Waiting for reform?
12 November 2020 at 9:04 am
It’s been 10 years since the Productivity Commission published its report on the charity sector, yet many of the issues it highlighted then are the same today. This suggests we need to take a different approach to sector reform, and get better at promoting our value, writes David Crosbie.
There has been a lot of discussion in recent times about the state of the charities sector; how it is coping with all the impacts of COVID-19, the uncertainty about future priorities for governments and communities, the potential to build back better and improve the environment in which charities operate and the need to increase the capacity of charities to serve their communities and fulfill their public-benefit purpose.
Within these discussions there are many issues that we know had not been adequately addressed prior to COVID-19 and now require urgent attention. These issues include: better research into the nature and scope of activities across the charities sector; support for more outcome-focused measures of success; addressing emerging workforce issues for sector leadership, service delivery staff and volunteers; the need to improve adoption and adaptation of emerging technology; over-reliance on short-term and short-sighted government tendering and contracting processes; the lack of an appropriate accounting framework for calculating risk and the real costs of service delivery across programs and services; limited meaningful consultation or engagement from policy makers with charities; a lack of access to investment capital and debt funding to underwrite effective programs and services; and the need to improve understanding of the charity sector through stronger engagement with communities, business, governments and philanthropists.
A recent discussion with Robert Fitzgerald AM reminded me that all these issues and more were extensively canvassed by the Productivity Commission over 10 years ago in their “Contribution of the Not-for-profit Sector” report. While the establishment of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission has made a positive difference since that report, in almost every other area the recommendations of the Fitzgerald PC report are as current as they were in January 2010 when the report was released.
The fact that a 10-year-old report remains one of the best starting points for discussion about what the key issues are for the charities sector suggests we may need to take a different approach to sector reform.
While there has been recent success for the charities sector in working with governments across Australia to put in place critical measures like the lower threshold JobKeeper arrangements and a more flexible approach to contractual obligations, these are time limited gains. There are many examples to suggest that charities have generally not been overly effective at advocating critical sector reforms to government: fundraising reform, short-term government contracting, and very limited policy and program consultation are just three examples of failed advocacy. The case for change has been made time and time again, but still we wait for long overdue reforms.
As charities move through and beyond the impacts of COVID-19, it is increasingly clear that positive change is not likely to happen unless we are more effective at ensuring our work is valued, unless we can provide a more positive narrative about the cost-benefits of investing in the sector.
Most charity workers understand that the key to making a positive difference in the lives of individuals, families, communities, governments, business, and philanthropists is active engagement.
Increased engagement with charities can happen in many ways, but it almost invariably requires charities making decisions to do things a little differently.
At CCA we are increasingly aware that in comparison with more self-interested industries and advocacy bodies, charities are not always their own best advocates. In some ways, there is a level of humility that can limit the time and energy charities invest in what some might term self-promotion.
This more self-effacing approach can be costly, particularly as competition for government and other resources increases.
It seems clear that building back better post COVID-19 will not happen if all we do across our sector is present our case and passively wait to be offered opportunities. We need to make our own opportunities and demonstrate our value through direct engagement with all kinds of people across many communities, including governments and decision-makers.
Giving Tuesday is one example of an opportunity for charities to put into practice thousands of tailored engagement strategies to increase understanding about the work of charities, the people who work and volunteer within charities, and the benefits provided to the communities we serve. Giving Tuesday is an opportunity to build stronger community support and understanding of the contribution of charities.
In an ideal world, on Tuesday 1 December, tens of thousands of Australian charities would throw open their doors and invite politicians, businesspeople, government officials, philanthropists, and people from their community to engage with them and become part of supporting the invaluable work charities are undertaking.
The twitter sphere would be exploding with thousands of staff from charities publicly explaining in tweets and letters and articles and photos why they choose to work in their charity and what they hope for the future.
Thousands of volunteers would be explaining why they choose to give their time and energy, many pledging to continue their contributions.
Philanthropists would be renewing their commitment to charities with pledges to support increased capacity in areas they see as important.
Politicians and government officials would be agreeing to meet with charities, opening new dialogues to inform their approaches to regulations, funding, program and policy development.
Giving Tuesday could be a day when charities not only did good work, but also became their own best advocates.
In the 10 years since the Productivity Commission report into the sector, we have learned that politely making our case and awaiting an appropriate response is probably not the best way to realise our aspirations for a stronger charities sector. If we are to achieve positive sector reform, we will need to focus more of our energy on being valued, on engagement.
I hope that thousands of charities will join in promoting our sector and building our support on Giving Tuesday.
Increased engagement will not transform our sector overnight, but unless we more actively promote our value, why would we expect things to change for the better?
As a side note, I am looking forward to my virtual breakfast with Fitzgerald, Susan Pascoe, Sue Woodward and Myles McGregor-Lowndes on Friday 27 November – reflecting on 10 years since Fitzgerald oversaw the publication of the report into the not-for-profit sector. It will be interesting to see how much progress we all think we have made.