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Community Sector Must Transform to Survive


Thursday, 17th November 2016 at 11:47 am
Ellie Cooper, Journalist
Community sector organisations need to transform to remain relevant and survive the impacts of disruptive change, the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) conference has heard.


Thursday, 17th November 2016
at 11:47 am
Ellie Cooper, Journalist


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Community Sector Must Transform to Survive
Thursday, 17th November 2016 at 11:47 am

Community sector organisations need to transform to remain relevant and survive the impacts of disruptive change, the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) conference has heard.

Keynote speaker Burkhard Gnärig is the co-founder and executive director of the International Civil Society Centre, a not-for-profit organisation helping international civil society organisations to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their work.

He said he found, in the course of researching his book The Hedgehog and the Beetle, that unless community sector organisations re-invent themselves to address three core areas of change they risk failure.

The first is called planetary disruption.

“[It] sounds big and is very big… We are living way beyond the resources our planet can provide… our children and grandchildren will suffer bitterly from the overconsumption of our planet’s resources,” Gnärig said.

“I would assume [organisations] have a mission statement which has something to do with fair distribution of resources, with future for children, with protection of nature or other areas of work, and all of this will be endangered by our lifestyle. So we are disrupting ourselves and civil society organisations will be disrupted by planetary challenges.”

The second is technological disruption from digital developments and, primarily, digital communication.

“Here is an issue which disrupts civil society organisations already today. You can see organisations like change.org… various platforms where you can give money for projects and the question arises whether our sector, in the traditional form, will be able to compete and survive in a field increasingly dominated by digital orgnaisations,” he said.

The third is political disruption, which Gnärig said had come to the fore following Brexit and Donald Trump’s election.

He said this relates to the sector through “empowerment of the citizens”, whereby people can control politicians, can understand the world better and rally support for individual perspectives, bringing people together in the streets.

“You have empowered people… who are disrupting the political spectrum and the fascinating thing is something very similar happens in our sector,” he said.

“I have discussions with fundraisers and I say to them ‘you ask me to give money to Save the Children Germany for example, and I know before it reaches the kids in East Africa you will have deducted about 30 per cent… then I have to wait for a year until you send me… a report about the project’,” he said.

“If I give directly through digital means I get 95 to 100 per cent to the project and I usually have digital means to contact the people and find out what they are doing with [the donation], so I don’t have to wait, I have more direct contact, more of my money goes to the people.

“My bet would be the next generation of donors will not even understand the alternative concept because they have been growing up with the internet… so I think we are losing that battle and that makes us similar… to the politicians.”

Gnärig said while organisations have not officially rejected the idea of transformation, they have in their behaviour.

“Nobody would say ‘well let’s play it safe and continue our slow decline into obsolescence’ that’s not the strategy people [think] about,” he said.

“But if I see how little change across the sector there is then I would say ‘well that may not be the official strategy, but that’s what’s happening’.”

He provided an acronym, ACT BIG, for organisations that want to transform and “ride the wave of disruption”.

“We believe that in situations of change, closing down, narrowing focus, reducing ambitions is probably the wrong approach… rather remember that as civil society organisations your support comes from the dream that you stand for… act up to your dream,” he said

ACT BIG stands for:

  • Alliances – organisations can’t act up to their dream alone and need to get better at building alliances, including with corporates.
  • Culture – current culture prevents organisations from reacting fast. A more activist and dynamic approach in needed.
  • Transparency – admit to mistakes, learn from mistakes. Mistakes are the fuel for learning and transparency about mistakes can also teach others.
  • Business models – most major organisations rely on one main source of income, which is dangerous in times of disruption. New business models should be created and old models need to adapt.
  • Identity – organisations need to change their identity as actors, get out silos and become platforms rather than a close box.
    Governance – organisations are over-governed and under-managed.

Gnärig also said there were a number of tips for leaders looking to transform their organisations.

“[We’re] in a pattern of incremental change… it’s no longer fine, we need transformative change,” he said.

Elements of transformative change:

  • look outside of the organisation, rather than inward
  • look to the future, not to the past
  • foster creativity, not control
  • lead by vision, not by necessity.

Following Gnärig’s speech was a panel discussion on how disruptive change is affecting Australian community sector organisations.

Facilitated by ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie, the panel included ACNC assistant commissioner David Locke, Infoxchange CEO David Springs, 350.org CEO Blair Palese and Australian Progress deputy executive director Rebecca Wilson

Locke said the sector had been slow to change.

“Some of the big change that we’re seeing has started in the sector around technological change, certainly around fundraising and campaigning,” Locke said.

“I think many organisations are still in their infancy in terms of understanding these challenges and understanding how to engage with people in a meaningful way and build coalitions of support.”

He said organisational culture and the small-c conservatism mindset, “this is the way we do things, this is our business model” needed to change.

“The challenge is thinking in very different ways about whether that’s still fit for purpose and also how that will resonate in a very different world,” he said.

“I think at the heart, really, is actually looking externally… bringing in outsiders, not just insiders, ensuring you don’t just have a cozy board and a cozy management team where everyone shares the same world view and has the same experience, but are actually bringing in some of the outsiders… encouraging people who are digital natives to be participating in some of this, and… blue sky thinking about how you could deliver services in completely different ways.

He said there were important lessons for organisations to learn from the taxi industry, the education industry, the growth of Amazon versus traditional bookshops.

“We’ve got to start thinking, what lessons can we learn from the for-profit sector about delivery of services, and how can we think about what we’re established to do but recreate it in a different way.”

The ACOSS conference, Community: Leading the Big debates, running on 18 and 19 November in Sydney, brings together more than 400 community advocates and workers, researchers, leaders, and people with lived experience of poverty and disadvantage.


Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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