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This article is taken from the July 2000 Phatlalatsa newsletter


A Centre for the Study of the Non-Profit Sector in South Africa

Gerald Kraak, formerly Deputy Director of Interfund, has managed the process towards creating a Centre dedicated to studying the non-profit sector, raising standards and building its capacity. He tells us the results of the year-long process.


The idea of setting up an entity to promote the study of the non-profit sector in South Africa was floated at a workshop held at the Graduate School for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand and attended by academics and NGO research bodies in April 1999. Despite concern by some of the research NGOs that the entity might compete for existing research resources there was general agreement that an entity should be established which serves as a strategic focus for research on the sector. The workshop elected a Steering Committee to take the process further by proposing a model for the entity. The committee was also mandated to consult more widely with organisations, institutions and individuals beyond Gauteng and to seek their endorsement. The Steering Committee elected to appoint a consultant to field support for the Centre and Josette Cole of Social Development Trends was duly contracted to carry our the consultancy. She presented a report on her interim findings in November 1999.

The substantive findings of the consultancy were presented at a follow-up workshop held at the Graduate School on 25 March this year and what has now provisionally been titled the "Centre for the Study of the Non-Profit Sector" was given more shape and form.

Key findings

In the course of her consultancy Josette made the following findings

  • Contrary to the conventional wisdom a great deal of research is taking place on the non-profit sector in South Africa; the problem is that researchers are not in contact with each other. In fact many researchers are better connected to international research networks on the sector than local counterparts
  • The problem therefore is not the dearth of research buts its lack of visibility
  • There was almost unanimous support for an entity which would act as a strategic focus for research in the sector, that linked researchers to each other and that gave study of the sector a higher profile.
  • There was general agreement that while there was wide-ranging and extensive research on the sector it someTimes New Roman lacked intellectual rigour

Proposed model

  • The Steering Committee’s proposed model for the entity was presented to the workshop and after some debate, endorsed.
  • The Centre will be a modest structure staffed by a co-ordinator (champion), an administrator and a bibliographer/webmaster.
  • The co-ordinator will seek to map existing knowledge, identify gaps and omissions, and promote networking amongst researchers (inter alia through seminars and conferences); s/he will seek to link research needs to research providers; s/he will publicise and manage the proposed research fund
  • The administrator will be responsible for the day-to day management of the centre
  • The bibliographer/webmaster will develop a comprehensive bibliography of historical and contemporary research on the sector and make it accessible on a public website. The website will also serve as a link point between researchers in the field and will host list-serves and e-mail groups
  • The Centre will host a research fund in terms of which awards will be made to encourage new and innovative research on the sector
  • The Centre will be assisted by an Advisory Board; sub committees of the Board will establish criteria for awards by the research fund and approve applications for funds. A second sub-committee will assist in the development of a course in non-profit sector studies at existing institutions

Key principles

The Centre will be a modest structure which concentrates on mapping and building knowledge and facilitating further research and contact among researchers; it will not carry out or commission research in its own right

The Centre will make additional resources available for research rather than compete for existing resources

  • It must be national in scope
  • It should be flexible and accessible and responsive to a changing research environment
  • It will link academic and applied research
  • It should promote excellence and rigour
  • Its mission is to legitimate study of the non-profit sector as a valid discipline
  • It will encourage empirical and theoretical investigation of the sector
  • It will seek to capture the historical memory of the sector
  • It should create a space for reflection on the unique experience of the sector (particularly in the political transition)
  • It should link local research to regional and international counterparts
  • It should provide both material and virtual outputs
  • It should capture indigenous theories and solutions to development practice

The research fund will be used to encourage new and innovative research. Among the criteria for support will be a proven commitment to building research capacity and the onward transfer of skills and knowledge (this might be done through a requirement that recipients of awards commit to teaching a course, run a series of seminars on their findings and seconding interns to their research programmes). Applicants must also include strategies for the effective dissemination of findings

The Centre will facilitate the development of courses in non-profit sector studies at existing institutions and technical training for NGO staff.

The programme will be implemented over three years

Outstanding issues

The workshop struggled to define the strategic focus and remit of the research which would fall under the Centre’s rubric; there was no consensus on how the non-profit sector should be defined and which categories of associational life should be included. It was decided that this should be left to the Centre to define once it was established

  • The size of the research funds and the limits on individual awards
  • Whether the Centre should publish its own journal or co-operate with an existing initiative such as Development Update
  • The location of the Centre

The way forward

The Steering Committee met on 16 May to take forward some of the decisions made at the workshop and to act on recommendations in Josette’s draft report. The Steering Committee decided to ask the consultants to develop some criteria (including diversity) for members of the advisory board. Organisations which were consulted in the course of the consultancy will be asked to nominate board members. The Steering Committee will select and appoint members on the basis of the criteria and then disband itself.

I have been asked to develop a proposal and outcomes for the Centre. Once this has been done, there will be a public call for interested organisations and institutions to tender to host the Centre. This will help resolve the question of location; the co-ordinator will then be recruited through a combination of public advertisement and head-hunting.


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