Rediscovering not for profit ‘superpowers’ for the challenges ahead
18 April 2022 at 3:27 pm
How can we think about the future unless we know why we exist, who we are and what’s come before, asks Doug Taylor, in the first in a four-part series on how NFPs can look to the past to guide the future, written to coincide with The Smith Family’s centenary.
2022 will go down as a significant year in Australian history, as we take into account the impacts of COVID and the devastating floods on our east coast, not to mention the worrying developments in Europe.
Looking back 100 years, 1922 was also a significant year with the formation of the USSR (poignant given recent developments), the establishment of the BBC, and closer to home, the start of The Smith Family.
Our organisation’s centenary year presents a wonderful opportunity to talk about why we do our work and also feature the incredible students, families and communities we support. Stay tuned to hear more about that, but that’s not the whole story for me.
Personally, this centenary is serendipitous because it brings together two passions of mine – history and not-for-profit (NFP) organisations.
NFPs have been a constant for all of my working life. While I’ve enjoyed working with governments and businesses, I have always found my skills and interests best deployed with NFPs. As a result, I’m really passionate about the role our organisations play in the Australian community and how we can be best placed to continue our important work into the future.
That other passion has been history. I really enjoy learning about history and have done so since completing my undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Australian history (I might even have a daily history podcast on rotation!). As a side note, it intrigues me that there is no definitive history of the Australian NFP sector, the closest being the late Mark Lyons’ The history of non-profit organisations in Australia as a test of some recent non-profit theory.
The first thing I have done with any organisation I’ve joined is read their history. As a result, I have spent way too much time reading fascinating documents from The Smith Family archives.
This practice has always helped me understand their DNA and what’s influenced their values. As the American historian David McCullough writes, “History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
I think there’s something in this for us as we consider the road ahead. Too often when we think about the looming challenges facing our sector, we focus on the immediate crisis and when we have the bandwidth, we might have a look at future trends to think about how best to adapt.
These are sensible and understandable responses, but another way we can respond is to look to the past, to learn about those things that have helped NFPs tackle head-on the challenges of their day.
These can in turn be applied to our immediate, emerging and future challenges. In other words, how can we think about the future unless we know why we exist, who we are and what’s come before?
This is the question I want to turn my attention to because as a sector, if we look to our past, traditionally we had a very clear and distinctive role in Australian society. At the core of this was involving the community in how we work.
One of the big changes that has occurred over time is the relationship between NFPs and governments, and the resulting shift in how we operate. As governments increasingly contract NFPs to provide services, we risk losing that critical community focus. Of course, there are many positives around government interest and involvement in our work – but the more reliant we become on government, the less we involve the community. A healthy NFP needs both.
As I lead The Smith Family through our centenary year and continue our purpose to help young people thrive through education, it is clear to me that, significantly but not completely (there will always be new things to learn and unlearn – read Think Again by Adam Grant), those things that have got us to where we are today will be critical for our future and the future of the sector more broadly. These are attributes that have helped us ride the wave of economic depressions, global conflicts, natural disasters, international crises, major government reforms and, yes, health pandemics.
You can almost see these factors as a checklist of sorts, or even the “superpowers” necessary, to steer our organisations through tough times and sustain our distinctive role in the community.
- an ability to adapt how we harness the power of the wider community to support our purpose;
- a willingness to courageously address new social challenges and reinvent our organisations in the process; and
- an unflinching commitment to using evidence and outcomes to guide our decisions and work as change agents.
Over the coming weeks, I will focus on each of these superpowers, looking at what we can learn from history and how we can apply this to contemporary issues facing our sector today. I hope that by sharing learnings from The Smith Family history, it will help us all strengthen our collective work as we strengthen our community.