Digital space, civil society and nonprofits in South Africa

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Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room

25th November 2016

So what is the state of play in South African digital civil society?  My last post looked at the importance of defending digital spaces in South Africa – but now I go back a bit, to the nitty-gritty of digital civil society. This broad phrase refers to a broad mix of concerns, approaches, practices and activities ranging from building the public profile of a cause, to defending current levels of freedom, openness and accessibility of digital space.

Enset has been running a global workshop series focused on supporting civil society organisations around the world to navigate what Enset refers to as “the complex digital landscape” to achieve online effectiveness.  Enset’s mission with these workshops and panel discussions is to identify and, likely, help create the best paths for the use of digital space by non-profits globally.

The Enset/ Resource Alliance panel discussion, of which I was a part – held at Bandwidth Barn in Cape Town on 4th October 2016 – was titled, “NGOdigitalspaces & Civil Society”.  The discussion addressed a range of issues and practice areas in the digital space, such as:

  • What is the role of Social Media in building civil society?
  • How is digital fundraising changing the donor relationship and giving overall?
  • What are some of the risks and challenges of digital spaces, and what can non-profits to address these?
  • What is the political / regulatory environment and implications of a new NPO Act in South Africa?
  • What is the future of digital spaces for civil society – opportunities, challenges and potential threats?
  • What is the importance of credibility and validation within the sector?

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A number of organisations and individuals spoke to their particular concerns, the work they do, and how their work serves to address their concerns.  The panel and issues included:

  1. Jeri Curry, president and CEO, Enset: introduction to the non-profit and civil society digital space, and to the work of Enset – and also navigated the panellists inputs, facilitating the discussion with great knowledge and expertise.
  2. Baratang Miya, founder and CEO, GirlHype: now here is somebody to watch and keep up with. Baratang spoke about her initiative to encourage girls into the digital and tech space, not as users but as innovators.  Great stuff.
  3. Michelle Jones, head of content for digital agency RogerWilco: Michelle shared lessons from a successful client project, showing how paying careful attention to messaging, content, design and site architecture can completely change levels, frequency and type of user interactions with your online presence
  4. Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room: This is me – I spoke about the need to defend digital spaces, as these levels of freedom increasingly come under the state spotlight and as non-profit organisations are under pressure from government. I also shared insights about the legislative framework that currently governs this space in South Africa.
  5. Colin Habberton, IFC Ambassador, South Africa: Colin shared insights into the use of digital platforms for fundraising and for profile-building for organisations and causes, and stressed the importance – across a range of factors – of building an online profile
  6. Michelle Matthews, Head of ED and Innovation, CiTi: Michelle’s focused on trends in ICT and the digital economy, and she shared details of a fantastic digital project supporting start-up and established social enterprises and businesses, including the development of an innovative toolkit (which we all wanted a copy of!)

Are you starting to get the picture?  Around the breadth and depth of any discussions about “digital space”?

We can talk about developments in digital technology; the use of digital technologies for the promotion of civil society campaigns; the role of an online presence in promoting your non-profit organisation and in stakeholder/ supporter/ donor communications; the importance of content in building a profile and positive footprint in the online space; the role of civil society organisations in promoting and encouraging the involvement of girl learners in the digital tech space; the importance of an online presence for fundraising (both on- and off-line); the pressure (globally) on civil society and the closure of operating spaces, both physical and digital; and the legislative framework governing the use of digital technology (eg. drones for journalism) and online spaces.  That’s just the start.

In addition, there is a boatload of information that non-profits need to keep up with – such as the 2014 transition of the org.za domain (used by most South African non-profits for their web presence) to a new regulatory authority, and the implications for non-profits using org.za.  Again, just the start.

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Enset’s work has had the effect not just of providing spaces to have discussions about digital spaces and civil society, but also of connecting activists and digital specialists locally and globally.  It is critical that we are talking to each other, in light of my particular concern – as per my previous post – about the defence of digital spaces as we see an increase in governments clamping down on activities that challenge their actions (or lack of action).

This space is absolutely critical for civil society organising, as a still-democratic space providing for the proliferation and platforming of a range of voices critical to debate, discussion, defining the languaging around particular issues, and moving away from the dominance of traditional media and their ownership of public discourse.  This has changed irreversibly, and this space must be defended.

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Is “Consultant” almost a swear word for non-profits in South Africa?

by Gabrielle Ritchie

service provider | consultant | advisor : 13th August 2015

A certain cool descends on a NPO meeting when the word “consultant” is raised. The word gets prodded like a smelly fish, or turned over for closer inspection. NPO staff don’t generally love a consultant, or consultancies, or people brought in to do project-focused, short-term pieces of organisational work. Consultants are spoken of (and I know this, having contracted numerous consultants across a huge variety of projects in my role as an NPO director of programmes) as anything from expensive, time-wasting, never fully apprised of “the work”, limited, don’t get the depth of the work etc …all the way to bloodsuckers, leeches, scavengers, a rip-off, just out to make the bucks, and so on.

In short, “consultant” is like a swear word, and consultants must generally get in, get out and move on. The relationship between consultants and their client can be fractious, and tenuous. There is generally a deep distrust in organisations of consultants, and those organisations doing the contracting tend not to trust that a consultant will deliver timeously and excellently on the work required.

Then there is a range of little complexities and potential trip-falls.  For example, who sets the terms of engagement – does the consultant indicate their fee, or does the client indicate what they are willing to pay? Perhaps in the non-profit world, because some of the more old-style players still insist on “paying is bad, free is good”, the very notion of having to pay for a service or for work done, by someone other than an employee, is simply irksome.

So I am now a “consultant”. Or am I a service provider?  Does “consultant” just sound more expensive and costly for the same work? Are they the same?  In fact, most “consultants” who work in the non-profit space can more accurately be described as service providers. This might sound like just a bit of old semantics, but I stand by my firm belief in the approach that “words really do matter”. I have a personal preference for being as accurate as possible (along with using liberal sprinklings of a few choice bits of slang along the way!), so I do prefer calling a provider of services a “service provider”.

As a service provider, I consult to organisations around specific aspects of their work and what they need to deliver on, and I provide a range of services. In other words, as a service provider, I do aspects of the work that client organisations need to deliver on. Most times, service providers and consultants are contracted because organisations simply don’t have the capacity to do the work. Perhaps the skill is too specialist and costly to have someone in a staff post. Perhaps the project deadline is looming and work needs to be delivered, so extra capacity is brought on board. Perhaps a one-off project needs a particular skill that is not core to the organisation’s work, and so a consultant is brought on board. Or perhaps a project was conceived, and budgeted, as one for which external providers would be contracted. Organisations have myriad reasons for contracting in expertise in certain areas, and there are myriad specialists out there to fill these organisational needs.

Here is the kicker, though – and it brings us back to the swear-word nature of the word “consultant” in the NPO sector. The thing about service providers, advisors and consultants to the NPO sector, and working in the non-profit space, is that there is really very little difference between those who provide services to NPOs and NPO employees (ie. people employed by, and paid a regular income to work for, a NPO). Almost every service provider I have worked with in the NPO sector are driven by the same kinds of values and objectives as those they serve and to whom they deliver specialist services. As service providers they are choosing to work with non-profit organisations, in support of their organisational missions, and to work with them towards achieving their client’s goals.

As a service provider – ie. being paid by a funder or a non-profit to deliver pieces of work – I am working hard at understanding the difference between how I work now (freelance/ consultant/ service provider) and how I worked before as an organisational employee (and contractor of consultants!). Some of the questions I have posed to myself, as I make my morning coffee and prepare for a day of service providing, include:

  1. What is different about how I work?
  2. What has changed in the scope, quality and characteristics of the things I care about – the issues, the people, the areas of endeavour, the change-driven agendas?
  3. How has becoming a service provider changed my values?

The conclusion is, apart from a few extremely critical differences in my work day and in what administrative issues I need to concern myself with, there is very little difference. Very little has changed. Nothing has changed in fact, with regard to the things I care about, my ethics and values, my sense of social justice and rights-driven change agendas. The only thing that has changed is that I don’t work in an organisation any longer, and I no longer have a set income that I earn monthly, performance and delivery depending.

This new life is a very different kind of work life. Many say it can be really lonely; it can be exhausting worrying about where the next piece of work will come from; it is challenging constantly working with different clients; and so on. I will no doubt experience the full range of conflicts and joys of working on my own, but what I do know for sure is that I am as committed as I ever was to strengthening South African civil society and the funders and organisations which comprise this space. So are most of the consultants and service providers who work with non-profit organisations! In fact, non-profits themselves are increasingly developing products and services through which to generate income. In other words, they too are becoming consultants and service providers.

Generally speaking, and based on my still-fresh and new perspective as a service provider, us consultants and service providers are a good lot! Perhaps my previous scepticism of all things consultant was simply an ill-disguised envy for those who could engage with the best of the actual work, without having to navigate the intricacies of being an organisational staffer 🙂

The Lexicons of the Non-Profit Sector: do you speak non-profit?

By Gabrielle Ritchie : Independent Advisor, Consultant and Service Provider to Grantseekers and Grantmakers

1st April 2015

The vocabulary of the non-profit sector often comes under the spotlight not just for its exclusionary jargon-ness, but also because often meaning is not as widely shared as the very existence of the jargon would have us believe.  Questions are often raised about what we really mean by the jargon we use? Are we only talking to each other, or do others actually understand our lingo? Are we sharing our thoughts and messages best, to bring people along with us on our mission, or have we been taken in by our own hype?  Should NPO-speak be more or less corporate?  Should we speak stronger business language, or should the corporate sector learn to speak “non-profit”?  Does speaking corporate make us appear smarter and more attractive to funders?  What about those who can’t or don’t or won’t go corporate with their modes of communication? Are they automatically at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing funding? Are those who don’t speak corporate less likely to attract funding? What is the real difference between corporate and non-profit lexicons? If the donor world is widely English first-lanuagage, and the non-profit world predominantly English second-language (in South Africa, at least), how does this exacerbate the existing power-dynamics already at play between grantseekers and grantmakers?

Of particular interest to me is whether the language of marketing, branding, communications and PR is necessarily “corporate speak”, or whether this language can be (or perhaps has already been) appropriated, adopted and re-worked to suit the non-profit sector.  Can the non-profit sector comfortably speak branding and marketing without appearing is if it has corporatised?

The Non-Profit Service Providers Network

A key forum for such discussion is the Cape Town-based Non-profit Service Providers Network (NPSPN), a referral-based group of individuals and small companies who provide services, advice, consultancies and other forms of support to non-profit organisations operating in South African civil society.  This is an energetic group of people looking to share the particular challenges and experiences of working with non-profits, and seeking a forum where thinking and experience can be debated, up-ended, challenged, and spotlighted.  The network is a really useful meeting of minds, where pertinent issues can be surfaced and discussed amongst peers and colleagues.

What struck me at the March bi-monthly gathering of the NPSPN is that all of the for-profit service providers around the table speak very competent non-profit.  While most of those who provide services and products to non-profit organisations are themselves for-profit, most individuals appear to make “a living” rather than generate any vast profit from the fees they charge for their services.  It is here that the for-profit service provider and the non-profit to whom they are providing services become almost indistinguishable.  These service providers, for the most part, are as non-profit in outlook, world-view and language as the non-profits they serve and as those employed in non-profit organisations.  In effect, these service providers are no different in their goals and missions to most of the organisations they work with, and it raises the question of why we insist on boxing the small service providers as “for-profit” as if in some false juxtaposition to the organisations they serve.

At the March 2015 NPSPN meeting, a few issues of terminology and language were tabled for discussion. I am writing here less about the phenomenon of sector-based jargon, which exist in every sector, and more about the need to ensure that we are all understanding each other – in an including way, rather than languageing ourselves into a reformulation of the social elite in ways that are excluding, elitist, alienating and effectively quite imprecise and therefore inaccessible to so-called outsiders.  In a December 2012 post, Jodie Shupac reflects (referencing others) on the source of contemporary nonprofit jargon.  Shupac notes that much non-profit language has become corporatised, attributable to the fact that as governments have increasingly called on nonprofits to provide the services they once offered, the sector has felt the need to up its language game.  Taking their cues from the business world, says Shupac, non-profits are increasingly using language that is business-oriented, and is flavoured to convey their lean shapes and efficient functioning.

Issues that arose at the March NPSPN meeting focused, in one or other way, on the ways we talk about what we do. These issues included, amongst others:

1. The importance of marketing for non-profits – the importance of profiling one’s organisation, of having a communications strategy, of being visible on social media platforms and of ensuring the use of traditional media channels and platforms.  But the question was raised – Why? Why is this important if you are an organisation with extremely limited resources and a clear mission?  It was also suggested that the commercial “selling” language used in marketing is inappropriate for the NPO sector.  Is this the case?  Why is it inappropriate, and what compromises occur (possibly unwittingly) through the adoption of selling-speak?

2. In discussions on non-profit branding, what are we really talking about?  Are we talking the language of corporate branding, or does branding in the non-profit sector serve similar but ultimately separate functions?

3. If you have very limited budget, how do you best and most appropriately target your spend in ways that serve your organisational mission, and which also serve your need to promote your cause and/or your organisation?  Are there different levels of marketing available for different levels of spend?

4. How do corporate and non-profit clients differ?  Do small service providers need to fully adjust their ways of speaking, languageing and referencing to accommodate their different clients, depending on sector?

5. Are there specific features or characteristics of the NPO client – almost an NPO personality type, perhaps?  Are challenges specific to providing services to NPOs?

6. Are fees charged on a sliding scale from corporate, to big NPO, to small NPO?  Does one reflect the full fee and then include the discounted rate as an indication of the extent to which a for-profit provider is supplying a non-profit with a full discount?

Many of the questions raised, both explicitly and implicitly, weren’t answered in the session – but they remain pertinent and they warrant discussion.  If you  have any thoughts to share, please do!!