Our Peaks are in a Funding Trough
Wednesday, 3rd May 2017 at 5:11 pm
A voice needs a body… To have an effective sector voice we need an effective and well resourced sector body, writes Pro Bono Australia founder Karen Mahlab in her latest blog.
When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Labor Senator Ursula Stephens called a group of not for profits to Canberra and asked: “Where is your voice? The world is in crisis and your organisations represent those who will be most affected. Where is your collective voice?”
At that time there were no significant well funded social sector peak bodies. Here we are today almost a decade on and we still don’t have one.
Take for example the Community Council for Australia. To represent a sector employing over a million people CCA employ less than two full time members of staff. In contrast, The Business Council of Australia employs 25. Volunteering Australia (remembering we have 4.2 million people in Australia who volunteer) employs two “and a bit” at a national level.
Whilst the amount these organisations currently do with so few resources is astonishing, my call is that if we want to have a sector voice we need community and sector support for our peak representative bodies so they can be resourced to do more.
Peak bodies are important. Many times they provide the “backbone” of the group they represent: a united voice. Many times they act as an intermediary between people or organisations and larger bodies such as government. In a sector where opinions can be muted so as not to jeopardise funding, independent peaks become even more important.
We call ourselves a variety of names: the social economy, the social sector, the not-for-profit sector, civil society. Our names are varied but our purpose is not. At our best we are here for the common good. We are here to speak for those that can’t, we are here to research, educate, represent – the environment, the disabled, the sick, the underprivileged. Australia’s “social economy” overarches not-for-profit organisations, philanthropy, volunteering, social enterprise, impact investing, corporate social responsibility and shared value. Our purpose is that we are here for a better future for all.
It’s a “sector” that has long had trouble naming itself yet it is worth around 4 per cent of our national GDP and employs one in eight Australians. We are important not only in the doing but in the dollars.
Our robustness is a sign of a healthy democracy, a healthy society and a collective future. Many times a part of what we contribute is intangible – a sense of community, compassion, generosity, connection, social equity, happy neighbourhoods, people feeling supported, respecting our elders, caring. Generally, in our western way of thinking, if something is intangible it is not valued (and is certainly not recognised in our calculations of GDP).
Even though we are so important there are no robust peak bodies to represent our voice to government, to the community at large and to the business sector. So often we see an absence of our community voice at the table when significant national or state issues are being discussed. Business is there, government is there, the media is there – and a representative community sector is not.
Whilst our sector has peaks for different causes – disability, mental health, Indigenous etc – our overall peaks are not properly resourced to enable us to speak.
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (established formally only in 2012) is giving us a better understanding of who we are and how we can improve as the annual data rolls in. Increasingly we will be able to speak from the gathered statistics to inform policy, increase efficiencies and effectiveness and develop the sector.
There are many sector-wide issues that will now have an evidence base allowing them to be tackled from both an inward- and outward-facing position. We need peak bodies to shine a light on the newly illuminated issues and reforms needed.
We need to support our peaks. We need to become paid up members, to join up, to ensure we have a voice – a loud representative voice – when it comes to decisions about our collective futures.
About the author: Karen Mahlab AM founded Pro Bono Australia in 2000 as a social enterprise offering media, jobs and resources for the common good. In 2016 the website was visited by more than one million unique visitors making it one of Australia’s most influential social businesses.