BLOG: The Spillover Effect: Why Charities Matter and How They Tell That Story
3 April 2014 at 10:02 am
Australian charities must have a way to tell the story of what they do and why it matters, writes Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine as she embarks and blogs on her research as part of the inaugural Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Non-profit Leadership.
How many charities in Australia support people with mental illness? How many are there in a particular state or territory, and how widely spread? Is there a difference between charitable organisations reliant on paid work compared with volunteering? How do we know which charities are effective?
These are basic questions that anyone might ask about charities in Australia; anyone seeking to volunteer time; to donate money or goods; or importantly, to locate the support that they or a loved one needs.
The establishment of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission provided an opportunity to answer them, either through its basic register function or through the body of analysis and research it would build over time. With the ACNC’s future currently unclear, so too is the prospect of a nationally reliable, comprehensive evidence base about Australia’s charitable and Not for Profit sector.
The ACNC came about after over a decade of advocacy by community organisations, including the one I work for, in the interests of a national, comprehensive regulatory framework that would help us understand this complex and diverse sector.
Over time an incredible volume of work has developed from the sector, its researchers and its supporters, about what the problems are and how we might fix them. Whatever the future of the ACNC, one thing remains certain: charities must have a way to tell the story of what we do and why it matters. As long as this objective remains important, we must bring fresh ideas, new examples and different perspectives to achieve it.
I will be looking at these issues through the inaugural Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Non-profit Leadership. Sponsored by the Origin Foundation and supported by the Australian Scholarships Foundation, the Scholarship seeks to foster leadership among charities and non-profit organisations in Australia. At the core of the Fulbright’s aims is the belief that through international exchange we can achieve a better understanding of ourselves and others. What better way to explore new ways to solve the long-standing problem of poor regulation in our sector, than to look to our colleagues overseas?
In the coming weeks I will be heading to the USA to spend four months exploring how American charities engage in transparency and accountability. Essentially, I’m interested in how they tell the story of what they do and why it matters. I will examine the work of the Foundation Center, an organisation instrumental to building openness among American philanthropists, and its partnership with the National Centre for Charitable Statistics, to identify strategies, processes and relationships to better support the contribution of Australia’s charities and Not for Profits; and to help build public trust and confidence in charities and non-profit organisations.
I want this project to be interesting and useful for myself and for colleagues in the community and Not for Profit sector. To enable that, I will be blogging here on a fortnightly basis. I want to share what I see and think during the coming months. I want to hear the insights and critical reflections from the many voices of wisdom and experience that inspire me to work with charities and Not for Profit organisations. And I want your contributions to help shape the directions we take to continue the work towards a strong, vibrant and accountable charitable sector in Australia.
The title of this blog comes from the Productivity Commission’s landmark study into the contribution of the Not for Profit sector in 2010. There, the PC talked about the contribution charities make to community development and wellbeing as a “spillover” effect of their social and economic contribution. Yet it’s this effect that drive much of the work of charities. Surely this contribution is the core value of charities; that the mission, the altruism, and the organisational priority on people not profits are at the heart of what we do and why. And if so, then we need to be able to articulate that clearly; as a core element of our value.
Achieving charitable aims requires heavy reliance on others. We rely on the trust of the people we support. We rely on the support of the communities we work in. We rely on the skill, innovation and determination of a deeply committed workforce, both paid and unpaid. We rely on our funders and donors to sustain our resources. We rely on researchers to help us identify the problems and effective solutions.
To secure and maintain that support, we must be able to tell the story of what we do and why it matters. When we talk about “accountability”, or “transparency”, we are actually talking about securing that support. When I think about what a sector-led agenda on accountability might look like, I mean how do we best tell the story about what we do and why it matters? Because that is the spillover effect of good accountability: building and maintaining the support that charities and Not for Profit organisations rely on to meet our aims and be effective in supporting people and communities.
About the Author: Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine is the Deputy CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, the peak body for charities and social services and the voice for people experiencing poverty and inequality in Australia. She was awarded the inaugural Fulbright Professional Scholarship in non-profit leadership in 2013 and is currently undertaking her Fulbright at the Foundation Center in New York City and the National Center for Charitable Statistics within the Urban Institute in Washington DC. The Fulbright Professional Scholarship is sponsored by the Origin Foundation and supported by the Australian Scholarships Foundation. Applications for the Fulbright Scholarship will open on 1 May and close 1 August 2014.