Have You Been Commodified?
12 October 2017 at 8:36 am
Charities will only realise their potential when they can collectively push the pendulum back away from “commodification” towards funding models that reward responsiveness and effectiveness, writes CEO of Community Council for Australia David Crosbie.
Charities are increasingly being asked to package up what they do as products that can be put in a market place alongside other products vying to attract government and philanthropic buyers. This commodification of endeavours often misses all the important little things that make charities effective.
Many years ago when I was deputy director of Grassmere Youth Services in Doveton, I received a call from the welfare coordinator at the local Technical School. They were having problems with a small group of boys coming back into the year 8 classrooms after lunch and behaving very badly. Some of these students, they said, appeared to be smelling of petrol, as though they had been model car racing or playing with lawn mower engines. The boys all denied any wrongdoing.
I went to the school and met with a few of the boys. They told me they had been buying 20 cent bags of petrol from a local service station and sniffing them at lunchtime. Their reason – nothing better to do. I visited the petrol station involved and, after some discussion, came to an arrangement that they would no longer sell small bags of petrol to kids, regardless of what story the kids told them. I spent some time with the welfare coordinator and gave a brief talk to some of the year level teachers in the staff room, explaining the episodic and contagious patterns of solvent sniffing.
I arranged to have some information about solvents and young people sent to all year 8 parents and also sent a personalised note to each of the boy’s parents telling them what had happened, as well as describing the interventions that were now taking place. I made a deal with the kids that I would take them on an excursion to a fun place if they all stopped using petrol for the next two weeks.
There were no more complaints about petrol sniffing in the school. The “intervention” took less than a day of my time.
The interventions were not particularly unusual or insightful, but I wonder what would happen today in the same circumstances? How would the school react? Would experienced well-trained staff from a local youth service be available and willing to come in and work with the school to address the issue? Would the parents be called in and told solvents are a gateway drug to illicit drug use and dependence? Would the local police be involved? Would the students involved be suspended? Would the teachers ask for specialists to advise them given the risks of harm to students and themselves?
Perhaps more interestingly, would there be pressure to commodify this instance of community engagement into a series of “products” the agency could put up for sale? These products might attract government or philanthropic funding, particularly if the agency highlighted the extent of petrol sniffing amongst specific age cohorts in the local region, and exaggerated the experience the agency has in responding to these issues.
Possible products based on the petrol sniffing in school intervention include:
- a cognitive behavioural program in drug abuse prevention for junior secondary students, (talking to the students);
- facilitating community action to reduce the supply of drugs to minors, (talking to the petrol station);
- engaging parents in better identifying and responding to their children’s drug use, (sending letters home);
- community-based drug education programs, (sending information about solvents home);
- training teachers in responding to potentially dangerous drug incidents, (talking to the teachers);
- intensive engagement and activity based responses to at risk drug takers, (taking the kids on a fun excursion); and
- using positive peer pressure to reduce drug use etc (only rewarding the kids if they all stopped sniffing).
When I worked at Grassmere, it was funded to exist and work with the local community. There were contractual obligations attached to government funding, like the number of young offenders on court orders we were required to supervise, and the number of foster care placements we would manage, but the organisation was funded according to a budget that took account of the need to operate and meet expenses; pay rent on offices and meeting rooms, employ staff, lease cars, run events, have computers, phones, etc.
Grassmere was given the core funding needed to be responsive, direct, engaged and effective. It was also very accountable, providing comprehensive reports on its expenditures and activities.
At the recent Philanthropy Australia conference in Canberra, I was asked what I thought was the most important advice I could give philanthropists about funding advocacy. My response was that philanthropists needed to invest in good people and good organisations working in the areas they are concerned about. I emphasised that funding advocacy should not just be about buying products – making a grant to the most attractive submission in the shop window – but about investing in people and passion.
The pendulum in government and philanthropic funding seems to have swung too far away from flexibility, responsiveness and genuine accountability towards a less effective commodification of programs and services.
I am sure there are still many people working in agencies across Australia who respond to needs in their communities every day in ways that are not part of their funding agreements. I also know that adopting this responsive and engaged approach can lead to a much more tenuous existence.
Our current government funding models are grounded in micro-management and output driven metrics. They assume a purchaser provider model that is rarely appropriate and applicable.
Procuring programs in health, the arts, education, employment, welfare, disability, housing, aged care, in all our areas of activity, is simply not the same process as procuring stationery.
We need to liberate the most experienced and knowledgeable, the creative innovators and reformers, the dynamic can do leaders across the charities and NFP sector to do what they know will make a positive difference in their communities.
Charities will only realise their potential when we can collectively push the pendulum back away from commodification towards funding models that reward responsiveness and effectiveness.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.