The missing COVID modelling: How for-purpose can help fill the void
5 October 2020 at 5:59 pm
The social sector is uniquely positioned to take a medium to long term view on issues, writes Neil Pharaoh, who says the sector needs to start raising discussions ahead of the curve.
As many organisations in our sector have realised, governments have a tendency to focus on the “here and now”. With changes to media and electoral cycles, long-term vision and investment over the horizon (whether prevention or early intervention) seems less and less forthcoming. As COVID responses from government continue to focus on the short-term, is now a unique opportunity for the social purpose sector to advocate for a longer-term vision? And how do we get that message across?
The social purpose sector is very often the safety net for our community, yet COVID has disrupted it in a number of key areas:
- Different social issues arise during a recession or depression, particularly one with COVID traits – some organisations evolve, others transition, and many more will shift their focus markedly.
- Funding dynamics have changed – philanthropy will be more restrained as corpuses shrink; private donations will diminish as unemployment rises; and corporate donations are often the first to go in economic recessions. All the while, demand for services increases across the board.
- International development and social purpose cuts have the potential to make Australia and the world less stable, just when we need the opposite.
Let’s unpack each of these a little bit more.
During and after recessions and depressions, social issues change substantially. Topics such as mental health, suicide and depression are already in the public discussion; however, recessions and depressions historically cause long tail impacts on a number of issues. Domestic violence, violent crimes and assaults typically increase towards the end of (and in the years following) an economic downturn. This year, we have already recorded higher numbers of femicide than in 2019. Equally hard to stomach is that children born during and after recessions typically have lower life expectancy and outcomes, higher birth complications, and higher neonatal intensive care admissions. Unless we bring focus to government, tomorrow’s babies will live shorter, less healthy lives for their entire lives, and this will flow through infant and childbirth deaths over many years to come.
Economically, young adults and those entering the workforce will take longer to obtain employment and secure work, and are often the first to go in downturns. For those younger people still in jobs, many started work during the GFC and are now meant to be at the peak of their career. Instead they may be barely hanging on with JobKeeper; they too will have shorter life expectancies and outcomes as safety nets fall short. This creates new challenges and issues which the social purpose sector will need to evolve into and work towards.
Funding dynamics have changed, and may take a decade to recover. The Department of Social Services released a detailed report on the impact of the economic downturn on not-for-profit organisation management. This should now be at the top of every organisation’s management team and board agenda. Of particular concern is the financial pressures caused by major revenue sources all having downward turns simultaneously.
Governments will, at some stage soon, need to start cutting back expenditure, placing both competitive pressure on existing organisations and the sector. “Easy” cuts like international aid and development, and projects which are “seen but not heard” become simple solutions to balance budgets – preparing in advance for what may be ahead will be critical.
So what can be done?
Our sector is uniquely positioned to take a medium to long term view on issues, so start to raise discussions ahead of the curve. A few things to do:
- Speak to government funders and supporters early and often. Begin to engage with and discuss trends, what will be more in demand, less in demand, where new priorities will lie, and what will change. Early, often and frequent conversations will ensure no surprises.
- Flag in short, sharp highlights, the top two or three trends and impacts which are affecting you, and write to your local MP. Get them involved in the discussion and speak to horizons – short, medium, and long term, as well as low, moderate, and high cost. This matrix is all round very useful to develop.
- Use your research wisely and impactfully. There will be a number of areas with substantial complications in years to come, including mental health, chronic diseases, assault, and family violence. Remember as well that COVID is a gendered shock – women are being disproportionality impacted at levels far greater than men.
Finally, the social purpose sector will be the first to see these longer tail impacts. While confidence to tackle controversy head-on is sometimes lacking as a sector, investigating the consequences and doing the modelling for current, emerging and future needs will pay off.
Government cannot achieve the outcomes it needs to, unassisted. These problems are simply too big to “go it alone”. The social sector has the data, solutions and numbers required to not just make the case for change, but to drive and deliver it. The challenge for us will be how we connect with political constituencies, organise, mobilise, and ensure that new groups now being impacted by COVID are not left behind.
About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. He regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems. @neilpharaoh on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Happenings on the hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.
If you have any ideas, suggestions, tips or questions, please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to him via social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @neilpharaoh.