Unwin Serves Up Recipe for Social Change
5 June 2014 at 10:34 am
|Joseph Rowntree Foundation Chief Executive Officer Julia Unwin.|
There is a recipe for the community sector to deliver social change, Joseph Rowntree Foundation Chief Executive Officer Julia Unwin has said in her recent keynote address at the 2014 VCOSS Summit in Melbourne.
During her Australian visit, Unwin provided an overview of the changes the UK’s Not for Profit sector has faced over the past five years and offered her advice on what could be learnt from those experiences.
Based in the UK, Unwin leads both the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust. The foundation has an endowment of about £250 million and the housing trust, a major social housing provider, has 2500 units under management.
“There is a recipe for social change,” Unwin said.
“How else did women get the vote? How else did we move to equal marriage for gays and lesbians in the UK? How else did we move to a situation where we could get members of the community sector can come together in a room like this and share our experience? How else did we get equal rights for elders? How else did we make some of the massive social changes of the last century?
“We did it by a combination of events that triggered change, emotions that made us think differently and evidence that drove change…
“It’s my fear that too often that discussion is held by the role of the state with announcements about the need to withdraw or the need to reshape the state and it’s often held by the market and the huge power multinational companies, bigger and more powerful than any of our nation’s states.
“But the community sector has a voice too and needs to articulate that voice more powerfully because otherwise others will decide for you.”
Identifying the Problem
Unwin said the first ingredient for social change was to recognise the crisis.
She said two examples of big issues being recognised by the community sector had been homelessness in the UK and disability in Australia, through the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
“The community sector must claim credit for identifying where the crisis is and for making sure it’s visible and understood,” she said.
“For far too often in our countries the bad stuff is hidden away. It’s easy to hide away our social problems and increasingly, in our increasingly divided society, poverty, disability, lonely old age is hidden away.
“That’s why I say understand the crisis, drawing attention to the crisis monitoring the crisis, counting and counting and getting the data and putting it in a form that people can understand is a fundamental part of the role of the community sector.
“It’s not an additional thing it’s what we do, we record what we do and bring it to public attention. Because otherwise, how do we create a narrative? how do we create a story that says it’s not because people are bad that they are poor…
“How can we reframe that narrative? We can only do when it’s the community sector telling the real stories of people who really live like that.”
Finding ‘Surprising’ Friends
Unwin said it was important to identify a “surprising friend” – the people that an organisation may not have known is also on their side.
“The businesses in the UK that have been working with charities that say ‘yes, do you know what really low pay is trapping people in poverty and that’s not good for business. It’s not good for those people’,” she said
“Those businesses are our surprising friends. It’s not government that is talking about wages in the UK it’s businesses who know where their interests are and our willingness to align our concerns with them.”
Remembering the Mission
Unwin said that it was all too easy for community organisations to be consumed by budgets, instead of its mission.
“Community organisations have deep roots in their sector and in their communities, people who understand what motivates and what drives and what energises,” she said.
“That’s what gets us through the sort of funding crises that we have faced and continue to face and what I suspect you’re about to face.
“There are risks to community organisations in our current environment. There is a risk that all attention will focus on your individual budgets, and I am CEO and I know precisely what that’s like.
“That can consume a huge amount of energy – that’s a risk. We have to keep focus on our purpose and our mission what are here to do, how do we best achieve it, how can we do it in advance of cuts and reductions make the changes that we need to make.
“We need to be fit, we need to be ready for the future.”
A Co-operative Community Sector
Unwin said there tended to be a failure to cooperate in the community sector when times were tough, however that was the ideal time to come together.
"I guess in the state of Victoria you are hugely cooperative but I can tell you in the UK there’s been times where we have competed needlessly, we’ve been divided and therefore ruled,” he said.
“I’d urge you not to fall to that risk.
“And I’d urge you not to see the decisions of government as instructions to you.
“When Government,States and Commonwealth, ask you to do things and puts money on the table, they’re buying your services, but you’re selling too and you can choose whether you sell those services.
“There will be contracts which you will be offered that will provide you with some form of stability and some of those you should sign, take the money and do your job, but there will be others that will compromise you in ways that will destroy your mission.
“Perhaps more worrying than that, is that it may start to erode that fragile trust that is the single biggest asset in the community sector.
“Our assets are balance sheets, our buildings our wonderful staff but our biggest assets in the community sector are the trust and respect within the communities we work.
“Without it, your contribution to my recipe for social change, the ability to drive real and lasting change will be destroyed.”
Words of Advice
“So my small piece of advice from a country, which has been through some of the things you are going through, is stick to your mission, understand your purpose, adapt it to the 21st century but set your own agenda,” Unwin said.
“Don’t be too distracted by huge changes around you because actually long-term change is one which a more prosperous country can live well into the future, and that will only be achieved when we have real lasting rights for people, places and poverty, older people and domestic violence.”