A Summit With Something to Say

The recently staged Nonprofit Organisations (NPO) Summit hosted by the Department of Social Development may have been another song and dance routine had it not been for the substance of the programme? But will the hoped for resolutions go forth? The theme ‘Working Together to Fight Poverty, Unemployment and Inequality’ was not just about the role of government in addressing social issues but the formation of secure partnerships with nonprofit organisations and the private sector.

The opening address by the Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini, said that the last time there was a summit of this nature was in 1996, convened by the then Minister responsible for the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). That summit dealt with ways in which government and NPOs could partner, but also dealt extensively with transforming the state. At the 2012 summit, we need to deal with the transformation of the NPO sector itself. We cannot have a situation where a few large organisations are able to access huge resources and many community-based organisations struggle from day to day… Too many well-resourced NPOs are concentrating their services into urban and well developed areas of our country while there is a critical shortage of services in poor and rural areas. As a collective, we need to discuss this so that we can target our services to the poorest of South Africans.  This is the essence of what we all need to do better, ensure that we provide services to those who need us the most, so that all of us benefit from a democratic South Africa. 

During the first day; the framework of the Ten Point Plan, a plan devised 12 years ago, was revisited. This is a plan that still needs to flex its muscle in to how we strengthen relationships between the third sector and government in social service delivery.
Day two set the scene with a keynote address from the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, a speech that was long overdue, a speech that recognised the work of the NPO sector. He sang high praise to those non-government organisations during apartheid; who assisted detainees, exposed human rights abuse, spoke out against police brutality and worked hard in boosting morale in the townships – ‘they were the spirit of ubuntu’. President Zuma said he had benefited from such organisations after returning from exile.

He accredited the growth of the sector since 1994 from political activism to active citizenry by providing essential services as true compatriotism. NPOs were invaluable in defining the future of the country as they played a significant role in the economy and social well-being of all South Africans. He further urged for all; the state, the private sector and civil society to harness collective powers in the eradication of poverty as envisaged in the newly launched National Development Plan 2030.   He believed that civil society was an essential cog in the success of this Plan for gaining social impetus and constructive implementation. He further stated that, “South Africa was the envy of the world, it truly was a Rainbow nation with unique people, we should be proud of our beauty”. He added that all sphere of governments doors and windows would be permanently open to NPOs.

Having reinforced the importance and role of the sector in nation building, he forgot to mention that the budget; earmarked by government for distribution to the NPO sector of R1.5 billion would be inadequate if the vision of an egalitarian state in 17 years time is to be realised. It should be 10-fold this amount e.g. R15 billion as from 2013!

The plenary unfolded into four commissions; Legislative and Regulatory Framework, Transformation of the Welfare Services Sector, Resource Mobilisation and Funding of NPOs, the Ten Point Plan priorities for partnerships and Capacity and Skills Development of NPOs, in an attempt to reaching a National Declaration that would ensure sustainability of the NPO sector. 

High on the agenda was resource mobilisation as one of the greatest challenges for NPOs who are reliant on an enabling environment with user-friendly compliance systems and donor friendly tax incentives to encourage private donor support. 

Fundraising expertise was minimal in most NPOs with too much hope hinged on the filling out of application forms to the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF) and its grantmaking ‘sister-act’ the National Development Agency (NDA) – neither of these bodies could truly meter out effective funding to meet the ever-increasing expectations from NPOs. The NDA is peddling a proposition that both the Department of Social Development (DSD) budgets and corporate social investment (CSI) grants be managed through their administration. This went flat, like a cold soufflé with the NPOs and business representatives alike – the expression on the faces of DSD staffers was more accepting.

The National Lottery announced the opening of more offices in the provinces to assist emerging and community-based organisations with their applications and resolving matters that stifle their chances of a grant such as two years’ audited financial statements. An imminent call for proposals from the Sports Distribution Fund was expected this week. Other distribution agencies; Art and Culture and Charity might publicise a call before the end of 2012. 

Over 1 350 delegates representing 700 nonprofit organisations participated in this three-day event. However, most of the NPOs in the room already have existing relationships with the DSD and were intent on keeping those future contracts intact. There is an estimated 120 000 (probably more) NPOs in South Africa, of which 85 000 are registered as NPOs with the Department of Social Development – 700 NPOs is hardly representative of this diverse grouping. 
Progress has been made since the introduction of the NPO Act in 1997 and gatherings such as this Summit were critical in keeping the momentum going with new initiatives to look forward to such as: the revision of the NPO legislative framework with amendments to the NPO Act; a more cohesive delivery of welfare services between the three tiers of government; a higher level of joint funding ventures between CSI, government and NPOs with an emphasis on codes of conduct for fundraising and grant making practice and the capacity-building of skills in NPOs that creates good governance (financial management and policies) and responsible leadership. 

A topic that has been under discussion for the past five years, an online NPO registration system, is finally coming to fruition. The Charity Commission of the United Kingdom is mentoring the DSD towards greater things with the latest technology to manage initial registration and updating of registration details whilst allowing for real-time uploads of annual reports. The system will be able to analyse the information disclosed from the reports ultimately providing us with a better picture of how the sector is progressing. A frustrated delegate said, “It feels we are invisible, we are partners who can respond well as we sit at the coal face of social imbalance, why can’t government and society see us and appreciate our work and provide the funding we need?”

Scarce data and integrated research is not currently available to validate the true depth and value of the sector, the last comprehensive attempts to map the size, shape, values and impact of the sector was more than 10 years ago. The introduction of an online registration and reporting system will definitely provide evidence of how well we are working together and if we’re working effectively in communities where it matters the most.

The well-intentioned resolutions from this outpouring deserve further contemplation from the NPO sector, but it cannot just be from the few in the room on the day, it must be more widely shared.

- Ann Bown is a financial sustainability advisor to the nonprofit sector at Charisma Communications. She attended the 1996 RDP Summit and the 2012 NPO Summit.

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