Evaluation of the Contributions Program for Non-Profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations
This chapter explores alternatives to the current Contributions Program. First it discusses recent changes to the Program before presenting suggestions for other possible changes.
B. Recent Changes
The previous evaluation (2001) produced the following recommendations (in bold) with resulting changes made to the Program (in regular text):
- Consultations should be conducted with consumer organisations before the annual research priorities are set for the funded projects. This has been done.
- Consumer organizations should be consulted on any review (e.g. electronic automation) of the proposal process to ensure that it meets their needs. OCA agreed to consult organizations in the event of automation and also noted that automation would not replace the traditional application, quarterly reporting and payment requests methods.
- The challenge surrounding communications of projects results may be addressed by modifying the program's requirements to include a more detailed communications plan, and by ensuring that adequate funds are provided to support these communication activities. Sections of the Program Applicant's Guide dealing with communication requirements were revised to provide more specific requirements. The OCA noted that communication activities were an allowable expenditure.
- The program should encourage the use of seasoned researchers and provide sufficient funds to enable consumer organizations to purchase the adequate expertise to conduct their research. OCA recommended that applicants retain and consult experts on methodology at the project design stage. Organizations are required before making project results public to have methodology, findings and recommendations reviewed by a qualified expert. The cost of such expertise is an allowable expenditure.
- The program should explore alternative ways of helping organizations become more self-sufficient, such as conducting a review of best practices in the area. The OCA paid for organizations to meet with a facilitator to share best practices, explore a more co-ordinated and strategic approach to resolving issues affecting the marketplace, and examine better means of working together.
C. Suggested Improvements
The evaluation explored suggestions for improvement from a number of perspectives including how to make the Program more cost-effective. We discuss suggestions by key informants according to the frequency of mention from those receiving the greatest to the least support.
The most frequently suggested improvement was to increase development support. Many suggested that non-profit consumer and volunteer organizations needed to become stronger. Development support was seen to be the most effective mechanism to achieve this goal, although a few acknowledge that strength could also be gained, albeit over a longer period, through research activities. A number were careful to observe that there needed to be a transition and that research support should not be cut back, at least initially. Most observed that if there was more money it should be devoted to development. Some suggested that development projects could then help organizations wean themselves from their reliance on research support. If cut backs were needed (not all would comment on this possibility) research was the area most often identified for cuts although many commented that this should only be after an injection of new money to development support to help ease this transition.
In support of the view that any reduction in research support should be done slowly, we observe that for the six largest recipients (representing 76% of Research Project Contributions over the period 2000/2001 to 2002/2003), their research contributions accounted for 29% of the average annual revenues for the group. Research Contributions as a per cent of revenue ranged from 11% to 44% across the six organizations. This high proportion of revenues derived from the Research Project Contributions for organizations suggests that such organizations might be significantly and negatively affected by any reduction in the available research support.
The next largest group of comments revolved around suggestions for changes to funding support more generally. There were calls for:
- Moving to a less directed form of support such as core funding. Note that there were as many calls for core funding as there were detractors from moving to core funding.
- More money. Suggestions included some form of voluntary tax (such as a lottery or a contribution made at a point-of-sale) or support through a charitable foundation.
- Create a model similar to a Citizens' Utility Board whereby consumers can add an amount to their (utility) bill and direct that money to a group who would represent their interests in utility matters. (Note this might be extended to a voluntary tax added to the bill of a retailer sympathetic to the consumer movement or wishing the publicity around such a show of support. Some retailers currently direct donations to charitable causes by adding the donation to the total at the check-out counter.)
- Money left in individuals' bank accounts for more than 10 years should be given to the Contributions Program instead of being sent to the Consolidated Revenue Fund. In the view of one key informant this money more closely belongs to consumers and not to all taxpayers.
- Turn over core research activity to academics. Have consumer organizations provide their opinions based on their consumer perspective.
- Provide encouragement or credit for organizations that are able to identify sources of matching funds for their project ideas.
- Provide low-interest, medium term loans for organizations that could be paid back on a recoverable basis (possibly against future revenue streams or future research projects).
- Broaden coverage of Program to be more inclusive.
- Keep and distribute information on expertise of organizations. Update annually. Do not support a project to develop a particular expertise when another organization already has it.
- Seek out and fund projects of general application to all organizations such as effective governance models or how to maintain members. Communicate findings to all organizations.
A number of comments were received that relate to the administration of the project selection:
- Find a more simplified way to screen projects to reduce administration costs.
- Involve consumer groups or grass roots consumer in project selection decisions.
- Provide more specific criteria and a marking scheme to help organizations be more successful and focussed. Give a more specific list of project topics with target amounts attached.
- Do double blind screening of applications. Assign number to proposal, then strip off organization submitting proposal before assessment.
- Encourage partnerships among groups.
A number of comments were also received around ways to improve the dissemination of research findings. Comments included:
- Develop a better and centralised mechanism to distribute the results.
- More money into dissemination of results.
- Adjust parameters of research to include communication.
Finally a few suggestions were received that did not fit within the above categories:
- Should only do research projects of immediate benefit to consumers.
- Should hook into international scene to increase quality and benefit from existing expertise on global issues.
- Hold a conference every second year to share best practices, results of projects among organizations.
- Provide management guidelines on collaborative projects. Accountability around collaborative projects could be better. Someone should monitor to verify input in a collaborative arrangement.
D. Summary of Alternatives
The Program implemented changes recommended in the previous evaluation. In brief these were to improve consultation with organizations, better communicate project results, encourage quality of researchers/research, and explore ways to improve self-sufficiency of organizations.
This evaluation obtained the suggestions of a number of key informants related to further changes. These can be summarized as:
- More and more effective use of development support.
- Expansion of total support through innovative measures.
- Modify project selection process and guidelines.
- Improve dissemination of results.
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