In pursuit of "Excellent NPOs" as change agents

December 17, 2010

The following is an abridged translation of the preface, written by Genron NPO Representative Yasushi Kudo, in a booklet entitled, "What are Excellent NPOs?" In the preface, Kudo elaborates on the circumstances leading to the recent initiation of a drive, led by a group of NPOs to accredit 'Excellent NPO' statuses, using the newly formulated criteria for evaluation.


In the wake of the Democratic Party of Japan's triumph in last summer's general elections, most Japanese people placed high hopes on a big change in politics. I myself firmly believed that the Japanese politics, where vested interests have traditionally been institutionalized, would eventually be altered. Regrettably, this has not happened. After witnessing new developments in Japan and the rest of the world for the past one year and a few months, it has come to be crystal-clear that this country would never be changed by only expectations.

Most Japanese citizens feel anxious not only about their future, but also about the country's future. However, Japanese politicians do not face this challenge squarely; neither do they try to draw a clear vision for the future in a policy-oriented way. At the previous general election, most Japanese voters expected the new administration to depart from old-style politics. What should we do when we realize that the current administration fails to meet our expectations?

My answer is that we must strengthen the momentum toward the creation of a strong civil society in Japan. What do I mean by that? It is a society where eligible voters take initiative in choosing for themselves a better state of politics and making due evaluations of policy matters with a strong sense of being a stakeholder - a society where both the voters and politics are kept on their toes. But this is not enough. We must build a society where citizens autonomously address social issues and such moves are highly respected in society. In sum, we must realize a society where citizens voluntarily take part in social contribution activities.

Former Prime Minster Yukio Hatoyama advanced the concept of "the new public commons." His idea is along the lines of our advocacy for a strong civil society. However, there is a stark contrast with regards to our perspectives and attitudes. While the socially-established notion of only the government shouldering public affairs is reaching its limits, it has become unavoidable for citizens to share a due portion of that responsibility. That is to say, we are transforming into a society based on self-help and community-based collaboration.

But like how general direction from the top has always been lacking, Japanese politicians, including Mr. Hatoyama, have still been unable to draw up a clear vision about the role of the government in this new society.

The gears of change are slow and not effecting any real change yet, but they are turning without doubt. The "Law to Promote Specified Non-profit Activities" was established on March 19 in 1998. Since then, the number of NPOs has continued to grow, now exceeding 40,000. Despite the increase in number, a majority of them are in poor financial condition, and are not proactively addressing social tasks. But more importantly, they are not working to establish close ties with the citizens. Many of them have turned out to be mere sub-contractors of public projects, most in welfare-related ones.


Two years ago, The Genron NPO teamed up with some other NPOs and launched what we termed, the Study Group for the Evaluation of Non-Profit Organizations. We shared an awareness of consciously generating a "positive cycle" to create a strong civil society in this country. A total of 10 representatives of some NPOs and experts joined the coalition, and we carried out a comprehensive survey of Japan's NPOs and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to find out what is the root problem of Japan's non-profit organizations.

A year later, our conclusion was quite simple. The answer is to introduce competition in among NPOs in Japan, not for profit or scale of operation, but for the solution of social tasks. We must compete with each other over the quality of our jobs.

Now, we are advocating "Excellent NPOs," and we have formulated a set of criteria for the evaluation of NPOs, focusing on three pillars - social innovation, civil participation and management stability.

First, it is obvious that NPOs should proactively address social issues to lay their vision out for criticism by other NPOs. Second, sustainable and stable management is indispensable for NPOs to remain competitive in addressing social tasks. And thirdly, their activities must remain independent from the government and rely entirely on citizens' participation in the form of donations and volunteer work.

I assume that if this evaluation system should work in the civil society, the competition would arise among NPOs to gain credit as an "Excellent NPO.". If the Excellent NPO gains trust from the society, citizens may move to offer their resources to such organizations. Any positive cycles thus created would help to boost credibility of the non-profit sector, raising the prospects of NPOs serving as bearers of a strong civil society. Through this, our aspiration to improve the quality of the non-profit sector and to effect tangible changes is set to take on a concrete shape.

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