Friday, February 1, 2013

Global Trends in Civil Society

In many ways it is difficult to conceive of the power of civil society and the influence of one life without thinking about Mr. Li Ka-shing.  His influence and life are felt not only in Hong Kong where he lives and has the headquarters for his Li Ka-Shing Foundation, but also throughout China, and indeed the world.  Shantou University is the only free standing privately funded university in China, and is a testament to Mr. Li and his commitment to his home of origin in the Chaoshan region of Guangdong Province, South China, and one of his greatest investments in the future of education in China.

Through his Foundation, Mr. Li has dedicated his time, energy, resources, and life to serving the human race.  He has pioneered and supported multiple projects of philanthropy and initiatives around the world with an eye toward social progress and reform.  Each project reflects his belief in the inherent value of each human being regardless of race, class, or circumstances.

This presentation, although sponsored by the Shantou University College of Liberal Arts, Center for Women's Studies, and the Shantou University School of Law, Public Administration Department, was at the invitation of the Li Ka-shing Foundation.  It was presented as part of the Public Lecture Series for the Fall, 2012 term.

29 November 2012
Shantou University
Shantou, Guangdong Province, China

global trends in civil society

©Rollin A. Van Broekhoven, JD, LLM, DPhil, DLitt, DPS

Let’s start now with a few questions.  First, how many of you have given money to charitable organizations, volunteered your time, or otherwise been involved with the third sector?  How many of you have thought that there is a distinction between what charities do and what are properly government responsibilities?  How many of you think that transparency and accountability are important?  If they are important, how many of you think that the government should monitor them, beyond simple registration, or that there should be some form of self-regulation within the sector, or monitoring by an independent monitoring organization within the sector with special experience in the sector?

Well, what about me, and how did I get involved in all this NGO activity, transparency, accountability, and monitoring?  This is my story, and maybe we can draw some lessons from some of the challenges and trends internationally.  Have you ever reflected on what drives you to be involved in charity and the charity sector?  Either as a contributor or donor, volunteer or charity leader?

Preparing for this talk got me thinking about being up front here about my biases and motivations for what I have been doing as a donor to charities, as a member of a number of governing boards of charities or nonprofit organizations, and as someone who has been involved in charity monitoring for over 30 years.

I was raised in the nonprofit sector.  My father and mother were missionaries in Central America, first in Nicaragua and later in Guatemala.

            Admitted, my memory of that time may not be the best, especially when my interpretation of events and my understanding of what I was experiencing was through the eyes of a young boy.  I remember a basically happy time, where the streets and parks were safe, where my mother shopped without fear in the central open market, where there seemed to be a measure of freedom, at least through the eyes and imagination of a young boy.  The countryside was beautiful, and the local Indian people warm and friendly, although very poor.  It was a time when charities, and particularly those of the religious communities, such as the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches flourished.  But, I also remember wars, where the governing authorities were overthrown in revolutions.  I went to a boarding school operated by a mission organization.  I will sprinkle some of the lessons I learned as we think of some of the global trends in nonprofit sector and the challenges charities face throughout the world.

            The first thing I learned from this experience comes from the recognition that I was raised in a Christian family that devoted itself to its religious calling and service to others.  You see, it was in the family that I learned what was important in life and the meaning of calling and stewardship.  I don’t mean to suggest that these are simply religious terms, which they are indeed.  But, rather, there is a difference between being called to serve to poor and others in need, as opposed to be driven to be successful trying to change society and the world to fit my agenda.  My talents, my experiences, my time, and material resources are held in trust, and to that end, my only interest is to be a good steward.  Stewardship defines not only what I do with my talents, experiences, time, and material resources, but also how I am accountable for what I do with them.

A friend told a story about coming home from a business trip and finding this horrible odor in the house.   He searched the house, checked the plumbing and bathrooms, but could not find the cause.  The closer he got to the bedroom, the stronger the odor.  He finally went to sleep in a chair in his library, but still was bothered by the odor.  In the morning he called his son, and together they searched for the source of the smell.  They found the cause, a dead possum in the attic that had burst open because of the summer California heat in the attic.  This occurred during a time in the United States when there were a number of scandals rocking the nonprofit sector.

            Too often, the stench of the scandal is present in the air, but we just aren’t able to pinpoint its cause, unless it is so obvious, and then the cause we discover, tends to be a symptom of the problem, not the real problem.

            Almost invariably, the first thing that happens in these situations is that the State, through its legislature, or regulatory bodies, tries to regulate the sector.  The news media and commentators begin to write and urge governmental action to curb these kinds of scandal, as if the problem is systemic rather than due to some moral or ethical failure on the part of some individual or organization, as if some vague sense of accountability would have prevented the problem in the first place.  The statutory scheme or regulation may take the form of prescribing rules.

All because someone smelled a dead possum in someone’s attic.  Incidentally, I am not making this up.  The regulatory proposals were actually considered by a committee of the United States Senate.  While few of them were actually enacted into law, the danger of this kind of regulatory scheme is still present, perhaps more so today.  This all raises several questions.  One, are transparency and accountability really important and goals to be pursued?  Second, how might we best to insure some sense of achievement of transparency and accountability in the charity sector?  If so, is monitoring of the sector and important means of encouraging organizations to be transparent and accountable, and therefore, trust in the sector?  And finally, if monitoring is an important means promoting public trust in charity, should it be done by government fiat and surveillance, or by independent monitoring or some system of self-regulation, particularly if a government is neither transparent nor accountable?

            CIVICUS in a recent publication state that the “growth of civil society in scale and importance over the past two decades has increased its vulnerability.”  As CIVICUS noted in this release and as those of us who observe the sector know, civil society is challenged from three directions.  The first is internally, by risking public trust.  The second is externally, by political threats to its right to exist.  And thirdly, by the general threats that face humankind as a whole, such as violent conflicts, poverty, and inequality.  My focus here is generally on the first two threats.

            So, first, loss of trust.  Some of this loss simply is the result of scandals that are publicized in the media.  For example, many of you have heard of Greg Mortenson, and his book, Three Cups of Tea.  Greg Mortenson was the founder of the Central Asia Institute.  The purpose of this charity was to build schools for girls in Pakistan.  Millions of dollars were raised for the project, much of it from very prominent and wealthy philanthropists and donors.  The problem was, there just were no schools built.  He wrote the books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools telling about his projects in Pakistan.  There was no segregation between the finances of the charity and Mortenson’s personal finances, and although the charity funded all of his travel, he took the royalty from the sale of these best selling books.

            Then there was the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy that was a massive Ponzi scheme.  The idea was that charities and philanthropist would invest money in US Treasury Notes, which would then be returned to the charity for its projects at an amount double the amount of the initial investment.  The charities/investors represented major prestigious universities, nationally acclaimed orchestras, libraries, and religious charitable organizations.  The money from the late depositors paid off the amounts due to the earlier depositor.

Ultimately, as in all Ponzi schemes, there was no money to pay off the later depositors, and New Era Philanthropy was forced into bankruptcy, owing $350 million with assets valued at approximately $35 million.  Here the massive fraud caused many victims to suffer.  A creditors’ committee was formed for the bankruptcy process, and I was chairman of that committee.  Ultimately, we were able to recover some money through lawsuits against major investment houses and from those charities that came out ahead, and through a global settlement agreement, were able to cover most of the losses.  The point is that this massive fraud caused not only financial damage to over 3000 charitable institutions, but also damaged the trust relationship between the charity sector and the public, and especially, the donor public.

The purpose and scope of the global settlement was to restore trust; public trust in the charity sector that may have been too eager to raise a lot of funds through this kind of a deal; trust between donors and their designated charities, and trust between the workers and volunteers of the charities and the charity management and board.  Pursuing normal bankruptcy procedures and litigation would have destroyed what trust was left after the Ponzi scheme was discovered and the charity filed for bankruptcy.

            You had a different kind of scandal in China with the Red Cross and the Guo Meimei Baby story as it was known, that had all the elements of a trashy novel or television drama.  The pictures showed a young woman draped across and expensive sports car enjoying drinks in the business class section of an airliner, and claiming to be the commercial general manager for the Red Cross Society of China.  Although the Red Cross denied she was employed by the Red Cross, one of the Red Cross’s board members that ran the fundraising campaigns for the Red Cross in China resigned in the midst of allegations that Ms. Guo was his mistress and that her glamorous lifestyle might have been paid for by funds embezzled from the organization.  Shortly after the story broke, the State media reported that up to 90 percent of people polled said that they might refuse to give money to the Red Cross in the future.  Shortly thereafter, the Shanghai branch of the Red Cross Society of China spent 9,859 RMB for a restaurant meal for its staff.  The general view at the time was that both of these scandals would adversely affect the amount of donations given to charity by Chinese citizens.

            These are examples that are going on all over the world.  But, there are similar examples of scandals or events that cause the public to lose trust in other institutions, including business companies and governments.  However, governments receive their funds through taxation and coercion, businesses through the sale of their goods and service.  Loss of trust may adversely affect the authority and reputation of government, or even the existence of the business.  But, a loss of trust to a charity can affect not only the reputation of that charity, but also the well-being of other charities, and indeed, of the entire sector in a community or country, and thus, the welfare of the community.

            The charity sector is also challenged by external threats.  Perhaps some of these external threats simply reflect an offensive against democracy.  As a result of some backlash against these offensives, there has been a pronounced shift from outright repression of democracy to a more subtle effort on the parts of government to restrict the space in which civil society organizations, or CSOs, are permitted to operate.

            The legal and quasi-legal means by which governments restrict the space in which CSOs operate include: (1) barriers to entry, such as those that discourage, burden, or prevent the formation of CSOs; (2) barriers to operational activity, such as the use of law to prevent organizations from carrying out their legitimate activities; (3) barriers to speech and advocacy; that is, the use of laws to prevent organizations and associations from engaging in a full range of free expression and public policy engagement; and (4) barriers to resources, which may include the use of law to restrict the ability of CSOs to secure financial resources necessary to carry on their work.  Legal impediments affect a broad variety of CSOs without regard to their mission or purpose for existing.  In many countries, these impediments are disproportionately concentrated on those organizations that advocate for human rights and political engagement.

            Governments justify these kinds of legal and regulatory measures that serve as barriers as necessary to promote NGO accountability, protect state sovereignty, preserve national security, or harmonize and coordinate the activities of NGOs.  Many governments justify imposing controls on CSOs by accusing independent NGOs of treason, espionage, foreign interference, or terrorism.  But these rationalizations are just that, and the real motivation is almost always political.

            This is not to deny that there is a legitimate role for government with respect to civil society.  Rather, it simply is to recognize that in many countries, these actions by governments that raise barriers to a viable civil society sector, are not for the purpose of defending citizens from harm, but rather protecting those in power from scrutiny and accountability.

            The third risk is the threats that face all of humankind, such as wars or conflicts and natural disasters.  While this does not represent as much a risk to the sector in some ways, it is one area in which charity is very much involved on an emergency basis.  It is an area in which I have seen charity work and threatened first hand.  It is also one that will be with us forever.

            In 1954, there was a civil war in Guatemala.  While it was dangerous for charities to operate during the fighting, my father continued with his leadership of the charity that he founded.  There was a mistake in the targeting, and our property was bombed and attacked by attack aircraft, resulting in a lot of damage.  Yet, almost 60 years later, the charity is as strong as ever, and continues to grow, in large part because of its faithful relationships with donors and accountability.

            Earthquakes are common in Guatemala, and the need for charities and charity support is very high.  Just this month, there were six major earthquakes in Guatemala causing death and destruction.  During the 1960s through 1980s, my father, together with other charitable organizations, took teams of doctors to Guatemala, construction workers, blankets and medicine, to provide emergency relieve and long-term relief.  None of this would have been possible without the financial support of the donor base, the volunteer service of doctors, aid workers, and construction folks, and the accountability and reputation for accountability by my father and his charity.  But, more about that later.


            The first challenge that I have is connected, in part, to the external threat to the charity sector that I just mentioned.  Here, it seems to me, that the challenge is two-fold: one of language and definition, and as part of that, the issue of the nature and roles of civil society and government.  I would like to frame this with a story about how this might confuse us about the definition and nature of civil society and CSOs, or in other words, about what the charity sector is all about.  Picture with me this situation reported in the Washington newspapers: Destitute people in Pulaski County in the mountains of southwest Virginia lined up outside the office of the Pulaski Community Action office, a small poverty emergency assistance charitable organization.
The first client was a young woman with tangled hair and smudged eyeliner, a single mother of two young children who had lost her job at a local restaurant.  She told the aid worker that the Pulaski Community Action office was her last resort.  She had just received a termination notice because of an unpaid electric bill, and was about to get evicted from her home.  She needed $510.15 immediately to cover the past-due electric bill, and asked for help.

The aid worker told her that all she could provide was $35.  Outside the door, there were other voices talking about their needs.  Pulaski, a town of 9,000, had lost 3000 textile workers when the factory closed.  The local Wal-Mart, the main street barber shop, and all eight restaurants in the downtown had closed.

The Pulaski Community Action office had been in town for 50 years and routinely handed out vouchers worth $1000 each week, plus met other emergency needs of the people of that area on an annual budget of $7 million.  Normally, 48 percent of its budget came from the federal budget, 7 percent from the state budget, and in 2009, 15 percent came from the Obama Administration stimulus money, a one-time influx money that was spent by that summer.  The rest came from donations from businesses and individuals.  With so much money coming from federal and state government, the Pulaski Community Action office had lost its donor base because of neglect in sustaining the corporate, philanthropic, and individual donors who would otherwise have been committed to the charitable mission of that organization.

This kind of story is being repeated around the United States, and indeed, around much of the world. There are organizations that are established as charitable organizations to provide for the care of animals, such as horses and dogs in the UK, or trade associations, that have received some funding from the government, that have lost that funding because of budget cuts.  Because of this government funding, they have not developed a base of donors or established relationships with donors to meet their core mission objectives.  My question is whether or not, civil society organizations, such as the Pulaski Community Action office, are truly charities, NGOs, public benefit volunteer organizations, CSOs, or whether they are simply organizations that are serving as arms or programs of the government.

You see, the very concept and definition of civil society raises all kinds of questions.  The classic definition in the West, evolving from the writing of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, to Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 19th century, to modern thought is that civil society represents that intermediate ground between the individual or family and community and government, at any level.

            Consider the warnings of Alexis de Tocqueville as he considered his native France as a growing and centralized state, coddled and an increasingly individualistic and undisciplined populous with more emphasis on pleasure and equality than virtue.

I see an enumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, who turn about without repose, in order to procure for themselves, petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.  Each of them when drawn apart is a virtual stranger, unaware of the fate of others.  His children and his particular friends form the entirety of the human race.

            As for his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he sees them not.  He touches them and senses them not.  He exists only in himself and for himself alone.  And if he has a family, one could say at least that he no longer has a fatherland.

            Over these is elevated an immense tutelary power which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate.  It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle.  It would resemble the paternal power if like that that power it had as its object, to prepare men for manhood.  But it seeks to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood.  It loves the fact that the citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they dream solely of their own enjoyment and happiness, but it wishes to be their only agent and sole arbiter of that happiness.  It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in the principal affairs, directs their industry, divides their inheritances.  Can it not relieve them entirely of the trouble of thinking and of the effort associated with living?

            In this fashion, every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare.  It confines the action of the will within a smaller space and bit by bit, it steals from each citizen the use of that which is his own.  Equality has prepared men for all of these things. 

            After having taken each individual in this fashion by turns, into its powerful hands, and having kneaded him in accord with his desires, the sovereign extends its arms about society as a whole.  It covers its surface with a network of petty regulations – complicated, minute, and uniform – through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way past the crowd and emerge into the light of day.  It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them and directs them.  Rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own.  It does not destroy, it prevents things from being born, it extinguishes, it stupefies and finally, it will reduce each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid, industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

What Tocqueville is suggesting in the extended quote is that the civil society sector could be in danger and the role of government could grow in its influence, power, and control of so much of society, to the extent that all freedoms, acts of will and charity could be snuffed out.

Author George Orwell picks up some of these themes in his novel, 1984, when he argues the central importance of language to human thought because it structures and limits the ideas that individuals are capable of formulating and expressing.  If control of language is centralized in a political agency, Orwell argues that this could alter the very structure of language to make it impossible to even conceive of disobedience or rebellious thoughts because there would be no words with which to think them.

It seems to me that the challenge here pertains to both the role of government with respect to social welfare and social services and its role in monitoring the charity sector.  First, with respect to social welfare programs and similar programs of charities, but funded in part by governments, with the economy the way it is in many parts of the world, funds are being cut and charities cannot perform their charitable services, just like the Pulaski Community Action office.  There is real confusion about what the roles of charity and government are.  When government funds a charitable organization, it has the right to dictate the service, the terms of accountability, and the use of funds.

From what I have read from the scholarly literature here in China that the definition and nature of civil society as understood here may be different from the historical theoretical narrative we see in the West extending from ancient Greek history.  But, there is one more thing I would add here.  While civil society includes all kinds of intermediary institutions between government and the individual, I am not sure that I would equate charity with all forms of civil society, or even with all types of nongovernmental organizations, especially for public policy and tax treatment.  I think that it is possible to separate true social welfare charity, such as housing and feeding the poor, caring for the sick, providing for the orphans, meeting the emergency needs arising from natural disasters, etc., from NGOs that are engaged primarily in advocacy roles.  These may be intermediaries between governments and individuals and responding to what they consider as civil liberties and the goals of democracy.  But, often when they represent large international organizations with certain specific agendas, they may be larger and more powerful than many governments, and as often is the case, their agenda are in direct conflict with public policy in a particular country.

On a related matter, there is also the problem of the role of government with respect to regulating the charity sector.

            Orwell portrays a state in which government monitors and controls every aspect of human life, even to the extent that a disloyal thought is against the law.  In the US, hate crimes legislation comes close to this picture presented in this novel, 1984.  The government controls every source of information, managing and rewriting the content of newspapers and television and radio programs and histories for its own ends.  Memories become fuzzy and unreliable, and citizens, and by extension, NPOs, become perfectly willing to believe what the government says and requires of them.

            By means of technology, the government is able to monitor members and organizations to exert large-scale control over the economic life of the country.  Remember, 1984 was written before computers were invented and widely used.  Throughout the novel, we are presented with a place in which there is no darkness.  Existence is merely a prison cell in which the light is never turned off, symbolizing the main character’s approach to the future and extreme fatalism in which no matter what he does, he is faced with trusting the government for everything.  This level of intrusive accountability forced on the citizen deprives the citizen of any moral character or act of will, including acts of charitable generosity.

            This extended quote of de Tocqueville, and discussion of Orwell’s novel, 1984, point to an interesting transition in my thinking about civil society and of accountability as it affects the civil society movement.  My first concern and interest is the question of roles of government in addressing the public benefit interests of a society and of the civil society concept in addressing public benefit issues.     While this first concern is beyond the scope of my address today, there are a few things that should be said.  The definitions of “third sector,” “civil society,” “public benefit,” “charity,” and “voluntary associations” tend to be rather broad and vague.  Moreover, it is impossible to have a conversation about politics and public policy today, especially in an international context without talking about civil society.

So the second thing I learned from growing up in Guatemala from my parents, and later from my personal experiences and history, from my colleagues and friends as I lived in a number of countries around the world and traveled to over 40 or more countries is that whenever I am in a country other than my own, I am a guest of that country.  I really love being a guest here in Shantou, and in China generally.  It is an enriching and learning opportunity.  It also has a number of effects on how I think and act that may be contrary to many International NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, CIVICUS World Alliance, Earthrights International, Transparency International, or similar groups, and I don’t deny that they are important.  But, this is not where I am intellectually or emotionally, and for other reasons that may be come clear soon.

A third lesson I learned from my parents’ work in the charity sector, and from my colleagues in the sector, and years of working with the government and travel around the world is that all government’s deserve a certain sense of skepticism, both with what they can deliver in terms of social services and good government, and how they can regulate all sectors of national life.  This is not to say that I am anti-government in anyway.  However, as one who has worked for the United States for almost 50 years, but who also spent his formative years in Latin America, I have learned that governments, no matter where they are located and at what level they operate, are not able to provide for all the needs of all the people, and still allow a decent level of personal freedom and personal responsibility.  I also understand that through legal and regulatory regimes, and the exercise of executive powers, civil society organizations may be restricted in what they can do, either through registration processes or regulatory enforcement mechanisms, and that charities will often owe their existence to government decisions.

One might think that the only threat to “accountability” is the assertion of freedom, the protection of trade or business secrets, or of the importance of success, whether it be in fundraising or beating out the competition in achieving favorable notice in the press, or maybe even on the public benefit ground, such as reducing poverty, alleviating homelessness and hunger, conquering cancer or heart disease, or reducing the incidence of HIV/AIDS.

For over the last 30 years, I have been considering this question: Why do we need NPO accountability?  It all seems so simple, doesn’t it, because everyone thinks we need accountability?  So, the first challenge is a question of the definition of civil society, the second challenge is also one of definition and closely related to that, that is, the challenge of the language and definition of accountability.  And, specifically what accountability is all about.

German philosopher, Josef Peeper observed that words first convey reality, that something is real, and then identify it for someone else and that secondly, this denotes the interpersonal nature of human speech.  Since language sustains our engagement with reality and with one another, when words become corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected.

And sometimes, I sense that this is the case in areas outside of politics, especially when we deal with the NPO and NGO sector, and we are unclear just what we mean by our more common euphemisms and cloudy vagueness.  When one listens to someone on a platform somewhere mechanically repeating a bunch of hackneyed and vague terms, we may wonder if we really think about it, if the speaker really knows what he or she is talking about.  We keep hearing terms like: “we need charities to be accountable,” “we need to have more monitoring of charities,” without really saying what we mean by monitoring, and by whom.  Or “we need to give wisely,” “we need to watch our fundraising and administration cost ratios to make sure that they don’t exceed 25 percent.”  “We need better attention by our watchdog agencies to make sure our NPOs are transparent.”  “We need integrity in the public benefit and civil society sector.”  So, it goes.

I think the word “accountability” maybe one of those words that have, or is becoming devoid of any meaning.  So, for example, “accountability” may have no agreed upon meaning and may simply signify something desirable.  Words, such as, “justice” “equality,” “equal opportunity,” “fairness,” may have several meaning, often in conflict with each other and come to mind.

The third challenge is that of postmodernity and postmodernism.  What I am addressing here is the consequences or effect of postmodernity.  Postmodernity is a post-traditional order, but not one which replaces the sureties of tradition and habit with the certitude of rational thought and knowledge as suggested by the Enlightenment.  Rather, doubt is a pervasive feature of modern critical reason, permeating into everyday life as well as consciousness and forming a general existential dimension of contemporary social order.

To be more specific, modernity institutionalizes the principle of radical doubt and insists that all knowledge take the form of hypotheses.  Claims, which may be true, are always open to revision and may have to be abandoned at some point.  Relationships exist solely for whatever rewards that relationship can deliver.  Trust can no longer be anchored in criteria outside the relationship itself, such as criteria of kinship, social duty, or traditional obligation.

            How does “accountability” work in the context of radical doubt and tentative hypotheses that can be revised or abandoned at any time?  Science, technology, and expertise more generally play a fundamental role in what has been called the sequestration of experience.  Systems of accumulated expertise represent multiple sources of authority, frequently internally inconsistent and divergent in their implications.  In the information age with instant availability of data and the explosion of knowledge, there is a belief that harnessing the knowledge explosion offers the key to instant, total information.  The goal is to know everything in order to predict everything, in order to control everything.

            With all of this, there is a growing importance of a “new thinking class,” where everything is segmented and sequestered to a variety of experts to tell us how to run everything, including our nonprofit organizations.  Again, how does an organization become accountable to anyone, including the State or an independent monitoring agency, when so much of what is done by that NPO is done by experts plotting mission strategy, communication strategy, fundraising techniques, accounting practices, and reporting policies, when they may not be communicating with each other or with management or the Board about anything other than their respective areas of expertise.

Where there is no truth, except the statement that there is no truth, and where ideas of an individual may be in flux, interesting, creative, and important for that individual, they can no longer be rejected on the basis of some exclusive truth.  How does accountability square with any sense of reality?

            How do we define and encourage accountability when concepts of morality and ethics are confined to the private domain of personal preference and opinion, and when decisions and conduct occur far away from the central management authority and the community in which the leadership, including management and board is known?

            A fourth challenge to understanding the idea and consequences of accountability is what I would call the challenge of the appearance of impropriety.  Over the last 20 to 30 years, we have been engaged in a far-reaching effort to increase public confidence in institutions through the use of ethical rules.  We have rules dealing with legal ethics, judicial ethics, medical ethics, business ethics, and ethics for almost every possible conceivable profession or vocation.

            Although these kinds of rules and principles have been around for a long time, what is unique in the last 20 to 30 years, has been the fact that these rules stress appearances and procedures, rather than matters of substantive morality and ethics.  The main effects derived from this outburst of ethics have been the proliferation of bureaucracies to enforce them, journalists, ethics consultants, and political operatives focusing on what is now the cottage industry of appearances of impropriety.  To an unprecedented degree, ethics legislation and rules focused on appearances – both on the appearance of proper or improper conduct on the part of public officials, professionals, and executives, and on the appearance of enforcement by authorities.

            How does accountability thrive in the context where the true facts relating to ethical conduct can be manipulated by good public relations experts?  What we have here is accountability by spin where reality may be hidden and what is disclosed can give a false impression of the true facts.

            After all, both as human beings disclosing an account of one’s actions or failure to act, and as human beings receiving that information, subject to all the human frailties in human communication, we will never really understand perfectly just what the true facts are or were with respect to decisions made and conduct which implements those decisions.

            The fifth challenge is the assumption that accountability represents some moral virtue.  Several years ago I argued in a paper, Why Do We Need NPO Accountability? that contrary to public understanding, including that within the third sector, “accountability is not a moral virtue.”  Rather, it is simply the language used by certain “experts” to describe and evaluate the process of whether money was treated in accordance with certain specified rules.

            Thus, if the government prescribes rules of accounting, governance, fundraising, or some operational practices, accountability may require the NPO to report, explain, or justify its actions to the government and to the public if the government prescribes laws that require such public disclosure.

            The challenge is this: if the ultimate goal in ethical conduct is the raising of funds, the management of those funds for the public benefit purposes that define the particular NPO, the conduct of operations consistent with accepted norms of morality, and ethical and responsible governance, i.e., stewardship, then accountability does not define the moral virtue, rather it merely reports what is minimally required to be disclosed by law, regulations, or some “Ethical Standards of Integrity” promulgated by some monitoring agency.

            It would seem, therefore, that the concept of “accountability” cannot exist alone and without some external reference or moral principle.  Moreover, if there is to be true accountability, then the individual or the organization must be “transparent.”  That is, must be open, frank, honest, and candid, so that what is behind the scene, whether agenda, decisionmaking, financial integrity, responsible governance, can be recognized and detected by those outside the immediate organization.

            So, I might add here that the fourth thing I learned from my parents and my experience from growing up in Guatemala in a missionary family and my 35 years of work within the charity sector is the importance of accountability, or of being accountable to someone or some group.  You see, in those days, and to a certain extent even today, most missionary societies in Europe and in the United States required their missionary workers to raise their own financial support from individual donors as they went out around the world; to Africa, India, China and other parts of Asia, and to Central and South America.  Those preparing to go out into missionary service raised funds from organizations, churches, and individuals, with the donations made directly to the missionary society or charity.  Salaries, expenses, and project costs were then paid by the society or charity.

            I remember evenings, especially after I had gone to bed, when my father sat down at his typewriter writing personal thank you notes and project reports to those who had given money for our family support and for project costs.  He did this for almost sixty years during which he served as a missionary, and right up to the time he died.  My father and mother, when they returned to the United States, would visit those organizations, churches, and individuals that contributed money to the cause to thank them and to report on their work.  My father and mother believed that they were part of a team effort of which they were the point of the spear, whereas those who contributed were also part of the team and every bit as important to the accomplishment and success of the work.

The sixth challenge is what I call “Media Ecology.”  The point here is not simply how we use technology and new media or the social media.  It is much more than that.  It is what we are becoming because of the technology and new media.  Our communications have become totally impersonal, and we tend to live in a virtual world rather than actual reality.

About 40 years ago, I became quite interested in the work of Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher, sociologist, theologian, and law professor teaching at the University of Bordeaux, France.  He wrote in his best-known book, The Technological Society, that regarding technology, instead of being subservient to humanity, “human beings have to adapt to it and accept total change.”

 Many years ago, during a symposium, he told a story of a friend of his, a well-known surgeon in France, who was asked by a man, also a surgeon, whether he was aware, as surely as he must have been, of the technology and its process.  The doctor gave a somewhat humorous but serious answer: I am of course very familiar with the progress in medical technology and science.  But, ask yourself this question, he replied: Currently we carry out heart transplants, liver transplants, kidney transplants.  But, where to those hearts, those livers, those kidneys come from?  They must be healthy organs; not affected by illness or damage.  They must be fresh.  They can only come from one place.  From people who died in traffic accidents.  So, to carry out these transplants, we need more traffic accidents.  If we make driving safer, we will have fewer organs with which to carry out these wonderful operations.

One of the illusions we have is that technology gives us more freedom.  But freer to do what?  Freer to go more places, see more things.  And it is true, I guess, at least if you have more money.  So, I noticed during the National Holiday here in April that millions of people in Beijing decided to go someplace or do something different on the holidays.  They acted independently of each other and were free to make any decision and go anywhere they wanted to go.  The trains were full.  It was impossible to get a taxi, and when I did, it took an hour to go to my destination, rather than the usual 20 minutes.  I wonder how many of these people thought of the wonders of technology and freedom they enjoyed because of it.

In a technological society such as ours, it is almost impossible for a person to be responsible.  For example, you have a dam, and one day it bursts and destroys property, kills thousands of people, and leaves countless others homeless because of flooding.  Geologist did the survey and determined that the rock could hold the dam.  The engineers built the dam and supervised its construction.  Workers built the dam.  And politicians decided that the dam was needed for flood control and hydroelectric power, and where it should be constructed.  Who is responsible?  No one.

You see, in our technological society, including that with computers, mobile phones, social media, text messaging, work is so fragmented and often bureaucratically determined and controlled.  Everyone has a specific task and does not have freedom to go beyond that task.  The nonprofit sector is no different.

About 400 years ago, René Descarte, discovered what he thought was an unshakable foundation to self-discovery and human knowledge.  Thus, “I think, therefore, I am.”

Today, our electronic and digital equipment have redefined how we think and communicate with others, and how we have access to the world of information.  Many people now locate self-discovery and human knowledge, not in their own thinking, but in the smartphone.  Thus,”iPhone, therefore, I am.”

This evening my focus during this part is not just on the iPhone, or other smartphones, but on new media generally, and on virtual reality, and how these affect the way we think and act.

Prior to 1454, communication between people was basically personal, whether in oral or written form.  In other words, people communicated with each other directly, usually in the context of a relationship.

In 1454, there was the beginning of mass distribution of information through the printed media.  This was dramatically increased through electronic media during the period following 1939.  Time and space boundaries were collapsed.  We were able to experience things vicariously around the world.  Now, we are hardly able to distinguish between reality and fiction.

With the advent of the digital era since 2000, and the advent of new media and social media, communications have become almost totally impersonal, and we tend to have more virtual relationships that real personal relationships, and we have the advent of virtual reality instead of actual reality.

Although mobile phones have been around for about 20 plus years, what has changed in the past 10 years has been the presence of smartphones beginning in 2002.  But, it was the release of the iPhone in 2007 that brought the smartphone into mainstream use.  Of the 6.2 billion mobile phones in the world, essentially all are SMS capable, and 1.08 billion or approximately 18 percent are smartphones.  This percentage is down a little in the last two years, most likely due to the advent of the iPad and other tablets.  Most mobile phones are now both SMS and email capable.  The statistics regarding text messages are amazing.  But, the mobile phone is not longer simply a means of communication between two people.  Rather, with its connection to the Internet, it is essentially a computer where all can be gods, knowing almost everything, being essentially present all around the world, and with our grasp of information, all powerful and able to effect all kinds of things.  We don’t need to know anything.  We get all we need to know from the Internet.  We don’t read newspapers and books.   All we do is surf the Internet on our phones.  We no longer need to carry on discussions or have relationships.  All we need to do is send text messages, and 140 character tweets and Weibo texts and pictures.  We don’t need to have personalities.   All we need to do is Google, or Baidu a joke website and we can be funny on demand.

In the US, we are addicted to Twitter.  Twenty-eight percent of all iPhone users check their Twitter accounts or update them before getting up in the morning.  Twenty-three percent of all iPhone users check their Twitter accounts before turning on their television sets, and about the same percentage of iPhone users get their news in the morning from Twitter.  Forty-eight percent of smartphone users check their Facebook and Twitter accounts before going to bed at night.

I am not sure that it is much different in China with Weibo.  What I find interesting is that in the comparison between Weibo and Twitter, the percentage of active Weibo registered users is almost twice as high as the number of users for Twitter.  What is also interesting is that more mobile phone users socialize online through new media than do on computers, and more women socialize online through smartphones than do men.  Looking at this from a charity perspective, if giving and financial decisions in the home are made primarily by women, as they are in the US, then this is a significant tool for reaching them.

Fundraising for the Haiti earthquake relief through new media and text messages was very successful, at least right after the earthquake and with all the horrible pictures on television.  It was a little different for the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan.  The pictures on television were emotionally draining.  The appeals for money went out.  For example, the Red Cross in the US put out an appeal for the Japan disaster, and in the first week raised $4 million, of which $1.5 million was raised by text message.  Very effective for impulse giving, $10 at a time in a text.  No relationship between giver and Red Cross, and indeed between the giver and the immediate need in Japan.  No possibility of meaningful accountability for the money raised and spent on the emergency.  Besides, it is not clear how much of the money raised by the Red Cross actually got to Japan for disaster relief.  But, that is another story.

So, if the first lesson I learned from my parents growing up in Guatemala and from my experiences in the charity sector was that my service to others represented a sense of calling and stewardship, and if the second lesson I learned was that I was a guest in the country in which I found myself, and if the third lesson was one of skepticism about what government can do, and if the fourth lesson I learned was the importance of accountability, then the fifth lesson I learned was that my effectiveness and the effectiveness of the charity takes place in the context of relationships.

You see, this involves learning about the history, culture, and traditions of the people with whom I work and to whom I offer assistance, or funding.  In countries that are not my own, this might involve learning the language, meeting and knowing the people and their interests and needs.  My father brought into his circle of advisers, including members of his charity board, national Guatemalan leaders, technicians, and specialists.  Not because the law required it at the time.  Rather, because he wanted the relationship and advice of those who knew the country, its people, and wanted to be a part of the mission of the organization.  My father not only loved his work, he loved the Guatemalan people.

Have you seen couples, or a group of friends at a table in a restaurant eating, but instead of talking, they are engaged with their smartphones, checking their email messages, surfing the web, or sending and receiving texts?  As Marshall McLuhan puts it, “on the air and on the phone, you have no body.”  Although present, they are absent from each other.  Rather than be some place, they are no place.  They are part of the global village, anywhere and nowhere.

What is missing in most of the current fundraising practices is this idea of giving both finances and volunteer services on the basis of relationships; relationships with the charity organization and its leadership, with a sense of mission for what the organization is doing, and with the ultimate beneficiaries.  Impulse giving through psychological manipulation may be effective at raising funds, and maybe lots of funds very quickly, but it does not develop a sustaining donor base.  It may work for emergencies, but will not work for the normal, continuous charitable operations of the organization, especially one that is involved in the daily grind of feeding the poor, housing the homeless, healing the sick, and educating and caring for children, none of which involve emergency operations covered on television.

So, with a simple text message, we can send US $5 or $10, or RMB 50 to a phone company to be passed on to some charity or NGO.  Four or six weeks later, we get the phone bill and don’t even pay attention to what we have been billed.  Besides, the image on the television screen is gone, and the text message long forgotten among the 1000 text messages we send out every month, all part of the $350 billion a year SMS business.  By the way, this kind of fundraising does not sustain the donor base of the charity, and as everyone knows, it cost more to acquire new donors than to keep them.

Moreover, while social media or new media may work well for branding, I have seen no evidence that it is any more effective at raising funds than direct mail, or as a result of personal appeals and relationships.  Part of the explanation arises out of the use of social media.  Much of the generous giving occurs at the upper income levels and older population.  Yet, most of the use of social media is found in those 44 years of age and under.  Where many in this population spread live in a virtual reality with virtual friends and followers, or as Marshall McLuhan puts it, “on the air and on the phone, you have not body,” the reality of sustained giving and volunteer service in actual reality becomes much more difficult.

There may be one positive outcome to this use of social media.  In a recent Wall Street Journal article discussing China’s recent 18th National Congress, and the transition to new leadership, said that as Mr. Xi Jinping takes over the reigns of the government leadership of China, he, and is government will experience the sharpened gaze of half a billion Internet users.  With the wide-spread use of Weibo and similar microblogging capacity, with the short statements, but more important, with publication of public documents, photos, and videos, leaders face unparalleled scrutiny.  While I am no competent to address the political implications of this, the same capacity and tools for monitoring the government and publicizing the results through social media might well apply to public monitoring of charity, at least those charitable organizations that are in the news.


There is an ancient warning that “men are condemned because light came into the world, but that men liked darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.” (Jn 3:19)  Although this warning addresses a different matter, the fact is that it is human nature to hide what one does, and to avoid transparency.  Accountability properly understood addresses that basic human problem.

            The issue here is one of abuses, such as where funds are improperly diverted into private hands, where there is fraud, self-dealing and enrichment, where there are payments of excessive compensation to key employees, and the like.  It is also the absence of effective stewardship and use of funds donated.  But, it is much more than that, isn’t it?  In a world in which we use language carelessly, it is important that we be clear about what we call accountability.

            If the word, accountability, just becomes one more useless cliché, euphemism, question-begging term, or a term clouded with vagueness, we accomplish nothing in advancing the cause of ethical standards and responsibility.  We need to be clear that accountability involves describing something that is real, complete, accurate, and current, to someone.  In other words, it involves both rationality and relationality.  There must be a disclosure or accounting of reality that can become apparent to all observers.  Secondly, that disclosure must be made within the context of a relationship, however that relationship is established and defined.  Accountability, if it is to be effective, must be based on conduct or activity measured against certain standards.

            Moreover, it is virtually impossible to recognize some universal, binding moral principles that would govern where the postmodern culture denies the existence of such standards.  While nation/states may not be able to prescribe standards for accountability with respect to extraterritorial conduct, it would seem that if an accountability standard is to provide for the open, candid, honest, complete, accurate, and current disclosure of the agenda, decisionmaking, financial affairs and integrity, and governance, it should have some extraterritorial reach.  Otherwise, we are only getting part of the picture of the quality and exercise of stewardship, and whatever we think of accountability just is not going to happen.

            Too often, our emphasis has been on appearances, and specifically appearance of impropriety.  It is so much easier to just look at the surface appearance than to do the hard work of investigating suspected wrong doing.  If accountability is to be worth anything, then the standards must be clear, the compliance procedures must be fair and complete, and the disclosure of the investigation must be honest with respect to the failure and the sanction.

If the general idea is that transparency is important to prevent unethical or irresponsible conduct, then it seems to me that a culture of transparency and accountability is required if the leadership of the NPO, board and management, are to govern and lead the organization with integrity and wisdom.  In other words, internal accountability is absolutely essential to the proper operation of the NPO.  Moreover, there will never be external transparency and accountability if there is lacking internal transparency and accountability.

The argument has been made that billions of dollars in the US, and I suspect elsewhere, are transferred each year to nonprofits, and there is no market or voters to exercise discipline to assure that they are providing something of value to society.  According to this argument, nonprofits are accountable to no one but their boards and few boards make the effort to assure that these groups are being productive so as to merit the support they receive from donors.

I have trouble with this argument, especially when it is the basis for asserting more active government involvement in regulating and monitoring the sector.  It seems to me that the basic argument is premised on the idea that ultimately, the government is the owner of all things, including all financial resources in the country, and it is only on the basis of some act of grace or largess that governments allow individuals and organizations to hold some of these resources in trust to accomplish the societal goals governments deems worth of promoting.  In other words, citizens have no real freedom with regard to what they are free to do with the resources that have come into their possession.

Notwithstanding this philosophical difference I have with that argument, transparency and accountability are important to developing and enhancing trust with the donors, donor public, and with the public generally.  Most givers do not have either the requisite expertise or time or inclination to engage in appropriate due diligence to ensure that their donations are directed to the charitable purpose that they intend to support.  Accountability to independent monitoring agencies, to the news media, to governments, and to the public generally, serves at least some minimal purpose to provide that assurance of the responsible stewardship of the NPO.  But it still depends on some integrity and character of those who have the responsibility of accountability.


             The thesis that I have been working with is this: The present model for NPO accountability is not a sustainable model if its purpose is to promote integrity and transparency on the part of charities.  The model is this:  Some authoritative body, such as the State or an independent monitoring organization, establishes rules regarding what type of information must be disclosed.  The required information to be disclosed is based on the State’s value set and not on any universally binding moral principles.  Secondly, accountability requires disclosure of this specified information to designated individuals or entities, such as the State, the public, or some independent monitoring agency or entity.  Third, for the most part, accountability is confined to providing information regarding the process of accounting for funds and whether the NPO complied with certain processes or procedures in accumulating and reporting the funds received and expended.  Except with respect to certain tax related information, there is limited accountability if any, required of any organization not submitting itself to accountability and monitoring, which represents the vast majority of NPOs.

For reasons which I will explain, I do not think that this model is sustainable, and the question is whether there is another model which would more adequately address the weaknesses in the current model, or if in the end, we decide that this is as good as it is going to get and we better just learn to live with its limitations.

The first model is simply an accountability structure imposed by the government.  First, with millions of tax-exempt organizations around the world, governments simply are not going to be able to monitor them, nor will governments be able to assure their accountability either to the government, the general public, or any monitoring organization.  In fact, theoretically, the only sector that is fully accountable to the political process is government.  Yet, there is something uniquely risky possessed by the government’s coercive monopoly to justify subjecting it to the very costly and inefficient discipline of elected politicians and sovereign electorate whose vocabulary is limited to two words: “yes” or “no.”

In many countries, the basic rules regarding registration and perhaps some form of tax exempt status is the most basic regulatory form.  Little is required other than the filing of some forms and a rather routine decision as to whether the organization meets the basic requirements of the law for its existence, and if applicable, its tax exempt status.  The basic danger here is that the government can deny status based on its perceived political values and goals.  I think the interest with this model, however, relates to a more intrusive and extensive regulatory scheme, such as the one proposed earlier in the US, and in Norway, for example, and potentially what might be possible under the various forms of the Law on Associations and Non-Government Organizations, here in Cambodia.

Some weaknesses with this model include:

1)                     Standards without monitoring offer little assurance to the donor public regarding transparency, integrity, and accountable and responsible governance of the CSO.  But heavy-handed government monitoring with reporting of suspected fraud or some other kind of irregularities to police and law enforcement authorities, with potential denial of status or criminal prosecution tend to increase administrative costs.  There would be an increased need for accounting and expert legal services.  Data in the United States suggests that there is little evidence that this assures the public that finances and operations are in accordance with the law.  Eg. Three Cups of Tea.

2)               With government regulatory schemes and monitoring, differences of opinion regarding practices of charitable organizations often turn into the criminalization of disputes, again handled by people with little or no experience or expertise in the sector.  As a result, while the costs associated with compliance with complex regulations, obtaining status permit or authority, and avoiding sanctions, including criminal investigations and prosecutions, may be absorbed by larger NGOs, including major INGOs, it could drive smaller charities out of operation.  This might be referred to as the Full Employment Act for Lawyers, Accountants, and Public Relations Specialists.

3)                      While “experts” with accounting and finance and legal backgrounds may evaluate financial reports and filings with the government, government “experts” seldom, if ever, have competence in civil society and public benefit sector, especially in that portion of the sector operated by religious organizations.

            My second concern is that in the context of accountability, governments could set the terms of accountability by the regulation of the sector in lines with what I described earlier.  What I am thinking of here is redefinition of public benefit according to some perceived public policy, frequent and period applications for reviews of the tax-exempt status of an organization, establishment of standards for government reviews of organizational functions, operations, and documents describing the decisionmaking process and decisions, demands for increased data in informational tax returns, penalties for failure to file timely returns or minor clerical errors in the returns, detailed policies regarding the make-up and governance practices of the governing board, and delegations of enforcement practices to other authorities, to include increase in exposure to civil and criminal litigation.

The second model is the model of financial disclosure practiced by a number of valuable organizations, such as GuideStar.  Here, the disclosed information is often restricted to that which appears in informational tax returns or self-reporting.  Many of these reports or disclosures contain rather technical accounting information that is not particularly accessible to the donor.  Without diminishing the importance of financial information and its disclosure, this type of reporting says little about the organization, its governing structures and quality, its fundraising practices, the quality of its operations, potential conflicts of interest, and its compliance with law or other standards.

The third model is one in which an independent monitoring organization focuses on financial analysis and rating schemes.  The advantage here is that this is generally a totally independent monitoring scheme.  The disadvantage is that it is a totally monitoring scheme, usually funded by some wealthy, self-appointed individual with the goal of cleaning up the sector, but without any appreciation or understanding of the nature of charity.  Monitoring charities through the simple use of financial ratios, such as funds raised to fundraising and administrative costs, and rating schemes will tell little about the integrity of its governance, its fundraising practices, its effective use of funds raised and disclosure regarding projects and financial information, and avoidance of conflicts of interest for example.

If the general idea is that transparency is important to prevent unethical or irresponsible conduct, then it seems to me that a culture of transparency and accountability is required if leadership of the NGO, Board and management, are to govern and lead the organization with integrity and wisdom.  In other words, internal accountability is absolutely essential to the proper operation of the NGO.  Moreover, there will never be external transparency and accountability if there is lacking internal transparency and accountability.

Finally, I think we can look to the model followed within ICFO circles.  It is a model in which there is either self-regulation within the sector by an independent monitoring organization, or independent monitoring that is not part of a self-regulation scheme.

According to statistics contained in a report issued by One World Trust in London, there are more than 350 self-regulation independent monitoring initiatives worldwide, and in most regions of the world.  There is an attempt by CSOs to come together to define common standards and principles to improve practices, protect the sector’s political space, and build donor and public trust and confidence.  These range from codes of conduct, certification schemes, information services, compliance systems, and systems for measuring effectiveness.

It does not necessarily depend on increasing the number of organizations within a country that are required to be accountable as part of the monitoring and certification or accreditation scheme.  With millions of tax-exempt organizations around the world, governments simply are not going to be able to monitor all of them, nor will governments be able to assure their accountability, either to the government, the general public, or any monitoring agency.
            Applied to the NPO sector, what I see happening is there is a form of “peer” review and accountability.  The model employed by ECFA in the United States is based on a panel of specialists, such as fundraisers, accountants, lawyers, NPO operational leaders, and the like, examining the disclosures of monitored NPOs against set Standards of Responsible Stewardship.

            Relationships can be established and nourished through transparent communication between the panel and the charity involved.  The expertise is present to interact with the NPO, and bonds of trust are developed where the emphasis is on enabling corrective compliance with the Standards and best practices rather than on sanctions, such as termination of the accreditation.

            Although there are different models within the ICFO membership, and the model I just described is employed by one of the members, the point is that each monitoring organization has promoted a set of Standards of Accountability, and monitors charities against those standards to determine compliance with the Standards.  Sanctions are imposed for noncompliance, particularly if the charitable organization is unable or unwilling to correct the deficiency.  The Standards cover governance, finances, conflicts of interest, fundraising practices, and disclosure of financial reports and other reporting requirement.

            What a seal-granting or certification model does is that it provides guidance to charities and promotes self-reporting and on site investigation, where there is meeting between leadership and the survey team, not only to ensure compliance, but also to encourage those who are insecure in how they operate and lead their organizations.  But, also it provides a means for publicly defending charities that are falsely accused of noncompliance with certain standards of accountability.

            My interest over the past 45 years in the sector is not simply viewing my involvement as a donor, or contributions of other donors, as a financial transaction.  I do that when I pay my taxes.  Rather, it is my embrace of the needs of my fellow human community and how those needs are being met by the organizations I support.

            New College is one of the colleges of the University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.  New College was founded in 1379, and it was called New College because it was new, the ninth college in Oxford, and I guess it is still new by Chinese standards.  It is also one of the largest colleges of the University of Oxford.

            As in many or most of the Oxford colleges, the Hall, or dining hall, and chapel are very beautiful.  Around the turn of the century, that is, 1900 or shortly before, engineers discovered that a kind of beetle had been eating away at the high beams in the Hall.  When I was in Oxford in 2000, or maybe a little later, engineers and inspectors had found the same kind of problem of in the Duke Humphrey Reading Room, where the beams had been badly damaged by beetle infestation.

            The buildings in these pictures of New College were built during the 1370 to 1385 time period.  When the beetle infestation damage in the New College Hall was discovered, and it was determined that the large beams needed to be replaced, the college discovered that there were no oak trees in Great Britain large enough to produce the size and kind of beams that were necessary for the project.  So, someone asked the college forester and learned from him that there was a grove of oak trees planted in college lands during the 14th century to be grown specifically for a time such as this.  College foresters had been told through the centuries that the land could be managed and trees cut down, except for these large oak trees that were to be untouched in case they were needed for harvesting for the replacement of the beams in the Hall and Chapel.

            This is the kind of long-term thinking that has carried this charity, New College, Oxford, for over 600 years, and that has allowed it to thrive so well.  Maybe this kind of thinking is out of date and old fashioned, but there was no crisis fundraising, text message contributions, or panic for the college so that it could replace these badly damaged beams.  Maybe if we did more of this long-term planning and were transparent and accountable to our constituencies, we too would thrive and do well.

            Theologically, the interesting point in all of this discussion of charity monitoring, whether by a government or independent monitoring organizations, is the vindication of the theological doctrine of original sin.  Otherwise, why would we be concerned with fundraising practices, decisionmaking, transparency and accountability, and monitoring?  What we are really interested in, it seems to me, is empowering the charity sector to tend to the poor, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, and to shelter the homeless, and in the process promote public trust through our promotion of moral virtue and competent leadership within the sector and from the sector.

"The humble heart is the beginning of all knowledge; service is the hallmark of a life well lived."

Li Ka-shing 

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