Beyond the profits of doom
6 August 2020 at 8:36 am
It is important for charities to shine a light on the problems facing the sector and society at large, but we must not push this narrative too far. Charities must also be seen as capable of driving change and delivering solutions, writes David Crosbie.
Charities can profit by accentuating problems, talking about how bad things are and why more resources are needed to ameliorate the damage. At the same time, the most important role of charities is as leading change agents promoting positive outcomes. Balancing these two narratives has never been more important for the charities sector than it is now.
Over the past few months CCA and others have successfully made the case that many charities are at imminent risk of shrinking their services, even closing, as a consequence of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns. This week Social Ventures Australia and the Centre for Social Impact released another important and timely report – Taken for Granted – highlighting the vulnerability of the charities sector and possible job losses running into the hundreds of thousands. This ongoing research and advocacy for the charities sector by CCA and other key groups has been successful, informing changes in government policies that have enabled thousands of jobs to be saved across the Australian charities sector.
There is no doubt about the value of this work, but there is also a danger associated with this form of advocacy. We need to be careful not to push the “poor charities” narrative too far. Charities are already perceived by many as being unprofessional and inefficient. Charities could fuel that perception by adopting the “powerless victim of circumstances” position and that could be damaging in the long run. Charities have pressing needs, and these must be highlighted, but we also need to keep exercising care in the process of making that case to ensure we do not diminish our role or demean the value of our work. Charities must be seen as capable of driving change or we risk sinking down the priority list for governments and communities looking for positive solutions to COVID-19 issues.
At their best, charities change the world, making it a better, safer, more connected and sustainable place for all of us. In Australia we have already seen the critical role played by charities in responding to COVID-19. The role of charities post COVID-19 will be no less important and has the potential to shape the kind of communities we all live in.
Prior to COVID-19, there were many issues in Australia that needed more attention: climate change, growing inequality, inadequate support for the marginalised and unemployed, health and other systems including education increasingly orientated to who can pay the most, growing suicide rates, growing incarceration rates, blockages to services for the mentally unwell and many with chronic health conditions, aged care and disability needing more reform, a regional/urban and racial divide in both opportunity and outcomes, inadequate public and low cost housing, underfunding of critical areas including the arts and international development, the ongoing indefinite detention of refugees, and many others.
In recent months, COVID-19 has served to further highlight many of these problems.
In all these areas, charities were taking a lead, offering hope, solutions that would strengthen the communities they serve. When you consider how progress is made on these issues, the critical role of charities now and moving forward is that they are both the drivers of change to make our country better, and a persistent social conscience calling out self-interest and greed.
In 2016 CCA brought over 60 leaders from across the charities sector together to talk about the kind of Australia they wanted to live in. The Australia We Want set targets for the kind of Australia we all hoped to live in including: lower CO2 emissions and higher use of renewables, lower incarceration rates, a more equal distribution of income, high perceptions of public safety especially for women, lower suicide rates, higher educational attainment, better employment access especially for women, improved access to housing, levels of giving and volunteering increasing, growing international development assistance, increased transparency in decision-making across all levels of government.
To achieve targets in all these areas, governments, business and communities need to positively engage with charities and work together to demonstrate how change can be achieved.
Australia now is a different place than it was in 2016. Charities are facing a whole new set of challenges. But the goal of a better Australia remains central to our work.
The innovation across the charities sector in the last six months to ensure their communities have been adequately supported has very clearly demonstrated the value of many charities and their leadership. Time and again charities have shown real innovation and drawn on new collaborations to continue to pursue their purpose.
What has impressed me even more during the pandemic is how many charity leaders have been looking beyond the survival of their own individual organisation, many becoming part of collective movements working to better serve our communities, especially those doing it tough. This collective leadership on broader social and environmental issues will end up counting much more than how many staff are employed in each agency.
We should all be strong advocates for charities and there is much work to do in that space. But charities at their best are not just at the table seeking a fair share of the meal, we also want to be in the kitchen developing the recipes to ensure justice and fairness are at the heart of our shared communities.
Charities need to play a much more prominent role in national policy formation, not because we have needs, but because we have solutions.
The kind of Australia we live in will be up to us. While ensuring charities can continue to serve their communities is a priority, the bigger issue is whether the Australia of the future will be a better place. And that is where charities can and must play a critical role.