Changing our future
2 November 2022 at 9:06 pm
Does the charities sector needs to have stronger ownership of policy development groups, if government will not properly resource them?
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
Lao Tzu, Taoist Chinese philosopher
On budget night I posed a question to the office of Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh. “Where in the budget is the funding to support charity reform and capacity building?” The response was that any reform would need to be funded out of re-purposing existing allocations.
I don’t think anyone is surprised that funding support for charities sector reform did not make it into the government’s new spending category column. This was a reset budget, aside from fulfilling some major election commitments, finding savings was the order of the day, not new expenditure.
A key outcome of this cabinet decision is that without dedicated funding it will be more difficult to establish the proposed new, high-level government advisory groups:
- The Not-for-profit Sector Expert Reference Panel which has the primary task of “charting out a more productive future for Australian charities”
- The Building Community – Building Capacity Working Group, a group that is tasked with helping “implement the Panel’s recommendations, and help steward the charity and community sector in its role as frontline responders in building a reconnected Australia”.
There have been some suggestions advanced about how best to establish or facilitate these groups by drawing on the resources of the Department of Social Services. One idea is that these groups could form part of the existing consultative group already established by the Department of Social Services. That group is called the Community Services Advisory Group (CSAG).
There are many good organisations and effective advocates involved in the CSAG, but from my perspective, sector reform and productivity does not sit comfortably in any specific area or government line agency. The charities sector is much broader than single areas like community services, important as community services are. I am not sure that the arts, international development, education, health, or disability would see themselves as well represented in the community services portfolio. This is one of the reasons CCA has always argued that sector wide advisory groups are best housed in a central agency of government.
The question is how charities can establish these important forums for sector planning if there are no new resources and there are obvious difficulties in repurposing existing structures?
One possible answer is that the charities sector itself needs to have stronger ownership of these groups. While government and others clearly need to be involved, not all policy development structures have to be funded by government, especially within the current and emerging budgetary environment.
At CCA, our experience with the Charities Crisis Cabinet was that philanthropy (Perpetual) and the good will of many charities enabled a very effective group to emerge and advocate for the changes the sector was seeking during the pandemic. No government funding was received, but government officials and others were engaged in various discussions and forums, as were specialists and experts from within the charities sector and from business.
Similarly, CCA is currently planning a national campaign around the value of charities, a campaign we don’t believe governments could or should run. The campaign is still partially dependent on a level of philanthropic support and direct commitments from charities themselves, but drawing on our own resources to advance our sector is, in our view, a better way to drive real change.
It is this more self-sufficient approach that led CCA to begin a blueprint planning process for the sector three years ago, a process that was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this process CCA brought more than 60 charity leaders together to discuss and consider our future. These leaders identified the following eight areas as priorities in any sector blueprint planning:
- Measurement, outcomes, and quality of services (our value)
- Governance, organisational structures and legal environment (our organisations)
- Leadership and staff development (our people)
- Policy and advocacy (our influence)
- Philanthropy and volunteers (our supporters)
- Government funding, contracting and tendering (our funding relationships)
- IT, communication and marketing (our capacity)
- Impact investing and leveraging our assets (our capital)
In each of these eight areas, government is only one of the significant players influencing charity effectiveness. Charities need to draw on the expertise of people both within and outside of the sector, including business, different levels of government and communities to inform the options and priorities for charities in any future planning.
CCA would have preferred there was a significant financial commitment from government to help drive sector planning and reform, but we recognise that this is unlikely in the current economic circumstances.
Perhaps now is a good time to acknowledge the limitations of operating within a mindset where government is seen as funding and driving reform for the sector?
While CCA support the government’s ambitions to strengthen the sector, driving a change agenda through less-than-ideal government structures is going to be very difficult.
The sector is being challenged to step forward and set our own reform agenda. Otherwise, the agenda set for us will be partly defined by the policy structures the government chooses to adopt. I think we can do better than that.