Public and private donations have been flowing into Japan as the world expresses its sympathies to the people of the Tohoku region as they struggle to cope with a triple disaster of epic proportions.
This aid, properly used, has the potential to greatly enhance the capacity of Japan's weak nonprofit sector. While getting aid to those in need must remain a primary goal, careful investment in the professional development of service providers and their organizations will allow Japan's civil society sector to provide better care for the victims of today as well as create the capacity to address longer-term problems as well.
Since 1998 when the NPO law first eased restrictions on the formation of nonprofit organizations, more than 40,000 NPOs have formed. The vast majority of these groups are very small with few professional staff and many volunteers. While this situation may be acceptable for watching over elderly and cleaning parks, it is entirely insufficient for the gigantic undertaking currently under way in Tohoku. It is even more inadequate for facing the long-term issues such as mental health counseling, job retraining, and community renewal that will be necessary for many years to come.
Policymakers in Tokyo, international organization donors, and local NPOs must dramatically increase the proportion of funding dedicated to administrative support. Currently in Japan most donors offer very little support for administrative costs, which has inhibited the development of the civil society sector throughout the country and is harming its ability to carry out its mission in Tohoku.
If NPOs cannot cover administrative costs, they cannot undertake the planning necessary to ensure that donations are efficiently utilized; they cannot engage in professional development activities or invest in new management training; and they cannot attract capable young people to an important and growing sector of the economy.
The standard proportion of U.S. AID assistance to nonprofit organizations working on development or recovery projects is approximately 20 percent. This figure allows the local organization to conduct sufficient planning, invest in staff training and develop the administrative support structures needed to ensure that the aid that is given reaches the people that it is intended to serve.
We have already seen unacceptable delays in the delivery of aid in Tohoku. Much of the reason for this delay is that the organizations that have the money do not have the capacity to deliver it quickly and effectively. Even if they were able to deliver it today, they would have no staff and no administrative capacity to prepare for the onslaught of needs that they will be facing after the immediate demands of food and housing are met.
Tohoku will need to forge a new type of economy and renew the spirit of its communities. NPOs are institutionally well placed to perform these services, but they cannot do it if they do not have trained staff. Volunteers can help clean streets and storefronts. Hundreds of thousands have and are valiantly doing exactly that. But volunteers cannot and should not be asked to help an aging grandfather cope with the loss of his wife of 40 years, his son, his granddaughter, and his livelihood.
Volunteers can help bring energy and labor to community development projects, but they cannot conceptualize or develop those projects. Government can certainly offer some of the leadership and guidance needed for these longer-term efforts, but the scope of the problems is much too broad for them to do everything. Trained professionals in the nonprofit sector can help lift the burden from the government and offer direction to the volunteers who are eager to help.
Japan's civil society is one of the most vibrant in the world, and Japanese have been volunteering to help each other for centuries. The legal structure for a professional nonprofit sector was created more than a decade ago. The tax system is about to be changed to allow deductions for charitable giving, which will dramatically increase the sector's access to funding. The need is incalculably vast. All that is required now is a change of heart among donors and NPO administrators.
Donors need to be willing to allow NPOs to make long-term investments in professional training and administration. Wise investments to enhance the capacity of the NPO sector now will not only help ease the suffering of the people of Tohoku today, they will lay the foundation for a strong nonprofit sector that can address the needs of tomorrow as well.
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Mary Alice Haddad is an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University. She is the author of "Politics and Volunteering in Japan." She is an Abe Fellow and a member of the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future.
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