Interview – Mayan Quebral

On the face of it, Philippine civil society seems to be in good shape – strong enough to bring down governments and, through the Philippine Council for NGO Certification, a leader in civil society accountability.

However, as Caroline Hartnell found out when she talked to Mayan Quebral of Venture for Fund Raising, it rests on an infrastructure that is patchy and sometimes weak: NGO networks with unclear purpose, little investment in board and officer training – or even recognition of the need for it – and a resource base that is largely reliant on foreign donors. All these issues need to be tackled if Philippine civil society is to retain its vitality.

What factors have been important in the development of Philippine civil society?

Philippine civil society is one of the most dynamic in the region, with a long history and currently up to 500,000 NGOs. It really came to prominence, however, under the Marcos dictatorship when, following the shooting of his former rival Benigno Aquino Jr in 1983, NGOs and citizens’ movements staged mass protests culminating in the People Power Revolution, which brought Marcos down. Under the subsequent Aquino administration, the number of NGOs began to grow. The new-found freedom to organize and the influx of official development assistance (ODA) were key factors here. Government recognition of the sector was also important. The 1987 Constitution gave NGOs the power to represent the people’s interests in consultations on local and national issues, as well as in governance and policy-making.[1]

In 1991, the Local Government Code devolved the provision of certain services to Local Government Units (LGUs) and made NGO involvement in these bodies mandatory. The Code specified that LGUs should promote the establishment and operation of NGOs. It also permitted them to cooperate with them in areas like socioeconomic development and environmental protection. Other local government bodies – like the health board, school board and pre-qualification bids and awards committees – were also to have NGO representation.[2]

This trend has continued. What’s more, recognizing that NGO leaders can influence policy and restore credibility to an ailing administration, post-Aquino presidents have brought them increasingly into the political fold.

However, government has not yet set rules for the implementation of such provisions, nor is there a non-profit legal infrastructure organization to track its effectiveness in practice. Several government/quasi-government agencies have loose oversight functions for some facets of NGO work[3] but there has been no concerted effort to create an enabling, rationalized regulatory framework.

Knowledge of the non-profit sector is similarly piecemeal. There is still debate on which organizations should be included and estimates of number differ, depending on the perspective of the organization making the estimate.[4]

What steps have been taken towards self-evaluation and self-regulation?

In 1998, the country’s six largest national NGO networks[5] established the Philippine Council for NGO Certification (PCNC)[6] to evaluate NGOs in areas such as administration, governance, programmes and financial management. PCNC was to decide which NGOs should get donee institution status and the privilege of granting tax breaks to corporate donors. This was in response to tax reforms planned by the Department of Finance, which wished to remove NGO donee institution status altogether.

Is there a recognized effective NGO training institution, programme or other means to contribute to building the capacity of people in the sector?

Organizations inside and outside the sector offer training in various specialized areas. Both the Asian Institute of Management and the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction offer graduate programmes in development management for mid-level non-profit managers. The Center for Leadership, Citizenship and Democracy[7] also tackles civil society and NGO management in some of its training and consultancy programmes. Venture for Fund Raising runs workshops for other NPOs on more creative and efficient resource mobilization. PRESS provides workshops in communications and public relations. NGO networks, such as the Association of Foundations and Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP), provide capacity-building workshops in areas such as board development, resource mobilization and volunteer management.

So there is provision for NGOs’ training needs, but capacity-building is still not a top priority for NGO managers. This is often a question of resources – paying for training might mean giving less to an under-resourced community. Relying mainly on grant funding or corporate sponsorship, as they do, NGOs struggle to get resources to meet ‘overheads’ such as training.

What do you see as the main weaknesses of Philippine civil society?

It needs to develop strong and broad-based support. For all its apparent strides towards legitimacy, it has only limited public support. While the 1986 People Power Revolution was a genuinely popular movement, it was a response to the Catholic Church’s call to action against the dictatorship and didn’t include groups from the militant left. ‘People Power 2’, which toppled President Estrada in 2001, had a broader support base, but it was criticized as a revolution of the business elite and the intelligentsia. So it’s questionable if the better-known NGOs represent the interests of the Philippine people as a whole. If not, where does civil society derive its legitimacy from?

There is also a possible downside to relations with government. Those who used to serve as a check to government actions have sometimes become part of it. While it’s right that civil society should be involved in policymaking, its leaders must be careful that this doesn’t undermine their ability to oppose government. Furthermore, many of these leaders are charismatic individuals who retain some influence over an organization and its constituency even after they have been co-opted into government. Although they no longer make formal decisions, they often influence major policies and programmes – and organizations compound the problem by seeking their aid in soliciting government support.

The movement of civil society leaders to government highlights the challenge of leadership development. Too many NGOs fail to survive the departure of a ‘charismatic leader’, and there is no programme to train successors. NGOs must also learn how to win public support as organizations. They often rely on the popularity of a leader or celebrity endorser, and if this wanes or is withdrawn, they tend to lose public approval as well.

Historically, Philippine NGOs get most of their funds through ODA or local and multinational corporations and corporate foundations. This means they are geared to appeal to donor agencies rather than their constituencies. What’s more, donors are backed by foreign governments and large corporations, which fuels the suspicion that Philippine civil society is controlled by the business elite.

Now, with ODA in steady decline,[8] the growing NGO population is left with fewer resources. The sector urgently needs a resource base that is more reliable and legitimizes it in the eyes of Philippine society. It’s a vicious circle: civil society needs local giving for credibility, but it needs credibility before it can access local resources. Few organizations provide training in innovative resource mobilization and NGO managers themselves often don’t see the need for this sort of training.

Why, in spite of apparently being at the forefront of developing civil society accountability, have NGOs not succeeded in convincing the Philippine public?

Because they relied so much on funding agencies, there was no incentive for Philippine NGOs to think about their wider appeal. They only needed to convince perhaps one funding agency programme officer. This affects human resources too, with the sector relying over and over on the same people. The same faces appear at NGO conferences and on NGO boards. We need to proselytise, not preach to the converted.

Also, PCNC is only the first step towards true self-regulation and accountability. Many of the issues that PCNC evaluators face – such as how NGOs define their contribution to the ‘the public good’, improving programme monitoring, and financial management – cannot easily be addressed by a single monitoring body.

The PCNC has accredited only a few hundred NGOs and very few more have actually applied. Many NGOs find the application fee of Php10,000 (approximately US$185) too steep for a process they’re not even sure to pass, and only NGOs who wish to solicit from corporate donors actively seek accreditation. Those that can access funding from non-corporate sources don’t see the need to apply for donee institution status. More than an issue of operational sustainability, the PCNC faces the much larger issue of relevance.

How well are Philippine infrastructure organizations working to help NGOs to address the challenge of reaching a wider public?

Apart from Venture and PRESS, to my knowledge there are very few others addressing this challenge, such as some of the NGO networks. But there is a growing awareness of the need to ‘re-invent’ the NGO sector. Since only a few in the sector acknowledge it, help in this regard has come mainly from business. Campaigns organized by advertising agencies to help NGOs are having some effect and are opening others up to the idea of working with them.[9]

The Philippines is known for its NGO networks, and indeed networks of networks. What role have they played in strengthening civil society?

They play a big role in educating the sector about best practice and global trends. The Association of Foundations, for instance, regularly trains board members on roles and responsibilities in an effort to move them towards a more policy-oriented (rather than programme-oriented) approach to NGO management. Synergos recently brought in experts from CRY-India[10] to beef up the fundraising efforts of Children’s Hour, a national fund for children’s causes, and Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) brings in US fundraising experts to train Filipino development officers. The Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium provides NGOs, foundations and academic institutions with a venue to discuss philanthropy-related issues in its member countries.

CODE-NGO, a network of networks of grassroots NGOs, has a large membership and legitimate representative powers – its leaders are frequently consulted by government on key development policies.

Given the difficulties of sustaining civil society infrastructure organizations, do you think there are too many of some types of organization?

There is an oft-quoted joke that if you put 50 Filipinos together in one conference room, by the end of the day you would have 51 NGOs: each person would establish their own, then all 50 would form a network. In general the sector is overpopulated. Many NGOs provide the same services, target the same constituencies and even serve the same communities, with the same board members. This is true, for instance, of NGOs working in children’s development, alternative law and environmental protection. It’s also true of civil society infrastructure organizations. Networks such as the Association of Foundations, League of Corporate Foundations and PBSP have similar target constituencies and programmes.

What else is needed?

The sector needs to be aligned with people’s values, principles and beliefs, so it can truthfully claim to represent public interests. It will then win a constituency that is potentially more loyal and more stable. Those who fund NGOs will be their beneficiaries – if benefits do not materialize, neither will funding. It will also prevent the self-destruction that has already begun because of our overdependence on foreign aid.

To achieve this, NGOs will have to learn from the private sector. Rather than being social workers with good hearts, NGO managers need to ‘sell’ their causes to a larger public. The first step is for NGOs to look at the sector within the larger social context. What are their functions vis-à-vis government? How can they claim to represent public sentiment when they cannot communicate with their constituencies? US and UK charities and foundations have begun changing their image and using fresh approaches to old challenges. We in Asia must follow suit.

Next, NGOs must streamline and consolidate their roles. Board members must learn to participate more in policymaking and governance, and less (if at all) in programmes and day-to-day matters. NGO managers and staff must have clearly defined responsibilities, especially those seconded from the private sector. Officers of family foundations and grassroots organizations must try to run their organizations more like corporate entities.

What would you say to funders of civil society?

Funders obviously have a key role. They can help assure the long-term financial sustainability of NGOs by investing in training in critical areas like communications, fundraising, administration, board governance and financial management. NGOs often realize their deficiencies in certain areas but simply lack the resources to remedy them. By making capacity-building a central part of their agenda, funders can ensure that their investments will have longer-term benefits.

Some critical functions NGO managers need to learn – and for which funders can ensure training is available – are: assessing the way they work against the current demands of their constituencies, with input from donors, partners and other involved sectors; representing themselves and their purpose to the public – this goes way beyond logo development and branding); and advocacy, fundraising and social mobilization.

Traditionally, non-profit requests for support for innovative advocacy and resource mobilization strategies have been turned down because they fall outside grant or aid guidelines. Recently, however, we have seen more flexibility among funders. Until a few years ago, the Asia Foundation ‘encouraged’ its partners to look at financial sustainability as a next step. Now, it actually incorporates fundraising and communication training in its grants as expenditure items because it recognizes the need for them.

I suspect that the Constitution makes provision for government to provide support and guidance to the non-profit sector, but is it being fully implemented? The National Economic and Development Authority is mandated to map all related social service work through the five-yearly Medium Term Development Plan, but the process of obtaining data remains very superficial. Properly done, it could show gaps in programmes and services that NGOs could take on as a priority. And the Securities and Exchange Commission simply acts as a monitor for registration and reporting compliance. It doesn’t look at all at NGOs’ conduct or police non-compliance. A possible role for funding agencies might be to review the implementation of constitutional provision for monitoring and supporting the sector.

What is in question here is really a fundamental transformation of the support – moral and material – of Philippine civil society, so that it is more genuinely representative of the Philippine people, who will have a bigger stake in it. This will require innovation and a willingness to take risks on the part of funders and NGOs themselves. We in Asia have the advantage of being able to learn from our Western neighbours, and adapting their best practices where they suit our own cultural conditions.

Strengthening civil society has never been an easy task, but Philippine NGOs have twice proved that a bloodless revolution can shape local politics and governance, and change the course of a country’s future. Perhaps now is the time for another kind of revolution – from within our ranks – to enable civil society to take its rightful place.

1 Section 23 of Article II of the 1987 Philippine Constitution: ‘The state shall encourage nongovernmental, community-based, or sectoral organizations that promote the welfare of the nation.’ See also Article XIII.

2 Full text of the Local Government Code is available at http://www.chanrobles.com/localgov1.htm. See sections 34, 35 and 37. The legislation mostly refers to ‘people’s and non-government organizations’.

3 Such as the Securities and Exchange Commission for non-profit registration (although organizations are not required to register to do development work) and PCNC.

4 For a long while, official estimates placed the number of NGOs at 60,000. However, SEC data show there were 152,535 registered non-stock corporations as of 15 June 2002, and a 1997 NCPAG estimate placed the industry range between 249,000 and 497,000, including non-stock corporations, cooperatives, NGOs, accredited people’s organizations and other people’s organizations. See Ledivina V Cariño (ed) (2002) Between the State and the Market: The nonprofit sector and civil society in the Philippines Quezon City, Philippines: Center for Leadership, Citizenship and Democracy, NCPAG, University of the Philippines, pp 61–95.

5 The Association of Foundations, the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development, the Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO), the League of Corporate Foundations, the National Council for Social Development, and Philippine Business for Social Progress.

6 For more about PCNC, see Alliance Vol 7, No 4, December 2003.

7 At the National College of Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG), University of the Philippines.

8 The Medium Term Philippine Development Plan 2000-2004 indicates decline over the past ten years at an average of 10 per cent.

9 Such as Ogilvy & Mather, McCann and Leo Burnett. Sometimes advertising agencies help NGOs in order to try to win their business; in other cases NGOs commission agencies to help them.

10 Child Relief and You – India.

Mayan G Quebral is Executive Director of Manila-based Venture for Fund Raising. A fundraising pioneer, trained at the Fund Raising School, USA, she managed the Philippines’ largest non-profit direct mail campaign, raising over 85 million pesos (£850,000) in under four years. Formerly UNICEF’s Philippines Resource Development Officer, she initiated the first survey on attitudes to giving in the Philippines and wrote The Fund Raiser’s Guide to Fund Raising. She travels extensively around Asia teaching NPOs the principles of successful fundraising. She can be contacted at mayan@venture-asia.org

Venture for Fund Raising envisions a community that celebrates the joy of giving and ensures a bountiful and sustainable world. Towards this vision, Venture has, since its founding in 1999, helped organizations to raise the resources needed to fulfil their missions. It has helped almost 400 organizations from 12 countries raise funds better through professional training and consulting services, and applied research programmes.

See http://www.venture-asia.org


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