Quality in the third sector

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Quality in the third sector

The Portuguese third sector held a conference 0n 26 June 2007 to exchange experiences with two key European initiatives: the way Spanish NGOs have developed a home-grown quality standard to suit their size and value-led nature, and the way the British government enthusiastically supports social enterprise.

The international conference entitled As Relações do Estado com o Terceiro Sector na Qualificação das Respostas Sociais (Relations between the State and the third sector in the qualification of social services), was hosted in Castelo de Vide, a historic town in the area of Norte Alentejo, close to Portugal's border with Spain. The event followed on from a transnational conference of the RISS (Réseaux pour l'Initiative Sociale et Solidaire) partnership. Entitled Excellence in Solidarity, this brought together the partners from ES2 (Excelência na Solidariedade) in Portugal, Incipit Sociale (Incubatore d'Impresa per Iniziative Territoriali nel Sociale) in Basilicata, Italy and RAFT (Réseau d'Accueil Familiale Temporaire) in the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion. The partners discussed the integrated model ES2 has developed for the delivery of home help services, as well as local networks, equal opportunities and empowerment.

Castelo de Vide panel.JPG

The event on quality was organised by the EQUAL national thematic network on 'Quality in the Third Sector', co-ordinated by Professor Alberto Melo of the University of the Algarve. Its aims were to promote support structures within the third sector and to work out recommendations for a framework for effective partnership between the public administration and the third sector. The network, which involves six EQUAL development partnerships, first met in April 2006 and its six member development partnerships have since taken it in turn to host meetings. This allows the members to get to know local projects as well as debating common issues.


Turnaround on quality

Quality has become an issue in Portugal within the second phase of EQUAL, particularly since the Institute for Social Solidarity (ISS) has published regulations for operating nurseries, homecare, after-school activities and similar services, which it is introducing step by step. This represents both a threat and an opportunity for third sector organisations. On this issue, the thematic network has brought about a profound change in attitudes: a predominantly paternalistic mindset has given way to one that sees the value of the participative nature of third sector organisations. The network served to enable participants to define a concept of quality that is appropriate for the social economy, and takes the dimension of participation and empowerment into account.

Values – processes – services

Isidro Rodriguez Hernández from the Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG) in Madrid said that NGOs have two principal assets – professionalism and values. The main guarantee of an organisation's survival is to continually do things better. In practical terms, improving quality has to be approached at a realistic pace that the organisation can afford over the medium term. The FSG, with 600 employees, is working to a seven-year horizon. Though it is a top-down process, it progressively involves the whole organisation. The process begins by defining the organisation's values, and moves on to define processes for project management, strategic and annual planning, accounting, human resource management, innovation, information systems, health and safety. Thirdly it concerns quality in the delivery of services.

His colleague Patricia Bezunartea, responsible for certifying NGOs, presented the experience of certification among NGOs in Spain. In her view, the essential 'quality' of third sector organisations – that which distinguishes their performance – is the fact that they pursue objectives for the good of the community, and have respect for rights. Thus they have a social conscience and are transparent, effective and deliver good quality. But the absence of a profit motive is no excuse for sloppy management – good quality is the way of putting the user at the centre of the organisation – and it is also a lever to achieve necessary change.

In Spain, the national Council of Social Action NGOs has set up a working group on quality, which has developed a quality strategy, a quality network and quality standard specific to the sector. Its philosophy is that a culture of quality must be based on values. Quality is expressed in three dimensions: in relations with the users, in the organisational system, and in accountability to society generally.

The quality standard is designed to avoid the difficulties encountered in using existing standards such as those sponsored by the ISO (International Standards Organisation) and the EFQM (the European Foundation for Quality Management) – notably their complexity and expense, but also the values they embody. The standard is available online at http://www.ongconcalidad.org. Seven NGOs are using it, and it won the Princess Cristina Prize in 2003. To promote its use, ROCC – Red ONG con Calidad (Network of Quality NGOs) was set up in 2005. A separate institute – ICONG - Instituto para la Calidad en el Tercer Sector – is in the process of being established to certify quality and train quality auditors.

Government support for social enterprise

The third presentation was by Steve Wallace, Deputy Director of the Third Sector Support Team within the Office of the Third Sector, part of the UK Cabinet Office. He presented the way the British government views the social enterprise sector and the contributions it makes.

There are estimated to be some 55,000 social enterprises in the UK, that is about 5% of enterprises with employees. They turn over €40 bn and make a €12 bn contribution to GDP. Social enterprises are notable for opening up new markets (such as fair trade), raising ethical standards, improving services and spreading the idea of enterprise broadly throughout society. The Social Enterprise Unit was created in 2001 after a short but productive consultation exercise. This decided on a very broad definition of what a 'social enterprise' is, based on the criteria of social goals and non-profit distribution. During its six-year life the Unit has researched the nature of the sector, raised its profile, opened up better access to finance, supported the sector's own voice in the form of the Social Enterprise Coalition, and created a new optional legal form, the Community Interest Company (CIC), which over 1,000 organisations have already adopted.

The new government intends to go on supporting the growth of the sector, by raising its profile, (for instance by appointing 20 'ambassadors'), improving the advice, information and training available, and incentivising investors interested in a blended social and financial return.

Quality is an opportunity

A panel discussion examined the results and their implications for policy and practice. It brought together Fernanda Rodrigues, co-ordinator of the national action plan for social inclusion, Ana Vale of the EQUAL management unit, José Ferreira Neto of the Union of Mutualities, Carlos Andrade of the Union of Misericordias and Isabel Monteira of the national confederation of solidarity institutions.

One issue raised in debate was what indicators of success should be used. Can objective measures be found, or is asking users how satisfied they are the best way? This is a complex area, as a culture of measurement is lacking, and there are a lot of intangible factors that need to be measured. In addition to which, it is very difficult to measure the improvements in the quality of users' lives that involvement in social enterprises can bring, particularly as they often find it hard to answer questionnaires. In the end, it seems that quality certification is not so much a threat as an opportunity that allows the third sector to make the best of the competitive advantage that its value base and participative style lend it.

The conference is to be followed up by the production of a strategy document on qualification in the third sector, and work on quality is likely to be carried forward in the final, mainstreaming stage of EQUAL.

The conference has strengthened the hand of the third sector in Portugal in creating its own process of continuous quality improvement and in formulating proposals to government for the development of the sector. The British example shows that social enterprises can succeed and win contracts in a competitive environment – the secret is to offer added value. The Spanish example shows how the third sector can take in hand the process of improving its own quality so that it can compete in this way.

The second version of the ONG con Calidad quality standard can be downloaded from: http://www.ongconcalidad.org/segundaversion.doc