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Investing in People Who Make a Difference

31 January 2019 at 8:54 am
David Crosbie
Charities need to be independent, but that does not mean they should be cut adrift by government to fend on their own, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie.

David Crosbie | 31 January 2019 at 8:54 am


Investing in People Who Make a Difference
31 January 2019 at 8:54 am

Charities need to be independent, but that does not mean they should be cut adrift by government to fend on their own, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie.

“In the modern world it is simply not possible to have a dynamic and vibrant society and economy without a dynamic and vibrant voluntary sector… Wise governments respect the crucial independence of the sector. But government has an important role to play in providing support.”

– UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, foreword to the report Private Action, Public Benefit A Review of Charities and the Wider Not-For-Profit Sector, first published in 2002.

I have always liked the Tony Blair approach to charities – charities need to be independent, but that does not mean they should be cut adrift to fend on their own. They also need to be supported by government to be the best they can.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the capacity of the charities sector to advocate on issues of importance to the communities they serve.

Given the overt political push from vested interests to diminish the voice of charities, particularly on issues that may impact the profitability of major corporates, the sustained attack on the independence of charities has demanded attention.

It is disappointing, but not surprising, that a number of our politicians have supported this campaign. Thanks to the ongoing work of many within the charities sector, the independence of charities in Australia is still relatively strong – although there are no grounds for complacency.

What has attracted a lot less attention is the importance of the relationships between the charities sector and governments across Australia, and particularly the need for appropriate levels of support.

According to the ACNC data, charities in Australia receive over $60 billion in government grants. Further government funding is provided through payment to charities for services to funded clients and communities.

Most of this funding is relatively short term – less than three years. In many cases, the funding provided barely covers the cost of the deliverables stipulated in government contracts. Some government contracts require cross subsidisation or underwriting from the charity.

Within this context, investment in sector capacity has been miniscule as a percentage of total sector turnover. Of particular concern is the failure to provide adequate professional development opportunities across our sector.

I have long argued that the charities sector is mostly about the people that work and volunteer in the sector – much more so than the money or the processes. It is people that matter, their relationships, their values. So why do we not invest in our people?

We lack the actual figures (another area for more research across the sector), but what little research has been done in the area suggests: “Insufficient financial and structural support prevent the Australian NFP sector and its people from engaging with more professional development. Smaller NFP organisations appear particularly prone to financial challenges, while larger NFPs are challenged by the time and support required to offer training. Thirty-three per cent of NFP executives have no access to a designated training budget.” (Dr Ramon Wenzel – Learning for Purpose Researching the Social Return on Education and Training in the Australian Not-for-Profit Sector.)

There are many good reasons for governments across Australia to invest more in the capacity of the charities sector and particularly in the staff and volunteers that make or break government funded services.

It is beyond contention that quality, productivity, sustainability, and effectiveness are all significantly enhanced when there are well-trained, skilled and experienced staff and volunteers engaged in service provision, leadership and governance.

The Productivity Commission report into the Australian charities sector devoted a whole chapter to the not-for-profit workforce.

It identified a lack of career paths and training opportunities, and called for better sector workforce planning and training noting: “NFPs in the community services sector appear to experience the greatest challenges in attracting and retaining employees and volunteers. Addressing these challenges is vital to enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of these NFPs, especially those delivering government funded community services.”

Despite the overwhelming case for a significant investment in sector capacity, there has only been limited ad-hoc one-off investments made by governments across Australia to support increased sector capacity, particularly training and development. This is a very real concern for the future of the sector.

The CCA Draft Pre-Budget Submission (currently being finalised with CCA members) is calling for a three per cent levy to be applied to government funding of charities and not-for-profits.

This measure would enable more appropriate investment into sector capacity building including; training and development, research, and uptake of technology.

CCA is keen to work with central agencies (treasury and finance) to examine how such a levy might work across the various government departments, but the fundamental requirement would be that departments investing hundreds of millions of dollars in program delivery through charities and not for profits would have to demonstrate that they are also investing in the capacity of the sector to provide the best possible services. In practice, this means offering government funded charities and not for profits increased support for capacity building, either within grant programs or as an additional investment.

Being independent is critical to the work of charities across Australia. Having the capacity to train and retain committed staff and volunteers is also critical. It is time we invested more in the people that make a difference in our communities, the charities and not-for-profit sector workforce.

Governments would do well to heed the advice of a previous UK prime minister; respect the independence of charities, but also offer genuine support to enable charities and the communities they serve to flourish.

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 eight 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.

David Crosbie  |  @DavidCrosbie2

David Crosbie is the CEO of the Community Council for Australia (CCA).

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  • Ramon Wenzel, PhD says:

    Importantly, although important, it’s not just investing into the professional development of NFP people, but investing into enhancing their total work experience.

    Our research clearly shows: learning, wellbeing, leadership, work design, and people systems explain impact via staff attrition and performance.

    The future of the Australian NFP sector is not predetermined. If leaders, funders, policymakers make a conscious effort to build capacity in better ways, it is entirely possible over the next decade or so that we are going to have more efficiencies and impact than we have ever seen before.

    The key to realising such lasting change are not opinions or personal agendas but genuine commitment to an evidence-base for optimal people management by the collective involved in the Australian NFP sector.

  • Ewan Filmer says:

    This is a thought bubble so vague as to be easily dismissed by policy makers. The confusion starts with use of the word ‘levy’, surely the proponent does not mean a reduction of NFP funding by means of a 3% new tax, impost or surcharge? Does the NFP really need a new tax? What is actually meant here is a boost to existing funding allocations by an additional 3%. So if anything the plan perhaps could be called a 3% capacity building bonus.

    What exactly is the nature of the bonus – a one-off payment or an additional permanent budget commitment? How does the government insure that these funds are in fact spent where the claimed problem areas exist and improve the current situation, or is gaining a verifiable outcome not really the point? What guidelines will ensure it reaches operational staff and is not cherry picked by executives on study trips? This idea is dreamed up for large players who can game the system rather than small NFP employers. It will generate additional accountability and auditing costs.

    Finally did not it occur to the proponent that the NFP ‘sector’ encompasses the many service providers dependent on NDIS pricing to be able to not only pay staff but to provide in-house training for their front line and management staff? As well as a reasonable ‘return on investment’ which keeps them in the sector.

    Detailed sub-sectoral strategies would actually recognise that state governments also fund NFP organisations. Aged care providers, NDIS providers, MH providers and allied health professionals must not be treated as an amorphous industry. Their funding arrangements are simply not identical.

    There is an undisputed need to attract and retain good staff who see a viable career path in the NFP. However the recommended 3% increase approach is very lazy, an easy fix and will do nothing to prove the credentials of CCA. Hard work and a deeper understanding of the problem is required Mr Crosbie, not posturing.


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