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Asking the Key Questions Around Disadvantage

27 August 2014 at 11:04 am
Lina Caneva
Let’s ask the right questions about place-based solutions for disadvantaged communities says United Way’s CEO Doug Taylor.

Lina Caneva | 27 August 2014 at 11:04 am


Asking the Key Questions Around Disadvantage
27 August 2014 at 11:04 am

Let’s ask the right questions about place-based solutions for disadvantaged communities says United Way’s CEO Doug Taylor.

Over the last 20 years I’ve had the great privilege to serve people living in communities throughout Australia and Asia who face their fair share of challenges. I’ve worked in these communities at the grassroots level, supporting teams as a manager and CEO and also as a funder of multiple agencies. I must confess that on any given day my work in these communities sees me oscillate between hope and despair.

Over the course of my career I’ve learnt that the best way to lead is to try and ask the right question. We are all practitioners of various types and sometimes I think that we do all we can to avoid stopping and taking a step away from the demands of our work and start asking some of those nagging questions.

You remember the definition of insanity, ‘doing the same thing and expecting a different result’. The fact is we are not seeing significant community level change in most of the disadvantaged communities in which there are NGOs and Community Leaders toiling away. It’s time to take stock and consider a few key questions.

If you’ve been around long enough you’ve seen a range of very well intentioned efforts by Governments, NGOs and community members to address locational disadvantage. I’ve been a part of this work, both the failures and the small victories along the way. So I share these as a learner myself. What’s critical is that we stop and take stock of this to ensure we recalibrate for our changing world as well as strive for better practice. In undertaking this work there are a number of observations and insights that we have gained into how we can work differently. 

We need to move from:

And move to:

Deficit thinking

An abundance mentality

Government contract focused

Community focused

Ad hoc and piece meal programs

Intense and comprehensive interventions

Passive and disengaged clients & citizens

A mobilised community

‘If you build it they will come’ mentality

An assertive Outreach philosophy

Professional services to a client

Engaging the person and their family

The community as the problem

Involving the community in the solution

A confusingly complex service system

A system that’s joined up & wrapped around   

Funders that are short term & quick fix focused

Funders that can genuinely partner

NGOs committed to their ‘projects’

NGOs willing to strategically align activities  

Of course it’s really easy to identify everything that’s wrong; the hard thing is to come up with solutions that address these issues effectively whilst also taking a level of responsibility ourselves for what we’ve created and need to do differently. In Australia we can at times too readily leave all of these issues up to Government when we could also profitably take responsibility for innovating the sort of effective strategies that produce solutions for community members. With that in mind I think we need:

  • To build on our growing professionalism by having disciplined processes that enhance performance

  • To move from being organisationally and funder focused to being genuinely people focused

  • A new type of leadership that is less concerned with logo and ego and instead has a clear sense of their purpose in facilitating change to address the root problems our communities face which we too easily avoid

  • Organisations who understand that place based work can only be done through genuine partnership

  • Courageous funders willing to adopt a new paradigm

So that’s a list of the things I think that stakeholders need to have top of mind when building more effective strategies for place based impact. I’m pretty sure most people will agree with these things, so let me return to the questions that are critical to address if we want to see these things implemented.  

1. If we know WHAT to do, why aren’t we better at consistently carrying it out?

I’m happy to acknowledge that not much of what I have said about place based impact is particularly new. I’ve been hearing and observing these things from not for profit practitioners, community leaders and even funders for a number of years. So here’s the heart of the matter: if we know all this, or most of this, why don’t we do something about it?

Typically people would square the blame at Government, who let’s face it are the major funder of this work, the assumption being that all we need is more resources to do the work properly and we’ll be fine. No doubt that’s part of it, but I think there’s more to it. I’ve outlined a number of practice changes above that are not resource dependent and relate to our strategies as well as leadership.

It’s clear to me that even when practitioners accept all this, there can be a ‘gap between what we know and what we do’. I read a great article recently looking at the ‘know do gap’[i] that analysed why with all of the information we have on good business management there remains a lack of execution. Their simple thesis is that ‘if you do it, then you will know.’ This says to me that we need to build a network of those involved in this work and equip them reflect on their practice and the evidenced based theory to close the gap between knowing and doing. The key here is to engage the system in this work; practitioners, community leaders, not for profit executives and funders.

So how do we go about building this network and how can it be hosted and supported? There are clearly many ways we can create this from better partnering the relevant Peak Bodies such as Australian Neighbourhood Houses & Centres Association (ANHCA) [ii] to building partnerships between NGOs and Universities to Governments facilitating forums for the ‘system’ to learn by doing such as the NSW Government’s Community Investment Collective. [iii]

2. How do we create an agenda that gets business, NGOs and Governments focused and working together (collaborating) on effective and efficient place based initiatives?

My experience is that people instinctively understand that it makes sense to work in local communities that face significant social and economic challenges. Notwithstanding the ‘know do gap’, there appears a general acceptance of the value of something needing to be done. I even find this in my work with Corporations and Philanthropic Foundations. The biggest challenge they struggle with is knowing where to start given the enormity of the challenge.

In response my advice is to start where you are and to strategically collaborate.

At United Way we are working with a group of businesses in the Macquarie Business Park [iv] who are wanting to work in their local community to ensure more children and young people READLEARNSUCCEED[v]. This has become a fantastic partnership and we hope a blue print for how we can engage more businesses in working with other community and government partners in their community. Of course if we all just work in our backyards then we will not see the requisite allocation of resources to areas of high need so it’s critical that stakeholders also collaborate strategically.

The Ten20 Foundation provides a great example here because they realise that no one funder has the resources to provide the necessary resources and so they have created ‘Opportunity Child[vi]. This is early stage collaboration, supported by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth.  It takes a grassroots approach to developing and supporting the collective capacity required for communities to tackle childhood vulnerability by creating national partnerships with early childhood practitioners and funders who are all aligned to the same goal of all children turning up to school ready to learn and thrive.

There are two common factors in these success stories:

  • Stakeholders have forgone some of their independence and collaborated with others to create a bigger impact by focusing on targeted communities and a common agenda.
  • People start with the communities in which they’re based but also kept an eye to working on strategic initiatives.

3. How do we go about growing the reach of effective place based initiatives? Is it good enough to go deep in a few communities and ignore the rest?

As a funder I’ve been enormously conflicted in making considerable grants into some communities to do deep Community Development work because I know that going deep in one means I go nowhere near touching the dozens of others that have an equally good case for investment.

Clearly we need to replicate successful strategies into as many communities as possible [vii] and that’s the point, can we replicate this work? I’m certain we know what to do but do we have the resources to replicate our current strategies? I was greatly encouraged by Tony Nicolson’s recent speech on this very issue and his observation that, ‘The prevailing paradigm of gathering paid professional people around the vulnerable in our community will become unviable in the next twenty years.’ [viii] He cites the growing population and the unlikelihood of Governments to be willing and able to raise taxes to meet growing social need. He also identified a range of issues and most relevant for Place Based initiatives he states that ‘there will simply not be the money to fund current practitioner intensive service models to meet the growth in population.’

This suggests to me that that we are at a crossroads in our work in local communities and must re-orientate this work by better using the existing social infrastructure we have in our local communities.  For this very reason, at United Way we have decided to roll our new READLEARNSUCCEED strategy by working with and through partners such as Rotary Clubs and Businesses. This means reshaping the formal service system as expressed in the Government and Non-Government Sectors but in equal measure we must better mobilise the business sector and the informal voluntary sector. No doubt there will be lots of pain in these changes and the need to develop some new skills that perhaps many of our practitioners have lost.

So all this means that we need to think differently about replicating success and learn how best to use resources and infrastructure that is available to us that is easily replicated in other contexts. In the future I believe that this is what will enable us to grow the reach of the most effective place based initiatives.

I’ve considered the pressing issue of place-based disadvantage in the spirit of that Chinese Proverb that "He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever." No matter how long you’ve been doing this work you should never stop asking questions and dare I say it being a fool.

Of course this doesn’t happen by accident but only by making time in our careers, organisations and across the sector to do the hard work of learning and improving. I think it’s the least we can do to get better outcomes for the people we endeavour to support who face significant social and economic challenges.

This is a summarised version of a keynote speech Doug Taylor, CEO of United Way Australia, gave at a Conference in Sydney on ‘Place Based Solutions’ on Tuesday 26thAugust. You can access the full version of the speech at

About the author: Doug Taylor is CEO and Executive Director of United Way Australia. He is frequently engaged to advise United Way members internationally on strategy, has lead the development of  the organisation’s Asia Pacific Corporate strategy, is a Member of the United Way Worldwide Membership Accountability Committee and was the inaugural chair of the United Way Worldwide Professional Council. At United Way Australia he has led the organisation in creating an aligned organisation structure, diversified revenue and Community Impact strategy called READLEARNSUCCEED which has culminated in a number of Collective Impact initiatives.

[i] The Knowing Doing Gap, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, Harvard Business School Press, 2000

[ii] Australian Neighbourhood Houses & Centres Association (ANHCA),

[iii] NSW Community Investment Collective,

[iv] Macquarie Park Business Project,


[vi] Opportunity Child,

[vii] Social inclusion and Place based disadvantage: What we have already done that is valuable for the future, Mr Damian Ferrie, 13 June 2008

[viii] Speech on the Future of Community Welfare Sector, May 2014, Tony Nicholson, Executive Director, Brotherhood of St Laurence,


Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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