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Look how far we’ve come

21 May 2020 at 8:04 am
Wendy Williams
It can be hard to spot moments of progress in the day to day. But change stands out over decades. As Pro Bono News celebrates its 20th birthday, we launch a series looking at how far the social sector has come since 2000.

Wendy Williams | 21 May 2020 at 8:04 am


Look how far we’ve come
21 May 2020 at 8:04 am

It can be hard to spot moments of progress in the day to day. But change stands out over decades. As Pro Bono News celebrates its 20th birthday, we launch a series looking at how far the social sector has come since 2000.

Those who work in the business of changing the world know it can take years. Which makes the current moment a rare opportunity. Things have been possible during COVID-19 that would have been pipedreams just months ago. All the more reason to take stock, to look at the path that led us here and think about the world we want to step into when this is over.

We had always planned a series of articles to celebrate Pro Bono Australia’s 20th birthday. As a trusted news service for the social economy, we have borne witness to a sector that has transformed, and in many ways grown up, in that time. 

True, many of the problems the sector is trying to solve remain stubbornly in place. Often it feels that the needle is not shifting as quickly as we would like. But sometimes you need to look back to realise how far you have come. 

That is the aim of this series. Over the next six weeks, we will shine a spotlight on the key areas that make up the social economy and ask, what was it like then? What is it like now? And, crucially, what can that tell us about what comes next?

To give you some context, when Pro Bono News started, we needed to phone around to see if organisations had an email address where we could send our newsletter. You got your news at set times from a newspaper, radio or TV. You certainly had no access to the inner monologue of the president of America.

Since then, technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. We’ve lived through September 11, the global financial crisis, an accelerating climate crisis, several royal commissions, and of course the toilet roll wars of 2020.

In that time, Australia’s population has grown from 19.2 million to 25.6 million; we’ve been through six prime ministers (some of them twice); and we’ve seen the biggest social reform since Medicare with the birth of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

We now have access to data in ways we could never have dreamed of 20 years ago, and that has helped us understand and approach problems differently.

But as our standard of living, expectations and environment have changed, so has the definition of inequality. Twenty years ago, there was no concept of a digital divide; today it is headline news. The coronavirus pandemic has turned WFH into one of the world’s busiest acronyms, and transformed living rooms and bedrooms into digital offices and classrooms – but this is only possible for those with reliable internet connections.

We have also been plagued by questions of trust. Around the world many have lost faith in major institutions and in governments’ ability to fix problems. There has been a creeping authoritarianism, giving rise to debates on advocacy. At home we’ve seen clampdowns on protestors and the media. In 2017, Pro Bono Australia’s Civil Voices report found charities had been self-silencing for fear of risking their financial security or inviting political retribution.

These problems are unlikely to fade away. Yet as a counterpoint, there’s been a rise of active citizenship and the emergence of what Jeremy Heimans, co-founder of Purpose and GetUp, calls a “new power”. We’ve seen millions take to the streets as part of the #MeToo movement, the School Strike for Climate and the successful fight for marriage equality.

Australians are also turning their attention to conscious consumerism, and the power they can wield by deploying their dollars for good. 

This has all fed into the social sector. From our vantage point here at Pro Bono Australia, we’ve watched the for-purpose movement adapt to deal with all of the challenges thrown at it by the 21st century. It hasn’t always been easy, let alone straightforward. But along the way, the traditional pillars of the sector have become more defined and more professional, and newer areas of the social economy have emerged, finding new ways to bring about change.


Today, the charity sector accounts for more than 8 per cent of Australia’s GDP. Yet its growth in the past two decades has been complicated. We’ve seen the number of charities double, and then watched as they’ve been forced to compete against each other for limited resources – a task made more difficult within today’s fragmented media landscape. Meanwhile the sector’s relationship with governments has become increasingly symbiotic. Charities have become more reliant on government funding, as the government itself has outsourced services to community organisations. Fortunately, some things have become simpler. Red tape has been cut, and following a long battle we now have a national regulator, the ACNC, to oversee the sector. Plus, we finally have a clear legal definition of charity.


When it comes to philanthropy, the biggest “get” of the last two decades has been the introduction of private ancillary funds. This new structure of giving has been fundamental in shifting the way people think about the use of private wealth for public good. It has encouraged a growing number of wealthy Aussies to join the ranks of structured philanthropy. But in some ways, it has masked a growing problem: the number of people giving to charity is actually falling. Those who are giving are giving more, and so the philanthropy pie has kept getting bigger, but the trend is cause for concern. The growth at the top end of giving has also gone hand in hand with a backlash against elite philanthropy and its potential to undermine the sector’s commitment to democratic giving. There is some irony in the fact that the value of philanthropy is being widely criticised at a time when demands on the sector to solve some of our most complex problems have never been greater .


When you compare the numbers from 2000 with now, volunteering looks to be thriving. But it’s not a simple picture of steady growth. In fact, 2015 ABS data revealed falling volunteering rates for the first time in almost 20 years, with 75 per cent of people saying they lacked the time to contribute. This is a worrying trend – ask anyone in the social sector and they’ll tell you that volunteers are the lifeblood of charities. But, it’s not time to despair just yet. Depending on how you cut and dice it, the numbers can look quite different. This is in part due to a lot of volunteering not being counted in the data. It also speaks to a big change over the last two decades in the nature of volunteering – which has been backed up by a new, broader definition. Today you can volunteer informally, online, on a short-term contract or through your employer. Thanks to COVID-19 we may also see virtual volunteering become a permanent fixture.

Social enterprise

The idea that you can unite profit and purpose in a business has been tested and proven over the past 20 years. In that time, the sector has grown in sophistication, and even agreed on a definition (well, up to a point). Networks are expanding across the country to connect social entrepreneurs, and attention is turning to social procurement. The sector has piqued the interest of governments, impact investors and philanthropists. Importantly, it’s been driven by demand from consumers, who are increasingly shopping their values.

Corporate social responsibility

It is no longer enough for a business to deliver profits to shareholders. These days there is a social expectation, and in some cases a legal requirement, for businesses to look after people and the planet. Over the past two decades, the Australian CSR movement has blossomed from an outlier to a norm, becoming increasingly sophisticated and ambitious along the way. Once associated with recycling programs and fun-run sponsorships, CSR departments now carry weight. Many organisations are moving to integrate CSR into their whole-of-business strategy. But don’t be fooled. There are still plenty of companies paying lip service to the CSR ideals while doing the bare minimum.

Impact investing

Our understanding of how capital can be used for good has grown exponentially in the past two decades, giving rise to a movement that is on the verge of becoming mainstream. Today you can walk into a room of investors and say the words “impact investing”, and they will know what you mean. That is a new development. Thanks to pioneering market builders and a growing investment appetite, we have moved from a place of uncoordinated innovation into one of marketplace building. The next step is scale.


Over the coming weeks Pro Bono News will lay out the key moments that have shaped the for-purpose sector in the past two decades and brought us to where we are today. As conversations turn to the future, and the challenges and opportunities of a post-pandemic world, we hope this provides a vantage point from which to consider the changes we want to see in the next 20 years. Because change does happen. And each of us is a vital part of it.


See the full series here: 20 years of social change

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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