Charity workers – the heart of future Australia
29 October 2020 at 8:35 am
At a time when we know some charity workers are struggling, it’s more important than ever to acknowledge how critical charity workers are to our future, writes David Crosbie.
Many charity workers are currently doing it tough. Over 300,000 have been on JobKeeper. The future for the sector is generally uncertain, as it is for many areas across our communities. And while charities are not unique in facing unprecedented challenges, the level of uncertainty about what our communities are going to look like, about our jobs and our futures clearly has an impact on all of us in one way or another.
In Pro Bono News this week, the issue of staff burnout was highlighted – preliminary analysis from the RESET 2020 National Impact+Need September Survey reveals that staff wellbeing and mental health are major challenges for many charities and not for profits.
On Monday, the Charities Crisis Cabinet spent longer discussing the issue of staff and leadership wellbeing than any other agenda item.
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While not wanting to over generalise or imply that all charity workers are struggling to cope, it is important to acknowledge that dealing with so many unknowns is going to have a negative impact on many charity workers and many of the organisations they work in.
It is also important to note that some charities are doing even better during COVID-19 than previously. Almost invariably, the reason these charities are doing better is that they are now more able to fulfill their charitable purpose than previously. Often these improved outcomes appear to be a result of innovative adaptations and pivoting of services to better reflect the needs of the communities they serve.
The importance of recognising the role of charity workers was strongly reinforced this week by the release of an important study from the Ethics Centre. The economic and social benefits of ethics to Australia drew on the expertise of Deloitte Access Economics to identify the cost of unethical decision-making and the benefits of implementing a stronger ethical framework across our institutions and communities. The headline findings were that:
“Turning around the loss of trust in government, corporations and institutions could deliver Australians significant economic and social dividends… An increase in ethical behaviour could raise Australians’ average income by $1,800 a year, lifting GDP by $45 billion… An increase in a company’s performance based on ethical perceptions can increase return on assets by about 7 per cent.”
This report provides an interesting perspective, especially for those of us working in charities. Trust is a critical commodity in all charities. Most charities build community trust in multiple ways, often by bringing different people together in a shared commitment to benefit their communities. The idea that trust will deliver an economic dividend is not new, but to have it so strongly endorsed is important.
It is also interesting that the report was grounded in the concept of applying a relatively narrow economic cost-benefit approach to ethical behaviour. Most of us do not behave ethically because we think it will make us wealthier. While I claim no expertise, it seems to me the benefits of ethical behaviour to the individual are primarily about our own sense of self, personal confidence, and wellbeing. In simple terms, our personal integrity is one of the few resources we can build that will stay with us on our deathbed and beyond when all material and physical assets become insignificant. The benefits of ethical behaviour extend well outside of what we can measure in economic terms, even if we can demonstrate ethical behaviour has an economic benefit.
One of the major recommendations within the report relates to emphasising the sense of purpose within organisations.
“Leaders and organisations should encourage employees to think about how they gain meaning from their work, what their individual purpose is and how this fits within an organisation’s purpose, values, principles and goals. This improves employee engagement and helps to develop an ethical culture where norms are upheld and the purpose and values of an organisation are lived.”
At a time when we know some charity workers are struggling, this recommendation is highlighting the benefits of acknowledging charity workers are purpose driven, and work in purpose-driven organisations. While this is a given for most of us, it is not always promoted, reinforced, or supported within organisations. On a day-to-day basis, internal issues, role delineation disputes, relationship tensions, frustrations and uncertainty may lead to the purpose of the work being lost in the means, the who and how becoming so much more important than the why. This sense of the purpose not being important can be reinforced when the work of charities is devalued through the narrow economic lens of short-sighted policy makers.
Many charity leaders are aware of the need to push back against these barriers and ensure staff recognise the purpose and the value of their work. We know acknowledgement of value is one of the best antidotes we have to doubt and anxiety. Having some fun is another antidote leaders often explore to create recognition of value.
We are all under new pressures as the world shifts a little, in Australia and internationally. Our future has been changed. Some charity workers are facing levels of uncertainty never before experienced. Some are having to work in completely different ways.
Australia needs charities more now than ever before, to build trust, to enable recovery, to support connectedness, reinforce the importance of looking out for each other and support longer-term ethical decision-making. Charities will be better able to fulfill this vital role if we all take the time to acknowledge how critically important charity workers are to our future. An ethical, prosperous, fairer Australia all depends on charities and those who work every day to unite us in the service of our communities.