Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Benefits of the Benefacts database

Nuala Haughey: A new database of information about some 18,000 non-profit organisations in Ireland will no doubt contribute to the drive for more accountability and transparency in the sector.
Billing itself “civil society online,” Benefacts is a free and searchable public directory that provides regulatory, financial and governance data about the non-profit sector which employs more than 100,000 people and has a combined annual turnover of more than €6bn. 

There are many interesting aspects to this venture, which will be a very useful resource for researchers, funders, policy-makers, businesses, the public and non-profits themselves.
For a start, the database provides us with a compelling answer, based on international norms, to the obvious question, ‘what is civil society?’ Benefacts’ definition is expansive, including a wide range of entities that you would expect, from charities and community and voluntary associations to sporting organisations.
Hospitals, schools, trade unions and political parties are also captured in the Benefacts definition, which encompasses organisations that are separate from the private sector and from government, and that have been established for social, cultural or environmental good.
Within civil society, each of the 18,600 listed organisations is classified into twelve discreet sub-sectors or categories, including: health; environment; religion; social services; advocacy, law politics; and arts, culture, media.
Classification of civil society sub-sectors
This classification is carried out by Benefacts based on the principle activity of each organisation as stated in its legal objects, such as its constitution or statement of charitable purposes.
Benefacts’ definition and classification system draws on the International Classification of Non-profit Organisations originally developed by the Johns Hopkins Comparative Non-profit Sector Project. (Some readers may recall the forerunner of Benefacts, Inkex – the Irish Non-profits Knowledge Exchange – which published a useful 2013 report, Irish Nonprofits: what do we know?)
In its effort to map and classify such a large and diverse sector, Benefacts compliments similar work done by the Geary Institute’s Irish State Administration Database which brings together information about government departments, agencies, and commercial state-owned enterprises. 
However, the real added value of this new database is that it is a one-stop shop where the public can see for the first time the scale and profile of the sector as a whole, as well as individual sub-sectors. Users can also view profiles of individual civil society organisations, detailing what each one was set up to do, who is in charge, how it is governed, and how it is funded.
Benefacts is able to offer this composite picture because it collects and republishes data from multiple public sources, including the Companies Registration Office, the Revenue Commissioners, the Charities Regulatory Authority and, in the case of publicly-audited organisations, the Oireachtas library.
On the financial side, the data included in the database, where it is available, shows where organisations' funding comes. Right now, it does not detail how this money is spent – as Benefacts’ founder and managing director Patricia Quinn said at its launch today (18th May 2016), this is perhaps something for a future iteration.

Governance data and standards
On the governance side, the database includes information on whether organisations have signed up to voluntary codes and standards, including the Governance Code which has been developed by groups within the community and voluntary sector, the Charities SORP, (Statement of Recommended Practice, Accounting and Reporting by Charities) and the Statement of Guiding Principles for Fundraising
The data on individual organisations, including at-a-glance graphs and tables, will hopefully spur those organisations that need to do so, to address legitimate questions and queries about their governance standards, and the extent of their transparency in relation to their finances.
Because the database is built on pre-existing filings by organisations themselves, no action is needed from non-profits listed on it. While this is an obvious benefit, it also highlights the fact that non-profits, and charities in particular, are currently filing to a whole host of bodies, both regulatory and voluntary.

Funding from government and philanthropy
Benefacts is funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies, the Ireland Fund and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which is responsible for Ireland's open data commitments under the National Action Plan for Open Government 2014-2016.
While all of the information that Benefacts gathers in one portal is already publicly available, some of it is behind a pay wall or in non-open, proprietary formats that cannot be read by machines. 
For Benefacts to provide the service it does, some of this data has to be purchased, cleansed, and even manually re-entered into the database. This is obviously time-consuming, costly, and tedious work, and it is to Benefacts’ credit that it presents the information in such a user-friendly platform.

Potential to deepen appreciation of civil society's work
As the first inclusive online source of information on the non-profit sector in Ireland, Benefacts has the potential to deepen knowledge and appreciation of the vital work of Irish civil society organisations. It should also help improve analysis, planning, decision-making and public understanding of the sector at large, and at sub-sector level.

But equally, there are potential questions for people within the sector and beyond about how the data will be used, as well as the role of Benefacts itself as the curator of such a wealth of data.
This portal will no doubt be a force for greater openness and accountability within a sector which is largely funded by the public purse - €4bn of the €6bn total turnover comes from the Exchequer.
But in an era of open data and wider open government, this legitimate goal provokes a fundamental question for the public sector - why is the data that Benefacts collects, cleans and republishes not being made available in open data formats by the public bodies that collect it?
Hopefully, the fact that this database now exists may eventually lead to that exact outcome, on the basis that when it comes to releasing public data, genies can’t be easily put back into bottles. 
Nuala Haughey works on democratic accountability issues with TASC.

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