The Spillover Effect: The Critical Role of Data in Strengthening Civil Society
Thursday, 7th August 2014 at 11:01 am
In her capacity as Fulbright Professional Scholar in Non-profit Leadership, Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine has made a submission to the Centre for Social Impact's consultation on the Civil Society National Centre for Excellence. She explains why in this latest blog.
The Centre for Social Impact (CSI) report on Phase One of its consultation on the Civil Society National Centre for Excellence (NCE) showed that the priorities of the sector included the need to ‘greatly improve the accessibility of existing … resources’ and to ‘be a champion and thought leader, providing the evidence base for civil society best practice and leading thinking in this field’. It is to these initial findings that I address the following comments, based on an international comparison between Australia and the USA undertaken through my Fulbright research.
The most significant finding of my research has been the importance of official data in informing a broad spectrum of knowledge generation about the scale and scope of activities undertaken by Not for Profit and philanthropic organisations in the USA. The key source for these data is the annual filing by Not for Profit and philanthropic organisations to the US tax office (Internal Revenue Service).
Known as the Form 990, this reporting is detailed and comprehensive. It collects information on organisations’:
- mission and core activities;
- accomplishments of any programs or services;
- additional tax reporting obligations;
- governance, management and operations;
- Board members, including names and salaries/income earned for their Board position;
- highest-compensated employees; and
- finances, including revenue, operating expenses, balance sheet and assets.
Equally significant to the level of detail in the annual reporting by US charitable organisations is the fact that these data are required to be made publicly available. A range of organisations have evolved around this requirement, providing platforms to facilitate access to these data; and developing research agendas to analyse the data and develop knowledge about the sector as a whole.
Importantly, this work is rarely undertaken by government agencies. The most widely-used organisations engaged in this work are all charitable Not for Profits , classified as 501(c)(3) Not for Profit organisations under the Internal Revenue Code. These include Foundation Center, Urban Institute (through its National Center for Charitable Statistics) and GuideStar. Similarly Charity Navigator, which also sits on this spectrum and which received some attention early on in the formulation of the Government’s policy to abolish the ACNC, is a 501(c)(3) (ie charitable) Not for Profit organisation.
The three elements of comprehensive, reliable and publicly available information about America’s Not for Profit and philanthropic organisations ensure a baseline of data that is critical to the sector’s transparency and accountability. The level and volume of tax reporting is significantly higher than that for civil society organisations in Australia. These baseline data are also foundational to the evidence developed by, for and about the sector itself.
Because of the extensive tax benefits they derive, America’s charitable organisations are held to a high standard of public reporting on their activities. That reporting is the critical plank in the sectors’ efforts towards its own accountability and transparency; and in the rich and varied evidence-base about the sector’s work overall.
CSI reportedly sees a continued need to clearly articulate the difference between the NCE role and the roles of the ACNC or its replacement. One of the unique values that the ACNC has been contributing is the development of national, comprehensive and reliable data about Australia’s charities. In the absence of the ACNC’s register of charities, Australia will return to a situation where there is no uniform, routinised and reliable reporting on the scale and scope of charitable or Not for Profit activities in Australia. We will, therefore, move even further away from the capacity to develop the much-sought after evidence about civil society’s activities, effectiveness and outcomes.
Based on my research, I conclude that the absence of comprehensive, reliable and publicly available data in Australia is and will continue to be the main stumbling block to the evidence base that the sector is calling for, as evidenced by the initial findings of your Phase One consultation. This evidence base is also critical for the ongoing support that the sector relies upon from its funders, donors, volunteers, workers and the community as a whole.
I recommend that securing comprehensive, reliable and publicly available baseline data on the activities of civil society organisations be a central component of the model developed for the Civil Society National Centre for Excellence.
- What I’m reading: A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren
- What I’m watching: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
About the Author: Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine is on leave as the Deputy CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, the peak body for charities and social services and the voice for people experiencing poverty and inequality in Australia. She was awarded the inaugural Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Not for Profit leadership in 2013 and is currently undertaking her Fulbright at the Foundation Center in New York City and the National Center for Charitable Statistics within the Urban Institute in Washington DC.
The Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Not for Profit leadership is sponsored by the Origin Foundation and supported by the Australian Scholarships Foundation.