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‘NPOs aren’t there for you, they are in it for themselves’

Published Aug 5, 2022

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Opinion - The Indian South African community has been upholding the ethos and values of the spirit of Ubuntu and Vasudhaiva Kutumbhakam (the world is one) by contributing to the betterment of the people within South African society.

The financial contributions of Indian-owned business people are appreciated and often acknowledged by beneficiary organisations and the media. Then there are numerous individuals in our community, like myself, that often opt to give of their time and skills and choose to share their knowledge to primarily serve and uplift society. This is facilitated through organisational membership and a portfolio of responsibilities.

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The intent is to share my personal experiences as a volunteer for two non-profit organisations in Durban over the last five years. I believe the dissemination of information like this is empowering for us all, especially those of us that honour and care for our society by contributing in varying ways throughout our lives.

The purpose of this piece is also to primarily inform citizens of how some of these organisations choose not to follow ethical processes and principles of good organisational governance.

For the second time, to my dismay, I opted to resign from yet another non-profit organisation, and I can indicate that both the officials and managing members of these organisations share similar, condoned, inappropriate, unethical and unconstitutional behavioural practices.

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A few years back, I was a committed, enthusiastic member of a women’s organisation, which supposedly followed ethical principles and practices. After I displayed interest to serving as an executive member of the organisation, I realised that this organisation had no fair electoral process in place until I enforced it during my time of service there.

Before that, the management team (officials) comprised a clique of relatives who nominated each other to remain at the executive management level. This type of behaviour reflected favouritism and nepotism, and they preferred not to adhere to fair and constitutional practices.

To exacerbate the situation, the broader membership often did not question these practices, and when I did, I was often alienated and subjected to scrutiny. In addition, my CV was held back by the president of the club as she took it upon herself to decide that I did not meet the criteria to serve on the national board of the organisation.

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Conveniently, the constitutional guidelines of the organisation were adhered to, whereas in most other instances, it was not even considered, which was to the advantage of the unethical officials.

They, sadly, also deemed themselves as an exclusive organisation and were never keen to increase their membership. Until today, they remain mainly a group of Indian women who do not consider the ethos of racial diversity in post-apartheid democratic South Africa.

All was well until I experienced alienation, nepotism and disrespect for questioning their practices, which were inappropriate, alienating and subject to the whims and needs of the members in management positions.

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I pertinently raised the fact that there was no transparency in the organisation’s finances. The decision to spend funds on stationary and uniforms for the members was unnecessary, in my opinion and these purchases were never ratified by the club’s members.

At the time of my involvement, the club had about R1 million in the bank, but the organisation opted to continually raise funds from the public, and there was no indication as to how those funds were to be spent.

I then decided to resign in 2018 for ethical reasons. In 2019, when I vocalised my experiences at an event, there was an attempt to silence me via an email that stipulated that I should close this chapter and remain silent.

Many citizens willingly contribute their hard-earned money, but I now urge you all to question the financial and ethical practices of the organisations that you contribute to. The collection of funds from people, whether in the form of donations or membership fees, categorises these funds as organisational funds.

Any non-profit or philanthropic organisation should be able to present a detailed income and expense statement for public scrutiny if need be, especially if they are registered in accordance with the NPO Act of 1997 whose rationale is as follows:

“To provide for an environment in which non-profit organisations can flourish; to establish an administrative and regulatory framework within which non-profit organisations can conduct their affairs; to repeal certain portions of the Fund(1) raising Act, 1978; and to provide for matters connected therewith.” (NPO Act 1997).

In 2020, I was nominated as the treasurer of an organisation which had an ethos to networking for the purpose of business growth and philanthropy. This organisation adopted a constitution in 2020 at its Annual General Meeting, and since then, the president and some executive members have opted to ignore this mandate completely.

They have deliberately chosen not to be registered as an NPO but have fund-raised for philanthropic initiatives. Yet, the objective of the Act is to support the organisation to flourish. The Act articulates guidelines in terms of the management of the organisation’s funds and other organisational protocols concerning accessing government financial aid and servicing our people. More importantly, the Act ensures that the organisation’s administration of funds is governed by our fiscal laws.

Once again, I experienced aggression and disrespect for suggesting this organisation get registered. I was then alienated for questioning expenses, not approved by the executive, which I was instructed to authorise as the treasurer.

The resolution to ratify all clubs' expenditure by the entire executive committee (23 people) was continually ignored, and I was harassed by the president for insisting we follow his instructions.

Other constitutional processes were not adhered to despite the continual efforts of communication to the president about how important good governance is. The organisation recently held an event but opted to ignore relevant information about their selected guest speakers. One guest speaker’s ‘professorship’ was questionable and needed verification.

It was found that he did not have the title of 'professor' at the time of the event. I alerted the organisation about this, but it was conveniently ignored. A newly-formed subcommittee, not approved by the executive but supported and led by the president independently, nominated awardees at the event. There were no criteria for the selected awardees and no nomination process at the time of my resignation leading to favouritism and nepotism raising their ugly head.

The remaining executive members experienced alienation through their exclusion from decision-making processes. Similarly, I experienced nepotism and favouritism from the managing team members. Some officials were exempt from delivering monthly reports of activities at meetings, and others were not.

The president often took it upon himself to engage in a so-called charity project without the consent of the executive committee members. The continual lack of transparency of pertinent information such as a planned budget before the event and criteria based upon to select guest speakers and awardees is hugely problematic. I, for ethical reasons, resigned last month.

The choice of committee members and officials to normalise and practice constitutional delinquency within non-profit or community-based organisations is a huge concern for our society.

At present, South Africans are pleading for the blatant corruption within government organisations at national and municipal levels to be eradicated, and yet, within community-based organisations, we choose to allow and condone this type of behaviour, especially where former politicians participate with the hope of retaining a support base or being reappointed to positions in government.

Patterns of misappropriation of funds, mismanagement, and inappropriate governance practices of organisations have infiltrated all segments of society, not just government. It seems to be a preferred pattern not to adopt good governance practices and to adopt a democratic approach when it is convenient to do so. This is irregular and is about the needs and wants of a few members of society that are in a position to personally benefit from this approach.

The choice not to pay attention to these happening within our society has a detrimental effect. We fail to make one another aware of irregular and deviant patterns of behaviour in organisations alike, and we inculcate a culture that indicates that there is no value in good governance and ethical practices.

This can set precedents and determine the manner of organisational dysfunctionality in the future.

Let’s collectively identify the value of being knowledgeable about a non-profit or community-based organisation. We can aim to assist them to maintain good governance practices by identifying and communicating ill practices. The key is to query and engage and not to accept unethical behaviour regardless of where it comes from.

Dr. Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer, researcher and a freelance writer. She has been the recipient of both awards and academic scholarships throughout her career.

(The views expressed are not necessarily the views of Independent Media/IOL)

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