Trust in the charity sector is well placed
3 August 2020 at 5:49 pm
The contract flexibility we have seen over the last few months from government and philanthropic funders has supercharged innovation – we need to create an environment where this is possible every day, not just when we are responding to a crisis, writes Craig Comrie.
COVID-19 has had a seismic global impact, touching every corner of the world and changing the way we all live our lives and interact with each other.
We have all witnessed the rapid changes the pandemic has forced upon small businesses in our local areas, with most having to innovate their business models to meet customer needs. We have also seen significant investment from governments across the country towards ensuring businesses can survive and sustain their workforces.
These pivots have been public, happening visibly at your local cafe or pub. However, less visible has been the similar work of charities, who have also worked rapidly to respond to the diverse needs of people they serve. This work includes the critical support to our community’s most vulnerable to ensure they can cope with the health and economic effects of COVID-19. Given the complexity of issues facing many in our community, this is no mean feat! And we can’t forget that this has been compounded by bushfires earlier in the year.
To support these challenges, there has been some recognition of the charity sector work, including the extension of JobKeeper arrangements, thanks to lobbying by peak bodies and an orientation of funders toward providing greater flexibility in how services are delivered.
The innovations of charities over recent months wouldn’t have been possible under normal circumstances and this should be acknowledged. The charity sector is highly regulated, with extensive contracting arrangements that govern the way services are delivered. While important, these contracts are often the enemy of innovation, with too many charities forced to deliver to the letter of an agreement rather than be responsive to the changing environment and importantly the needs of those they work with.
2020 has changed that. Funders are giving increased contract flexibility to charities, who in turn are free to evolve delivery and better meet the nuanced and often urgent, community needs during the pandemic.
Government and philanthropic funders have placed greater trust in charities to make decisions in the best interest of communities and importantly many funders have limited (and in some cases, suspended) reporting requirements placed on organisations. As a result, energy spent on administrative and regulatory activities has been orientated towards critical, frontline work.
This trust is well placed – the charity sector employs over one million people, many more volunteers and every day supports hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Australians. According to Deloitte Access Economics, the charity sector workforce is roughly equivalent to the retail sector – not small by any means. This significance, wealth of experience and knowledge of the charity sector should not be underestimated.
Charities speak every day to people from a broad range of backgrounds, they know what works and what is needed – and they have proven time and time again their ability to employ creative solutions to assist our community in times of greatest need. The contract flexibility we have seen over the last few months has supercharged these innovations and we need to create an environment where this is possible every day, not just when we are responding to a crisis.
I’m not saying government and philanthropic funders don’t have a role, of course, they do. They have a responsibility to ensure investment goes to organisations capable of supporting our community’s most vulnerable people and they too hold expertise that can assist in designing and delivering programs. But pre-COVID contract approaches fail to produce the true partnerships needed to leverage everyone’s contribution. Instead, they foster an almost adversarial relationship between key sectors, one based on surveillance rather than trust.
We’ll all take learnings from this unprecedented time but one I hope that persists in the way we fund and deliver support services, is a willingness to recognise that local solutions, informed by the expertise of charities and supported by beneficiary views, will have the most lasting impact.
Leading the way are a group of over 50 philanthropic funders who have committed to Australian Philanthropy’s Response to the COVID-19 Crisis Pledge, a set of principles that encourages a new way of working. One that creates an environment of trust and adaptability and removes unnecessary barriers to innovation.
In the end, Australia’s wicked problems will not be solved by constraining thinking or innovation. We will move forward when government, funders and charities work more collaboratively together, with open dialogue and joint commitment. This can only be achieved through trust in expertise and permission to try new, innovative ways of working, something that is not possible if prescriptive contracting persists.
Without this orientation, the charity sector would not have been able to respond as rapidly as it has to the challenges of 2020 and our community would be worse off for it.
Thanks to all those funders (especially those that support the work of Teach For Australia) who already know this is how the greatest impact is achieved.