Ideas: Good intentions are simply not enough

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 26 - October 2, 2016.


The current atmosphere in Malaysia demands increased transparency and accountability. This applies not only to the public and private sectors but also the non-profit sector, particularly charities.

Malaysians can be a generous lot. In times of hardship, whether afflicting our own people or those living in lands across the seas, the best of Malaysians comes to the forefront. They extend their help in whatever way they can. Remember what many of us did in response to the 2014 floods in the east coast and south of the peninsula?

School students held charity car washes, there were dinners and other fundraising events, a child emptied her piggy bank, a corporation made a five-figure donation, communities banded together to donate money, clothing and much-needed essentials, and the government mobilised large-scale humanitarian assistance.

Whether addressing immediate humanitarian emergencies or long-term issues, such as alleviating poverty, improving access for those with disabilities or feeding and sheltering those who are homeless or marginalised, we have been able to support the work of organisations striving to make a difference in the lives of others despite tough economic conditions.

Malaysian society has demonstrated that it has a caring, socially aware and altruistic civic consciousness, which takes care of those who have fallen by the wayside. We look out for each other.

No one needs to be reminded that these are challenging times. However, for non-profit organisations, especially charities doing social welfare, humanitarian assistance, disease prevention and health promotion, it is an exceptionally tough period.

People are tighter with their wallets. Donors and governments are more discerning about what programmes to support, thanks to a shrinking pool of resources. Corporations have less to spend on corporate social responsibility initiatives. Most discussions at meetings among non-profit organisations these days include at least one topic on funding or the lack of it.

In the past, a volunteer at the booth of a non-profit body would be expected to know the cause or issue and the organisation, and advise people on how they can support the cause of the organisation. Today, the same volunteer would need to be able to answer a multitude of questions. More people want to know where their money is going, who it is helping, how the funds will be spent, what assistance is being rendered and how much of that RM10 or RM1,000 donated actually goes to the people who are being helped.

Despite the poor volunteer being grilled on these issues, it is an encouraging development made possible by the opportunities created as a result of the adverse economic conditions. Donors, whether they are individuals, corporations or governments, are becoming better informed and concerned about how their giving or contribution helps the cause which they support. They want to know. They want to be involved. They still want to help but in a better and more focused way.

We need to learn to improve our accountability and transparency, and put the people we help at the centre of our work. Yes, sometimes we forget about the very people and communities we are supposed to help.

Strangely enough, the potential for charitable giving or donations is arguably at its highest level ever. Whether it is RM5 dropped into the donation box of the local church, mosque or temple or one of Malaysia’s many philanthropists making an anonymous donation in aid of a child needing surgery, a third of all Malaysians currently donate in some form or other to a charity or cause.

Malaysians are looking for causes and communities to support as the need for help is greater than ever before.

To be a credible beneficiary of such support and trust, we need to do a better job at being accountable and transparent to our funders and the public by writing reports and highlighting the efforts and impact of the work involved. We need to do proper accounting of the funds that we receive.

It is frustrating to note that many organisations doing charity work in Malaysia do not even do proper accounts. We can be indignant about it and say that we do not have time to do the paperwork and that we are busy on the streets running programmes and helping others.

But such attitudes do not help anyone. It is not about the RM10 or RM10,000 received from generous and concerned donors but about the next donation and the one after that. We need to show donors and the public where the money went and how it is helping others.

It is a disservice to our beneficiaries if we do not bother to ensure that our accounts and reports are done properly. Many organisations also engage in transactions and activities that can be construed as conflicts of interest. These are some of the reasons why many social welfare programmes suffer from a malady of setbacks and deficiencies.

Good intentions, noble work and goodwill are simply not enough. These must be coupled and sustained with proper reporting and good governance. The people who we help depend on us and have placed their trust in us to do so.

Azrul Mohd Khalib is manager of external relations at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs