Monday, 26 November 2007

Seven years slow

nfpSynergy has published an interesting report on what it calls the "21st Donor" (you have to register to download the free report) which examines how attitudes towards giving are changing.

One of its ten recommendations for engaging donors in the new millenium is to:
Make donors stakeholders, with a real say in how they give and how their money gets spent. While this does not mean that donors have the final say in how the money gets does mean that their views are really important. Therefore dialogue between donors and service deliverers becomes more important.
It goes on to explain:
Those charity sector interviewees who dealt with wealthier donors highlighted a trend towards greater interest in two overlapping areas: firstly how charities measure and demonstrate impact, and secondly a desire to specify how their donations are spent. These two trends are linked because a desire to specify how donations are spent is, at least in part, an indication that the donor does not entirely trust the claims of impact...Individual donors’ increased interest in impact and directing the spending of their money is really just a catch-up with the rest of the funding world. Indeed, all the major funders of the sector: central government, local government, lottery bodies and charitable trusts attach great importance both to prescribing their areas of interest and to measuring the impact of their funds. One of the ironies of this trend is that many service-delivery people are appalled at the idea of being donor-led in their response to individual donors, but are already heavily funder-led when the funders are central or local government.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

What's worse: state or charity?

In case you've missed it, there's been quite a furore about this article by Martin Brookes, Director of Research at New Philanthropy Capital. In it he calls for the creation of a "non-departmental public body under the auspices of the Cabinet Office" to be "concerned with assessing and improving the performance of charities".

His argument is:
  • Most other private and public bodies have their performance scrutinised
  • If charity is about more than assuaging guilt then we should care about its outcomes
  • 'Charity' is not a homogeneous group and we should discriminate between them
  • Charity's purpose and origin is not so different from other sectors of society that it should escape accountability
  • Analysing charity performance is not too hard or beyond available methodology
  • Lack of scrutiny is not healthy to the taxpayer or donor
  • Informed donors will pick their charities better and so make more impact
  • Greater public scrutiny is anyway inevitable
  • Charities are overly sceptical of outsiders' involvement for irrelevant reasons: they work hard to get funding and feel perpetually beleaguered
It's an interesting article, much of which is impossible to disagree with.

However, the mistake Martin makes is to think that the state regulation is the best mechanism for holding charity to public account. This for three reasons.

Firstly, the state is often even less effective than the charitable sector. Although regulatory bodies such as Ofgem and Ofcom (which Martin cites) are usually considered better than other government departments, they too are steeped in the public service ethos of inefficiency, lack of vision and slow responsiveness.

Secondly the comparison with the private sector is invalid because most businesses are actually regulated by their shareholders or other investors, more than by state regulatory bodies as Martin suggests. In those few industries (such as utilities) in which there is state regulation, it is largely to ensure that the companies remain competitive, rather than assess their productivity per se.

Thirdly and most importantly the state, private sector and charitable sector exist together in a stable tripartite relationship with which it would be foolish to tamper. Ultimately taxpayers should monitor government, investors monitor business and donors monitor charity. There may be some cross-over but where possible this should be conducted through open debate in the public media, rather than through institutionalised structures of control.

If assessment of the performance of charities is handed over to the state it will stifle the growing willingness among donors to hold charities to account. If people begin to feel (as many already do) that the charitable sector is simply an arm of government then public donations will fall and the state will be left as the only player - an obviously unhealthy situation.

Most of Martin's argument is correct and he must be applauded for speaking out on the issue. But my feeling is that the government would instead do better to actively support the third sector in being more open with the public. Rather than regulate charities' performance themselves, the Cabinet Office should cajole them to regularly publish details of their activities and support them in setting up rigorous accountability standards.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Teach a man to fish

Here's an interesting piece by Nik Kafka, director of the agricultural network Teach a Man to Fish.

In it, he bemoans the lack of engagement of development charities with new social enterprise models:

The direct result of our extraordinary creativity in raising huge volumes of donations at home is that it cramps entrepreneurial flair, and reduces the incentives to find better models for creating social change overseas.

It's not that UK development NGOs are not capable of being entrepreneurial, far from it. When it comes to fundraising no avenue is left unexplored - you can't walk down a street or open a magazine these days without being tapped for direct debits or the occasional goat!

But UK development NGOs seem to have far less appetite for designing new business models for social change and taking them to scale.

The way to develop this appetite is to change the way development agencies are evaluated. Instead of being measured on their inputs (e.g. 'cash raised' or 'projects undertaken') they must be more robustly measured on outputs (e.g. 'increase in beneficiaries' annual income' or 'educational levels added'). Then they will have to seek out new models to reach these goals.

We can't trust donors...can we?

It's all very well calling for more accountability to donors - but can we trust them to make the right decisions?

New research from the University of Southampton suggests we can. Looking at the results of a large survey, it finds:
  • Although only one in ten people give to overseas development charities, the mean amount given per donor was much higher than for other causes. (Table 1)
  • The distribution of donations towards overseas development is very skewed. The Gini co-efficient is 0.63 and the top 10% of donors account for almost half of the value of all donations. (Table 2)
  • Although overseas giving is correlated with personal income, it is not when the regression is controlled for variables associated with income such as education. The difference between the controlled and uncontrolled correlation co-efficients is larger for overseas giving than all other causes of charitable giving. (Table 10)
In broad terms, this means that most publicly-raised money comes from a very few people (about half the money comes from 1% of the adult population). More than any other cause, the higher the education level of the donor, the more they give.

If donors are such a well-educated and exclusive bunch, why don't we trust them to influence what happens with their money more?

These are the report's authors Professor John Micklewright and Dr Sylke Schnepf:

Thursday, 8 November 2007

FOI requests applying to development agencies?

Gordon Brown recently harped on about liberty as a traditional British trait in a rather blatant and awkward attempt to divert attention from the fact he is a supporter of anti-libertarian terrorist laws and that he is Scottish in an age of rising English nationalism.

One of his ideas was to extend Freedom of Information legislation, which is widely agreed to have been a success since it was passed in 2000. The law gives journalists and members of the public the power to demand information from public bodies, providing that the cost of retrieving it is not too high.

Now Brown wants to extend Freedom of Information so that it covers:
  • Organisations which appear to the Secretary of State to exercise functions of a public nature.
  • Organisations which are providing, under a contract made with a public authority, any service whose provision is a function of that authority.
The consultation document doesn't give any more detail about the type of organisations which would be covered by this second point. But presumably development agencies funded by DfID, especially those under the given cash under the Partnership Programme Agreements funding stream, would be covered.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

UG, See?

Monday's Guardian contained this article about the increasing importance of user-generated content (UGC) for aid agencies. It talks about the rise of photos, videos and blogs which have been created by the public, rather than trained journalists, for raising donor awareness and public support.

John Naughton (one time chairman of One World Trust) is quoted as saying:
There's a kind of corrupt symbiotic relationship between aid agencies and journalists and the narrative is shaped by that relationship," he says. "The interesting thing is that UGC is now blowing apart that cosy narrative.
Lessons and ideas for development agencies too, no doubt.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Gee! Geo-mapping

Here are three funky World Bank sites which use Google Maps and other mapping software to show information in new ways:
For me these are more 'proof of concept' than finished products. They operate more as front-ends to the World Bank's databases than portals through which users can view, understand and (most importantly) interact with the information. Still, they're a great start.

The question is, when are international NGOs going to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by this sort of technology?

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Collecting the past

Staff at the University of Illinois are taking on a really interesting project to digitize and classify millions of news reports from the world over - dating back to 1946. They want to find news reports on events which "bear on societal infrastructures and welfare" so that analyses on social events can be carried out across time and countries. One might, for instance, want to look at how governments' statements alter near election time.

There will be huge potential here for development researchers too, as Dani Rodrik has pointed out. Hopefully it will be possible to see how conceptions of poverty and perceptions of donors have changed.

There is also a wider lesson for aid givers. The information and data which they hold on projects and programmes, past and present, is of vital importance. Releasing it whole-heartedly into the public domain will allow researchers to find hidden trends - in ways which are only becoming possible thanks to technology such as that being employed in Illinois.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Follow the pandas

I don't want to turn this blog into a huge applause for technology, but there is some amazing stuff going on in this area at the moment.

WWF have embraced an open policy on information and put all their projects on super-funky Google Earth, so that users can fly about and see what they do worldwide. OK - so they're not a development agency, but they are global and they are successful.

There's one thing I can't understand though. Why don't they include a donation link on every project information tag? Then you could drop a few pieces of loose change on projects as you soar over them...

The other side to all this..., of course, fundraising.

Steve Bridger's got a good blog on how NGOs can get themselves up to speed with the whole Web 2.0 thang from the fundraising point of view. This presentation summarises his (slightly evangelical but still interesting) views.

But a quick look at the development NGOs' wiki-blog-mash-up-myspace-facebook things (e.g. Oxfam's and ActionAid's) shows they haven't quite got the full picture. Web 2.0, and the associated rise in consumer personalisation and peer-to-peer interaction, demand that organisations relinquish power. Development charities can't just sit on MySpace collecting their online friends - they have to act in a genuinely friendly way too.

People want opportunities to connect and share their experiences of the organisation. If those opportunities are to be at all attractive they must be meaningful. For them to be meaningful they must include the possibility that the organisation will be criticised. It will hurt in the short-term but the early adopters will reap the rewards in the long term.

Us, Them and Those in the Middle

Here's a great talk by Hans Rosling, the maker of the Trendalyzer software (recently snapped up by Google). In it, he uses fascinating data to show how the old view of 'us' (the rich western world) and 'them' (the world's poor) has become seriously outdated in the last 30 years or so. In fact, the story of the last few decades has been one of Asia's great rise.

Towards the end of his talk Hans expands on his theme to talk about the great potential for using the world's information and data for business and charity alike. But there is of course political resistance. Governments these days often want to sell their data, rather than distribute it for free. And non-governmental organisations in the development sector, even as they call for 'aid harmonisation' and 'aid effectiveness', are often very cagey about releasing raw information which could come back to hurt them. It's a shame, because there's a whole army of people out there looking to use it to good effect.