Saturday, September 5, 2009

Preliminary Musings About Monitoring in the Third Sector

The ICFO Constitution provides, in part, that “in order to give confidence to donors that donations are used for the purposes for which they are given,” ICFO is committed to “promoting transparency and integrity related to the activities of donor supported non-government charitable organizations” within Europe and other parts of the world. In order to accomplish this objective, ICFO shall formulate standards for non-government charitable organizations working internationally, and shall promote charity monitoring organizations throughout the world.

Burkhard Wilke, the Secretary General of ICFO stated in a conference in Paris, France in March 2003 that non-government organizations (NGOs) have become an important social counterpart to the economic and political forces in society (see, ICFO Publications, “Monitoring Charitable Organizations: Criteria and Assessment Methods). As he noted in this presentation, most NGOs have been granted tax exemption and donors to many, if not most, charitable organizations receive tax deductions for their gifts made that their chosen charitable organization.

Moreover, there is an assumption that NGOs should be accountable to the public. What this means seems a little unclear. We might be able to agree that transparency and integrity and good governance of the NGO are important, and perhaps should be monitored against certain clearly stated standards.

It seems to me that there are two basic questions, and maybe several sub-questions that this blog, and indeed, the entire third sector must address. Part of the dilemma in addressing the issue of transparency and accountability in the sector, and how that is to be monitored, if at all, is definitional.

Perhaps the first and the foundational question is a question of the roles of government and non-government voluntary organizations and institutions in society. At one level, this is a mixed issue of political science and the social sciences. What, for example, is the role and reason for the existence of what may be broadly described as the civil society sector? In what respect should the welfare and cultural needs of a society be addressed by the government and by non-government or volunteer associations and organizations. To a certain extent, different histories and traditions, political philosophies, different legal regimes, and different needs and opportunities, will determine how the welfare and cultural needs of a society, for example, will be met.

However, the question goes beyond simply the provision of welfare and cultural goods and services. It encompasses the role of insuring the transparency, accountability, and trustworthiness of non-government or volunteer associations and organizations. Specifically, at what level should the existence and activities of these non-government and volunteer associations and organizations be regulated and monitored by the government. Or, are there other means of addressing the issue of public and donor trust, and the integrity, transparency, and accountability of the non-government organization or institutions? This latter subject will be addressed in a series of posts representing something of a forum in which guest contributors will express different views on the role of government in regulating and monitoring charitable activity.

It becomes apparent immediately to those of us involved in monitoring the sector that there are different concepts and roles in society for defining the third sector. To a certain extent these may be regional, or based on cultural or historical traditions for identifying the nature of the roles played by various non-government and volunteer associations and organizations. In some cases, the differences in defining the sector simply arise out of the functions performed by various segments within the sector, so that charity, for example, may be thought of as a subset of public benefit organizations which may be a subset of non-government organizations, which may then be a subset of the civil society or third sector.

I hope to explore some of these definitional and functional issues in future blogs. The questions of how the transparency and accountability are to be monitored against certain established standards, and specifically, the roles of governments in regulating matters of transparency and accountability and of independent, nongovernmental monitoring or self-regulation, will be explored by guest contributors to this blog in future posts.


  1. Hi Rollin,

    you're completely right, there are significant differences between various countries in the way how to define the third sector. That is not only a challenge for statistical studies and comparisions. Even more, it reflects different political or ethical perspectives on the sector, and it influences the possibilities how to enhance transparency and how to apply proper monitoring.

    Best regards


    Burkhard Wilke
    Executive Director
    Deutsches Zentralinstitut für soziale Fragen

  2. Burkhard,

    You are absolutely right in what you wrote. It seems to me that perhaps the definition or identification of a broad third sector begs the question of what is the public benefit sector and how that sector advances the public benefit to society in a way that is clearly non-governmental. This is the question that I am trying to explore in this blog. Moreover, it seems that the answers to that question are what we need to determine the nature and extent of charity monitoring, whether by government regulation or by an independent or self-regulation monitoring regime. This, I think is where ICFO can offer some wisdom and maybe action.