May 20, 2007

Putting Civil Society on the Map – or Mapping Civil Society for Development

Filed under: Theorising Practice_May 2007 — newritings @ 1:04 pm


The unprecedented growth of civil society organisations at local, national, regional and global levels over the last decade and a half has been widely documented. Civil society organisations (CSOs) are critical actors in the daily life of communities around the world, and a vibrant CSO sector has a critical democratising impact at all levels of society. So profound is its impact that authors like Putnam and others argue that the vibrancy of civil society can be taken as a reliable indicator for public sector responsiveness and economic growth. Our own recent history is testimony to civil society’s contribution to political democracy and our current reality begs the question “is CS playing a role in stabilising our democracy and how does it impact on the political and economic?”

With civil society playing such a critical role, why then do we know so little about what is happening in the sector? So sparse is our knowledge that we are at times quite dismissive of the sector or only take note of the more vocal and well-resourced organisations. The lack of reliable information continues to undermine the true worth let alone engagement with the sector. This gap impedes our intelligence and more specifically our “social intelligence” while we trudge along a certain political and economic trajectories with great uncertainty.

It is in this context and perceived need that Inkanyezi GuideStar was initiated as an effort to start clarifying, understanding and illuminating the role of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs).

The project aims to build a national inclusive database to strengthen CSOs and help promote transparent, accountable and responsive governance in our sector. Inkanyezi Guide Star is a registered non profit organization, and a member of SANGOCO and was founded by leading founding organizations as SANGOCO, the Round up Foundation, and CORN Gauteng, who also sit on its board.

Simply put we must begin with, we need to know who’s who in the zoo – who does what, why and who does nothing!

Civil Society

Civil Society is characterised by such a wide diversity of organisations of different shapes and sizes across the social, political and economic spectrum of society. These range from issue and faith based organisations, soup kitchens, charities, traditional socio-cultural organisation, societies and clubs (from sports/ games to cultural – both formal and informal), professional organisations and a host of other social forms of organisations working tirelessly to weave and reweave our social fabric.

Literature on the subject hypothesise that this sector plays an important role in societal change and stability that is critical for a functioning democracy. It also acknowledges that it is critical for the nurturing and formation of social capital and social cohesion that is important for a healthy society in social, political and economic terms. Robert Putnam [1] and others go so far as to argue that the vibrancy of the sector is a much more reliable indicator for economic prosperity and public sector responsiveness. Arguments and studies abound, we know civil society organisations’ are widespread and everywhere and it is difficult to conceive a society without social forms of organisations. It would be like imagining earth without gravity!

The facts and the figures

The only comprehensive study on the sector done by the John Hopkins university in 2002 on ‘The Size and Scope of the Nonprofit Sector in South Africa” [2] concluded that there were about 100,000 [3] CSOs with a combined operating expenditure of R 9.3 billion, representing 1.2% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. The study also revealed that the sector employs more than 600,000 people, more than a number of major economic sectors. What the figures are today can only be guesstimated.

The Department of Social Development has more than 40 000 registered Non-profit organisations of which plus minus 80% are community-based organisations. The Department of Trade and Industry has less than 10 000 registered Section 21 not-for-profit companies. The total number of estimated registered organisation stands at about 50 000 organisations. [4] In addition, it is anyone’s guess about how many unregistered social forms of organisations are operating inside and outside the social domain and what they doing on the social fabric. With more about 50 000 registered CSOs and another unknown thousands more, the need to know in order to develop our social intelligence is long overdue and more than urgent to understand the tapestry of our social fabric.

The Challenge

The proliferation of CSOs does raise a major challenge for those who engage with them, be they potential partners, corporate social investors, institutional grant-makers, individual donors, those setting tax, disclosure and regulatory policies for CSOs, direct beneficiaries, those seeking CSO expertise on a particular issue, or other CSOs and those seeking to invest and create a better world through corporate social investment. These decision-makers are asking: How do you know with which CSO to engage? How can you tell if CSOs are successful in achieving the objectives they set for themselves? How do we know our giving is making a real difference, How do you know if similar services are already being provided by other organisations in the area? How can you tell that all communities and critical issues are being effectively served by CSOs? How do you know if financial and other resources are being allocated effectively? How do you find other CSOs that are facing operating or strategic issues that are similar to those your own CSO faces? Who do we speak to?

The need to engage civil society organisations in an informed, pro-active and enabling way is a challenge confronting many decision-makers in the public, private and civil society sector today. Reporting and Transparency that are core values for the sector, is crucial to ensure that the work of this vital sector is enabled, efficient, effective, economic and accountable.

And by making the work of CSOs transparent, over time, iGS aims to:

  • enable CSOs to be more visible, accountable and effective
  • strengthen the internal and external reporting framework of CSOs and thereby establishing reporting and accounting as an organisational practice
  • assist in establishing compelling models for transparency for all national institutions,
  • reveal the uses of donor funds (government/public and private) that flow increasingly through CSOs and importantly its impact
  • promote a vibrant, democratic and resourceful civil society
  • enable stakeholders to consistently tract over a time period the existence, growth and impact of particular or groups of civil society organisations

Inkanyezi GuideStar and International Collaboration

The GuideStar model was developed by GuideStar International to stimulate the growth of social intelligence about civil society. GSI’s aim is to support the development of GuideStar systems to illuminate the work of civil society organizations throughout the world. The iGS initiative is modeled on existing successful systems in the US and the UK and is being implemented in over eight developed and developing countries. It was developed to help decision-makers find answers to these and other pertinent questions, to help effective and generous philanthropy and volunteerism and help ensure a vibrant, resourceful and accountable civil society.

Given the South African environment that encourages active civic participation, philanthropy and voluntarism and recognises the value of transparency, Inkanyesi is in an excellent position to realise the same tangible benefits of such a system.

How will it work?

A GuideStar provides a detailed, online catalogue of reports of all CSOs in a country, enabling them to communicate their work effectively and easily to national and international audiences. The data for the system is derived from available government sources as well as information submitted directly online by the CSOs themselves. As in the US and UK, information reported to each national GuideStar system will originate both from digitized government filings and qualitative information entered directly online by CSOs themselves. The resulting displayed CSO information is entirely self-reported and not evaluated by any third party. While financial information is reported, the data framework generally is more focused upon institutional development and performance versus objectives and impact. The integrity of the reporting relies entirely upon its transparency, and admittedly marks only the first phase of accountability. Our view is however, that for any organization that wants to go to the process to place all the organizations details for public scrutiny whilst not a panacea for the ills of our sector – will mark a change and making those seeking to fund the sector more willing to engage, and support a sector in a seemingly permanent funding crisis.

Upon deployment, users will be able to both input data through a simple yet robust interface and search the database using various criteria. Search results and display pages will present both narrative and financial information on the activities of CSOs. The system also includes back-office features for uploading bulk data, integrating with existing online databases, and tracking/verifying the source of data entering the system.

One of the main features of the system is the Global Reporting Framework, an online interface that allows individual CSOs to log in and provide either initial information on their activities or information to enhance an existing government record. The GRF allows CSOs of any size an opportunity to explain their work and demonstrate their transparency to the public. In addition to filling in fields on their operations and programs, CSOs can also upload documents of various formats, including annual reports, press releases, photographs, and copies of government submissions.

To overcome the digital divide and encourage greater participation in the information society, iGS aims to introduce innovative approaches to integrate information technology with activities of organizations at a local level. An example is to hold local CSO accountability weeks in collaboration with local or regional networks of organisations. The intention is to encourage greater reporting and accountability not only vertically to donors, but also horizontally to peers – sister organizations.Through this, CSOs will not only be the subject of interest and research, but also will as bearers of information, start making sense of their own existence and vitality.

Governing Principles

In order to deliver the expected benefits, the basic principles governing the development of this platform will be followed:

  • The system will be a national asset;
  • It will enable participation of all civil society organisations regardless of size or other limiting characteristics;
  • It will not be evaluative or judgmental;
  • Information will be accessible to the public at no cost;
  • It will be operated on a non-profit basis;
  • Value-added services will be provided atop the basic information;
  • Its open platform will enable other intermediaries to offer additional tools and services to their specific audiences;
  • The system will enable transparency and accountability in the sector; and
  • The system will be responsive to the needs of the sector and create opportunities to elevate the work of smaller CSOs in particular;
  • Hopefully encourage peer review and support from within the sector

The Value Proposition for Stakeholders

The IGS public platform will add tremendous value to the programme work of a wide range of stakeholders. Listed below are some of the desirable consequences specific to the work of various actors:

  • Donors and institutional funders will identify, compare, gain confidence and give more generously to CSOs whose work resonates with their personal values.
  • The managers and trustees of CSOs will identify similar organisations to establish best practice, new partnerships and networks for purposes of collaboration and comparison, or to inform new market entry or exit strategies.
  • Through greater CSO reporting and accountability, enable the self-regulatory ability of the sector
  • Researchers and policy makers will map activity by CSOs and thereby gain a greater understanding of the actual workings, opportunities and needs of civil society and be able to develop a composite picture of civil society and the impact of its work.
  • Government oversight agencies and departments will access previously unavailable data to further their fiduciary and service delivery objectives and be better informed in their planning and budgeting functions;
  • Government departments responsible for regulation could use the information to create a more enabling regulatory environment and, perhaps pre-empt more intrusive regulatory strategies;
  • Volunteers, professionals and other contractors who work with charities will be better able to provide useful input to their CSO clients;
  • Third party organisations will utilise GuideStar information to support value-added services and research for specific audiences;


The Inkanyezi GuideStar initiative provides a unique opportunity to develop more reliable information on the sector to make intelligently sense of what is happening and not happening. iGS will make a significant contribution to elevate and illuminate the work of thousands of CSOs as well as creating the opportunity for them to showcase their good work to the public, and in so doing, enabling the internalization of reporting and establishing best practices in accountability. In addition, the platform will also enrich the work of a variety of stakeholders as well as stimulating private and public funding on an equitable basis. We believe that the initiative will make a significant contribution to understanding the contribution of civil society in enriching the lives of thousands of organisations. Lastly, the success of the initiative is dependent on our outreach to CSOs, their willingness to share public information and the degree to which stakeholders use it to advance their work and strengthen civil society.

* Conrad Jardine, Project Manager

This article includes the comments from wide range of people working on IGS including GuideStar International.

[1] Putnam,R. (1993). Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press.

[2] Swilling, M. & Rusell, B. (2002). The Size & Scope of Nonprofit Sector in South Africa. University of Witswatersrand and University of Natal. This research was part of John Hopkins comparative Non-profit Sector Project.

[3] This figure also includes social organisations like burial societies, stokvels (saving clubs) and others that would generally not register as non-profit organisations

[4] These figures are rounded and are based on data obtained mid 2006 and takes into consideration double countingthose registered as NPO’s and S21 not for profit companies. Only trusts that are registered as such are including in this figure

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