Cifras y Conceptos, a consultancy and polling firm, released some days ago its annual public opinion survey, Panel de Opinión 2013, a survey conducted among local leaders and opinion formers about a number of key current political and economic issues in Colombia. One of the questions was “What are the social organizations that you admire the most?” For one thing, it is staggering the wide range of think tanks, advocacy organizations, charities and corporate foundations that in Colombia we call with the generic and somewhat ambiguous name of social organizations (“organizaciones sociales”). The results themselves are also troubling. No organization seems to capture the bulk of leaders’ attention. The Red Cross, with 12%, is the single organization most widely recognized in Colombia under this category. Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, an advocacy organization gets 9%, Fundación País Libre, founded in the early 90´s and a leading advocate of kidnapping victims and their families gets 6%, Fundacion Carvajal, an established corporate foundation gets 5% and Fundacion Pies Descalzos, set up by pop star Shakira ten years ago to assist underprivileged children gets 4%. A set of various other organizations just labeled as “Others” get 14%.
What does this tell us? Firstly, it confirms that there is a great diversity of backgrounds, interest areas and worldviews under the umbrella of what we call “organizaciones sociales” in this country. With nonprofits, small charities and political organizations permanently seeking high public visibility and political influence, language plays a crucial –and sometimes problematic –role. In Colombia the “NGO” label has been used with a rather negative connotation in the past, and talking of “charitable” or “philanthropic” organizations is misunderstood or distorted in some cases. Even more striking is that professional associations have started wearing the hat of nonprofits. This is perhaps a regulatory gap that at some point has to be addressed.
But, to begin with, we need to ask what the reason is why these organizations are “admired”. Is it because of their political stance? Is it because of their exceptional leaders and high quality management? Or its programs and projects, or outreach and campaigns? This is not clear from the Panel bulletin. Such information would help us understand better what really is going on in this sector in Colombia, and more importantly, understand the values and standards with which our opinion formers assess and admire these social organizations.
There is another trend in these data that should not go unnoticed. Most of these organizations and the work they do are closely linked to the conflict –and post-conflict –that Colombia has gone through in the last decades and that has required multiple efforts from the civil society. A long, dark night that we all want to bring to an end, once and for all, in a big collective endeavor that nonetheless will take years to consolidate. Still, if we believe that the nonprofit sector will evolve as the society as a whole will do, then we should expect that as Colombia brings its particular conflict to an end in the next years, new kinds of nonprofit organizations will emerge, and many of those who are active nowadays in conflict-related issues will gradually face the need to transform themselves and adapt to new times. Hopefully, as a number of communities gain social inclusion and improve their living standards, new needs and agendas will come to the public arena, and resources of many types –including activism –will take on new directions, displaying ever more complex forms of political engagement and civil society and philanthropic work.