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Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007
THE ZEIT GIST
Looking on the bright side
There's good news going unreported in the Japanese nonprofit sector
By SARAJEAN ROSSITTO
Last in a two-part series
Media reports on nonprofit, nongovernment organizations in Japan tend to focus on the difficulties and challenges they face — not only the major problems the groups were set up to tackle, but also issues all NGOs have to deal with on a daily basis, such as public apathy, ignorance, and donor fatigue.
But what about the good news? Public awareness and understanding of the work we do has grown; NGOs are working together more than ever; and nonprofit groups are becoming more professional as more opportunities open up for workers to train and develop the skills that groups really need.
I've worked in the nonprofit NGO sector here since 2000 and the reporting seems unbalanced. Over the summer I spoke with people working in a wide range of organizations and many agreed that despite the obstacles NGOs face, there are positive trends.
The public are getting it
The lack of public recognition and understanding of what nonprofit NGOs are has traditionally been a stumbling block. While most people understand the concept of a "volunteer," the notion that this can be a professional career choice is relatively new. According to Resilience's Sachi Nakajima, "One of the biggest challenges is in fighting the long-held belief that those who work in the nonprofit sector should do so without compensation."
In my own work, I face this regularly. In discussions about developing community projects, for example, I sometimes get astonished looks from corporate staff when I broach the subject of necessary project costs and my fees.
But many in the nonprofit sector agree that overall recognition and understanding among the general public is increasing and more Japanese people today recognize and understand the terms "NGO" and "NPO" than even a few years ago.
"Only the big and famous organizations are viewed as trustworthy in Japan," Fetlework Nakagawa of Habitat for Humanity Japan explained, "but it is slowly getting better."
A few people told me that they have noticed an increase in both inquiries and event participants.
Although there is no statistical data, many of the people I contacted had noticed a growing interest among youth. Prune Helfter, general manager of Medecins du Monde Japon (Doctors of the World Japan), was encouraged by the "new awareness and interest from . . . young people in Japan, . . . in particular people between 15 and 25."
This is not limited to international issues. As an example, Nakajima cited "an increase in the number of high schools and universities that are interested in holding events" focusing on domestic violence, based on experiences with community outreach programs. This increased interest among young people is likely down to a number of factors — more universities running nonprofit management and international development courses, more information available via the Internet, better outreach by nonprofit NGOs and requirements by some schools that students do volunteer work or internships.
Also important is media coverage. In particular, the visibility of relief work has risen following the 2004 earthquakes in Niigata and Indonesia. Kyoko Ode, a nonprofit professional based in Niigata, told me that they "always get as many participants as expected at events" and that it helps that the local media are supportive.
Filling the skills gap
Another challenge nonprofits face is finding staff with skills in organizational management, such as HR, PR, media advocacy, financial management and strategic planning. Many of the people I contacted mentioned several of these when asked about organizational needs.
Rightfully so, nonprofit NGOs focus most of their efforts on projects aimed at reaching the needs of their beneficiaries — for example distributing food, educating the public or advocating for equal rights.
Over the past 10 years, many nonprofit centers and groups have made organizational and project management skill development a priority. Recent participants in the Japan Foundation's NPO Fellowship Program have focused their work on areas such as fundraising campaign development, emergency response techniques, project management and advocacy campaign implementation.
There is no dearth of courses, training and workshops aimed at organizations and individuals wanting to be more effective in their work. These cover a wide array of skill areas, from nonprofit financial management to working with the media and volunteer management.
Training programs are run by universities — Temple University Japan has an NGO Management certificate program, for example — and nonprofit centers, like the Japan NPO Center. Community groups like the Center for Public Resources also offer courses. These programs are open to the general public as well as nonprofit professionals.
The investment in skill development requires time to bring about concrete changes, but nonprofits are also benefiting from increased cooperation between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds. Marketing is becoming better as "more knowledge and expertise flood in from the for-profit field," said Tomoko Yoshida of the QQ*/Respect Campaign.
Some nonprofit workers said they have noticed the corporate sector becoming more supportive of their work, although I could find no conclusive evidence of this. Keidanren's 1995 "Survey on Corporate Social Action Programs" shows that between the fiscal years of 1997 and 2003 there was little overall change in both the number of major companies engaged in such activities and in the average expenditure per corporation.
A number of interviewees said they had seen a very recent increase in interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and socially responsible investment (SRI). The National Institute for Research Advancement refers to 2003 as the beginning of the CSR boom in Japan and sees the 2003 five-fold increase in articles in papers such as the Nikkei Shimbun about CSR as evidence of this. This may help open the door to more collaboration between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.
Collaboration also varies greatly by issue, because many companies only support "safe" issues. According to the Keidanren study, the issue areas getting most support were arts and culture, technology and science, and the environment and education. Despite the fact that human rights is the third pillar of CSR, related activities such as child labor or women's equality ranked very low. This is not unique to Japan — it just seems more apparent due to the lower level of support in Japan as compared to in Britain or the U.S.
Japan nonprofit NGOs have been criticized for their lack of collaboration. Over the years, I have gotten many different explanations for this — different philosophies, lack of capacity, diverse approaches, personal conflicts — but none of these are unique to Japan.
Despite the difficulties, no one denies the importance of collaboration. This means outreach and PR are among the most sought-after skills.
"Networking is critical to cooperation because if you don't know someone inside it is difficult to make a contact," which in turn makes collaboration difficult, explained PSC's Marcie Kameta.
There are, however, signs of good news on this front. The Africa Japan Forum ( www.ajf.gr.jp/ ) is made up of a network of organizations that support collaboration between groups running Africa-centered projects. Understanding that a unified front is more powerful than competing individual groups, the forum works together both to raise awareness of Africa in Japan and to improve the effectiveness of programs in African nations.
Similarly, the February 2007 launch of the Japan NGO Network for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is a significant example of increasing collaboration in Japan's nonprofit sector. Malaya Ileto, program officer at the International Movement Against all forms of Discrimination and Racism ( www.imadr.org/ ), called it "a broad network of organizations and individuals working on different issues, yet drawn together to combat discrimination and racism in Japanese society."
There are plenty more examples of important work being done in Japan. As staff increasingly learn to collaborate with different sectors and become more skilled in PR and assertive in their campaigns, expect to hear more good news from the nonprofit sector in future.
More events in autumn
* Sept. 29-30 — Nagano Soccer Tournament; PEPY Ride Fundraiser (visit www.pepyride.org/ )
Skills development (in English)
* TUJ NGO management program — Professional skills training for people interested in improving skills and understanding current issues more deeply
More volunteer opportunities
* Tokyo English Life Line (TELL) is looking for volunteers to help at its upcoming charity auction and with an online resource project. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org