There is a horrible tendency in the NPO sector to shoot ourselves in the foot. This appears to be because we take entirely to heart the injunction not to criticise our neighbour without examining ourselves for faults. Hence, it seems, the regular if sporadic, “Mea culpa!” from the sector on corruption. Are we in fact guilty?
If you read the article published recently on NGO Pulse, (issued by MACS Media on behalf of the Orion Organisation and the Cape Town Society for the Blind) you will see that in the article, Lizelle van Wyk, chief executive of the Cape Town Society for the Blind is quoted making a number of sweeping statements about South Africa’s NGO sector. Van Wyk asserts that the current crisis in funding for the Non Profit sector is exacerbated by an increase in corruption as well as cover-ups on what Non Profit Organisations’ funding is actually being spent on. In certain cases, this has damaged or permanently ruined the trust between certain NGOs and their donors.
This is something you can get any NPO leader to say on any platform: we are all guilty. None of us is without sin.
Unfortunately, this is not understood as a metaphysical statement by government. What they hear is that literally, we all stole money. Now, that is simply not true. It is however certainly part of government’s rationale for strengthening its regulation of NPOs. In the latest iteration of the new NPO policy framework, proposals are made to improve oversight over the NPO sector. This is because we have unfortunately agreed with government on a regular basis that indeed, we are not without sin.
But what evidence exists of organisations flouting governance rules?
In a recent report by Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement, research on the proposed changes to the legislative framework for NPOs revealed the following: “Direct evidence [of corruption] is hard to come by. Respondents reported hearing of cases of fraud but these were mostly hearsay. A senior provincial Department of Social Development manager reports: ‘We had about 30 cases [of fraud] in the past two years and have been very rigorous in monitoring NPOs. A few of these cases we have handed over to SAPS (South African Police Service), laying criminal charges against board members. The main charges were board members using DSD funding for personal enrichment.’
“However, [he says] that, ‘I must also add that the cases have dropped in numbers [since last year] and the NPOs are very aware of the fact that we have a no-nonsense approach. NPOs must report to us quarterly and if they don’t, we suspend funding.’ The problematic cases amounted to 1.3 percent of grants made in that province and, according to him, they are resolved as they have been detected and funding has been suspended.”
So what in fact are we talking about? Where is the evidence of NPO corruption? And if there is no evidence but merely the odd bit of breast beating, that must stop.
In the same report, “Ministerial advisor Zane Dangor admits that, ‘we haven’t been implementing the Act…well. If we do, we will have a good regulatory environment. The Inyathelo Code [the Independent Code of Governance for Non-Profit Organisations in South Africa] is a good example of self-regulation. If you implement it, you don’t need to do more. The moment you do more, you are going into overregulation.’” (Interview)
This moment in time for the NPO sector is a particularly vulnerable one. Many have suffered as a result of the current funding crisis deriving from the decrease in international funds, the effects of the global recession, unpredictable funding from the National Lotteries Board, limited increases in Corporate Social Investment from local business and a certain amount of incompetence and uncertainty with regard to government funding (in some provinces more than in others). With organisations in the sector closing down and cutting down on services to the poor comes a concomitant limiting of their advocacy and lobbying actions and their ability to bring about change. Perhaps most important of all, their ability to hold government to account is also compromised.
Many NPOs are looking to business models to improve their sustainability and generate independent income streams. One of the places to look for this kind of income is the South African consumer who can be offered the choice to spend his or her money on a good cause. A reputable cause. A credible cause. Undermining their confidence in how their money is going to be used is fatal.
If we keep telling the state that we are not able to govern ourselves, the state, make no mistake, will do it for us. This will further undermine public confidence in the NPO sector. Injudicious mea culpas are not helpful – they do not help our cause or those we serve. Show us the evidence.
And where there is evidence, we will #paybackthemoney.
Alison Tilley is Head of Advocacy for the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) and Kathleen Dey is Director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.