The Malta Independent, 7th July 2008, by Annaliza Borg –

The Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations, Kenneth Wain is working to incorporate all voluntary organisations into the legal system according to the law which came into effect last December.

As from last February, voluntary organisations were able to start their enrolment process with the commissioner in order for them to be legally recognised. This would lead voluntary organisations to benefit from any assistance given by the Office of the Commissioner in the future.

Over 60 organisations are so far asking for enrolment, while the first certificates of enrolment have been distributed to a number of voluntary organisations over the past weeks.

Among the commissioner’s duties is the task of improving the sector in any possible way by helping organisations become more professional and by facilitating communication in the sector. Moreover, the commissioner should also monitor what is going on within the field of voluntary organisations.

In an interview with The Malta Independent, Prof. Wain said “Voluntary organisations should regard me as an ally who is there to help in their needs, rather than as a supervisor.”

For the time being, the commissioner is giving space for organisations, especially the smaller ones and the media, to get used to the relatively new regulation. He also intends to further explain his duties to the public while speaking about the law.

As soon as the commissioner’s office becomes fully functional, Prof. Wain intends to give assistance on how organisations should apply for European Union funds and how they should improve their role in the country’s democratic process.

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The Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations, Kenneth Wain explained the relatively new law regulating voluntary organisations in Malta to Annaliza Borg, explaining how he was going about implementing the new legislation to assist voluntary organisations and his belief in such work

The Voluntary Organ-

isations Act, which came into effect at the end of last year, comprises a very wide spectrum of organisations with the aim of incorporating such organisations within Malta’s legal system. Prof. Wain explained that this includes all types of voluntary organisations ranging from sports’ clubs, to organisations of culture and the arts, others that perform community work, and many more.

He explained that the new law makes provision for the appointment of a Commissioner whose first task is to actually set up office.

“My first task was to get the ball rolling for organisations to get registered. Enrolment started last February,” Prof. Wain said. Being a new law and not well known, things started off rather slowly, he explained. But the Commissioner was not very concerned since change takes time and he knew that the many queries and questions must first be answered in order to put all minds at rest that this was a law voluntary organisations would benefit from.

“This process has started gaining some momentum now, and I am informed that well over 60 organisations have requested enrolment,” Prof. Wain said. He continued that the first certificates were distributed a few weeks ago.

The general election which the country faced soon after the Voluntary Organisations Act came into effect hindered the Commissioner’s work during his first months in office because during the run-up to an election everything stops, and afterwards there was a new minister.

The next important step would be the setting up of the Council to work with the Commissioner. He believes that the Council, which would be representative of the voluntary organisations sector, will be appointed in August and up and running by the end of summer.

The Voluntary Organisations Act gives the Commissioner a number of duties which Prof. Wain split up into two to simplify matters. The first aimed to improve the sector in every possible way by helping organisations to develop, facilitating communication and joint action in the sector, helping in mediation in cases of dispute, assisting in training, and so on.

“The second is aimed at monitoring the work of organisations,” Prof. Wain said. This means regulating the voluntary sector with respect to the law.

“Broadly speaking, the first area is about facilitation while the second of supervision,” Prof. Wain said.

He explained that while he would be carrying out both functions, he would be putting more emphasis on the first.

“I want voluntary organisations to regard me as an ally who is there to help in their needs rather than as a supervisor,” Prof. Wain said, “though the supervision is important because the voluntary organisations operate with public funds.”

“At the moment I am rather worried about the lack of control over public collections,” Prof. Wain said while further explaining the matter. “Quite a few voluntary organisations are asking for public donations over the media. They appear on radio and television stations to collect funds,” he continued, without the necessary authorisation to do so. The law states that a voluntary organisation must either be registered with the Commissioner or have a Police permit to collect public funds in line with the Public Collections Act.

“If the organisation is registered, it has a right ipso facto to make public collections; if it hasn’t and it doesn’t have a police permit, which is usually the case, it is breaking the law, and if it is abetted by a radio or television station it is also breaking the law.”

Although the Commissioner has not yet started taking action in such cases, he is doing his best to encourage all voluntary organisations to register to be in compliance with the law.

“I do not want to be draconian on enforcing regulations,” he says. “I am still giving space and time for organisations and the media itself to bring themselves in line with the law,” he continued. The Broadcasting Authority had been helpful in this respect by issuing a circular to broadcasting stations drawing their attention to the law.

“It is only fair for the public to know where its donations are going, what is happening to them, and how such funds are being used. The law requires such accountability,” Prof. Wain said, “and I have an obligation by law to enforce it. The Commissioner explained that he has already met the police to coordinate action with them. “Of course, the law covers all kinds of collections,” he continued, not just those made through the media, but also door-to-door collections for instance, and fund-raising activities involving the general public.

“I would like to come to a situation where all voluntary organisations are enrolled with the Commissioner, and Police permits are issued only for one-off activities,” Prof. Wain continued.

He further explained that the law also contemplates the enrolment of ‘temporary organisations’ which also need authorisation to collect public monies.

“While the standard voluntary organisation is set up for the long-term, a number of others are set up for a very specific purpose: to collect money for some personal need, to send someone for an urgent operation, for instance, or cause, like assisting a community struck by some disaster” the Commissioner said.

Once that purpose is completed, the organisation closes down.

“These ‘temporary’ organisations,” Prof. Wain said, still need legal authorisation and must be properly accountable.

People must know that their donations have gone where they should have, and, if there was a surplus of funds when the organisation was dissolved, what has happened to them.

“I believe that the public has a right to know that people who are taking their money are not abusing of the situation,” the Commissioner explained, “and this also for the credibility of the whole sector, which will benefit if it enjoys people’s trust.”

The Commissioner explained that the law does not constrain voluntary organisations to enrol with him, but it gives him powers to investigate non-registered organisations also if there is a suspicion, or some report comes to him, of serious abuse.

Asked about duplication of work by small organisations set up in different locations and whether such organisations should pool their resources, the Commissioner said that it makes more sense, and does more good to their cause, for organisations with limited resources to cooperate than to be in competition with each other. Bringing about such collaboration, he continued, would be one of his tasks.

“One of the Commissioner’s jobs is to act as a mediator and help towards the amicable resolution of disputes in the sector. This requires certain skills and can be quite a complex task, but it is also important.”

The Commissioner remarked that to carry out his full range of duties in a satisfactory manner would take time – at least one or two years to have the structures in place and to ensure an efficient set-up.

He believes that the setting up of the Council was an important step in that direction.

“Working well with the Council will be crucial for me and for the sector. But I believe I am good at working with people, so I am confident that I will have a good working relationship with the Council once it is appointed,” Prof. Wain said.

Speaking of small organisations, the Commissioner agreed that such organisations face difficulties when seeking European Union funding which larger organisations may encounter to a lesser degree.

This was an issue, he pointed out, raised by a number of them at a recent meeting for voluntary organisations called by one of the MEPs which he had been invited to. Often voluntary organisations which are not well-resourced lose hope in applying for funds due to the amount of bureaucracy that exists when applying for participation in EU projects.

“I am planning that my office will eventually help the in different ways,” Prof. Wain said, since part of his task was to help small organisations function better for the sake of a level playing field.

He referred to the resources he would be requiring to carry out his broad range of tasks – human and financial.

“I am presently formulating a business plan outlining the structure and resources required for future functionality,” Prof. Wain continued.

During this interview, the question of organisations that act as pressure groups came up.

There are a number of these, he said, involved with such things as human rights and environmental issues. “Such pressure groups are important in a democracy. I believe they are needed to balance the power of government and authorities and to bring their concerns onto the political agenda,” Prof. Wain said.

When asked about youths and their participation in voluntary organisations, the Commissioner said “this is a crucial matter and of utmost importance.”

“Society regenerates itself through the commitment and passion of its young people. I believe youths are already contributing a lot when it comes to voluntary work and we must create incentives for them to contribute more.”

“Eventually I would like to have an accurate database with information on the different aspects of the voluntary organisations sector in the country.

“Identifying possible lacunae could encourage new organisations to come into being in areas which as yet have not been addressed.

“As far as I know no such database exists as yet,” Prof. Wain said while he asked me whether I knew of any thesis or studies that may have been carried out on the sector.

“If such studies do not exist, they will have to be made, and it will a part of my task to promote them,” he continued.

…And the future of voluntary organisations?

The Commissioner said that the field of voluntary organisations in Malta has, historically, always been strong. He believes it to have grown stronger with time and expressed his confidence that his office and the new legislation will serve to strengthen it further in the future. It was important, he said, that this should happen, because a strong voluntary sector is a strong civil society.

He feels very optimistic in this respect because “the sense of altruism of people working in the voluntary organisations is very strong.

“They truly work for the cause they believe in.” This being the case, he continued, the future cannot but be bright.

Although Prof. Wain considers his to be “a mammoth task” since he has had to start from scratch, he is excited about the challenge.

“One of the reasons for accepting the responsibility of Commissioner is because I believe the voluntary sector in every country is crucial for the advancement of society. Society needs voluntary organisations and Malta and Gozo are blessed with a great number of such organisations. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to make my own small contribution to their success.”