to particular constituencies.

Building on this theme, Paul Johnston from Cisco stressed that we need to change the ‘black box’ of policy making and focus first and foremost on transparency before trying to secure participation. He also suggested that we shouldn’t expect large social platforms that are successful in generating large crowds to necessarily translate that success into policy or legislative change. Rather we need tools that enable experts, or people close to an issue, to suggest research, best practice or to discuss options for policy making.

This doesn’t mean that the general public will be locked out of the debate, rather we need to get ‘more mature about mass participation’.  It is up to those in and outside the government (and I think you can extend this to any institution which wields power or controls resources) to ensure people are engaging at a suitable level to ensure their input has maximum value.

He gave the example of the You Choose website, which engages citizens in the budgeting process and, because they provide a range of options and spending priorities, it encourages deliberation and an understanding of the trade-offs involved, therefore taking citizens beyond a single issue area.

In one of the final presentations of the day, Hakon Wium Lie compared the Web to the printing press in terms of its transformative effect on society and predicted that it will be around in 500 years time. But, he asked, who else will be around? Facebook? Twitter? Probably not. So he stressed the need for open data standards and transparency as a priority for activists in this area. This instead of putting pressure on politicians and other leaders to be present on today’s hot social platforms because if they go down, they will take a lot of data with them.

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