Watering the seeds of change
24 February 2022 at 8:40 am
While the charity sector continues to serve communities despite all the challenges, we should also take the time to recognise both what has been achieved and what lies ahead if we choose to cultivate the seeds of change, writes David Crosbie.
“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” – Henri Matisse
Many people in the charity and not-for-profit (NFP) sector are back at work, but the usual sense of excitement and energy that comes with a new year and new possibilities seems to be missing. One leader involved in a 20 person CCA roundtable discussion about the current state of the NFP sector summed up the feelings of the group when they said “it seems there is a strong element of chronic malaise in our organisations”.
Ongoing uncertainty about the future and COVID, dealing with staffing in a pandemic, the need for rapid antigen tests (RATS), difficulties maintaining volunteers, access to appropriate PPE, funding contracts in limbo, and so many other challenges associated with supporting communities through the pandemic have all undoubtedly impacted staff, volunteers and the communities we all serve.
And despite wishful rhetoric to the contrary, the pandemic is clearly not over. People are dying from COVID every day, many more are very sick, some will experience ongoing symptoms (long COVID). Feeling a sense of despondency is to be expected.
What I have found quite remarkable, even uplifting, is that despite this sense of tiredness and ongoing uncertainty, the NFP sector continues to not just meet the needs of their communities, but to excel.
Perhaps it will only be when we look back at this period and how our sector has responded that we will be able to fully acknowledge the seismic shifts in the way charities approach their work, changes that represent the very best of charities and what can be achieved under the most difficult of circumstances. Acknowledging what has been achieved provides fertile ground for further growth.
One of the most significant changes I have ever seen is how the “can-do must-do” approach to digital transformation has driven massive gains in the capacity of charities and community groups across Australia. What seemed difficult, even impossible, a couple of years ago is now becoming accepted practice. Working remotely, offering services on multiple platforms, creating new digital training and trading platforms, linking services to individual clients through their phones and computers, engaging in ways we thought would not be feasible two years ago. Many organisations did not know where to start, but driven by purpose and a need to adjust and adapt, they dived into a digital future and created organisational capacity beyond what they thought was possible.
In a recent discussion about digital capacity, David Spriggs, the CEO of Infoxchange, suggested the charity and NFP sector had jumped forward 10 years in the last two years.
There may be a sense of despondency about the pandemic and its impact, but the growth in digital capacity across the charity sector has been nothing short of remarkable. And this is only the beginning. Many charities are now planning even more ambitious digital capacity to advance their mission and better serve their communities.
Another area of notable growth and achievement is the way organisations engage with and support staff to fulfil their roles. This is not just about remote working and adjusting to the many demands on staff as they try to support their families and others through the pandemic, but about adopting a much more holistic person centred approach to human resources management (HR).
For a long time, HR specialists have talked about the need to shift the focus beyond considerations of how a work role is or isn’t being fulfilled, to consideration of all the factors that inform staff engagement and performance. Through the pandemic and associated lockdowns, HR has undergone a fundamental shift and enabled staff to have a much greater level of input into how their work is structured. Across the whole charity sector we are seeing unprecedented levels of flexibility and innovative ways to drive workforce collaboration and performance.
There are countless examples of staff management innovation across our sector from four-day weeks to virtual drop-in centres for staff. As with the digital transformation of the sector, the genie is out of the bottle and staff focused HR is now becoming a centrepiece in the way many charities and community groups are operating.
There are other areas of reform that are worthy of acknowledgement within our sector, but if we are talking about seeing the flowers in a pandemic landscape, I think it is important to highlight the notable shift in community perceptions of the value of human service provision.
New polling released this week by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) has again shown “a five-point year-on-year rise in support for the idea that the primary purpose of government is to improve overall wellbeing and a seven-point drop in the number of respondents saying government should prioritise public safety and the rule of law”.
Travers McLeod, CEO of CPR, said this week that, “Since COVID has revealed the critical weaknesses in our service systems people have become even more forthright in their views, not just about the purpose of government, but about the need for government to maintain and deliver the social infrastructure at the heart of our nation.”
Issues like aged care, disability, childcare, education are all much more important to Australians now than ever before. Rightly so given our collective pandemic experiences, and herein lies an opportunity.
While the charity sector continues to push through, to do excellent work, to continue to serve its communities despite all the challenges, we should also take the time to recognise both what has been achieved and what lies ahead if we choose to cultivate the seeds of change.
If we are prepared to speak out, to leverage what we do to drive ongoing reform across our sector and beyond, we can build flourishing communities and help deliver the kind of Australia we want to live in. Never has our work been more critical to our future!