April 7, 2013

Underscoring

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Best Practice, Civil Society, Leading Volunteers tagged , , , , , at 4:33 am by Sue Hine

Civil-Society-Tools-To-Fight-Corruption[1]A recently reported research study is titled Fears, constraints and contracts: the democratic reality for New Zealand’s community and voluntary sector.  The results are hard-hitting, lifting a lid on current experience for organisations whose voice has been largely silenced by the political shift over the past forty years, to neo-liberal economics and the out-sourcing of social services to the community sector.

The survey covers both NGO and not-for-profit (NFP) organisations, all fields of social service provision, and both large national organisations and small community groups with no paid staff and no external funding.  The promise of confidentiality and privacy allowed a freedom to respond to questions in an open and direct way.  The results will not be surprising to those of us engaged in the community and voluntary sector, but the tenor and directness of the quoted statements leave us in no doubt of a depth of disappointment and frustration behind the words.  For example (p 57):

NGOs play a unique and crucial role in New Zealand.  Their contribution to political decision-making in NZ is currently undervalued and under-utilised.  They are under-resourced and therefore undermined. (Emphasis added)

Small wonder these words deserved underscoring.

The report deserves to be read in full, to get the picture of how we have come to this pretty pass, and to note the references to earlier studies raising questions and alarm bells.

Those with long memories will recall the shifts we had to make in New Zealand from the early 1980s.  Let me remind you:

A simple ‘begging letter’ to a philanthropic or trust fund changed to formal application requirements and for reports on spending and demonstrable benefits or gains.  Organisations were forced to hire people to spend their days making funding applications, thus increasing overhead costs. And philanthropic funders got into cahoots to determine which social issue of the moment deserved the most attention.

Contracts for health and social services devolved from government responsibility might have brought funding security, but the new environment came with fish-hooks like health and safety regulations; like additional responsibilities and accountability for volunteer governance, not to mention compliance costs.  What was previously a mission-based civil society endeavour changed to dancing to the tune of government direction.

Consultation quickly became a dirty word as proposals were presented with invitation to comment, only to find policy directions had already been decided.  Very little notice was taken of community responses no matter the expressed outrage.  Neither were organisations given time or resources to present community views to government.

These are the bones now cemented into the community and voluntary sector.  Fundraising has become a professional occupation, accompanied by the marketing experts so that organisations compete for the charity dollar and corporate sponsorship.  Contracts with government are confidential and a gagging clause ensures docile compliance.  These days it seems a consultation document is issued one week and turned into a political or regulatory edict just a few weeks later.

The government’s ‘relationship’ with the community and voluntary sector bound in the Kia Tutahi document counts for nothing against the control imposed by the contracting environment.  Adding to this disregard of communities the Charities Commission is disestablished, its responsibilities now determined and regulated by a government department.  The rules change and over a thousand organisations lose their charitable status and their ability to raise funds via the carrot of tax rebates.  Advocacy is out, so longstanding organisations like Greenpeace and National Council of Women (NCW) are no longer deemed charities.  In ‘the good old days’ NCW was a political force to be reckoned with, up there with Federated Farmers and the Federation of Labour.

Here is the sound of the silence of democratic dissent.

And this reality happens, the report’s findings say, regardless of which political party heads the government.  It’s an undemocratic reality when all the power is in the hands of government, when the voice of the sector is not valued, nor respected.

A few people will recognise a parallel universe in the way organisations can undervalue the work of managers of volunteers, and under-appreciate volunteer contributions to oiling social wheels and to maintaining community wellbeing in many different spheres.   I could suggest this is a function of a trickle-down pecking order.  I would sooner we took a stand to exercise our democratic voice, for volunteers and for the organisations that serve our communities.

There was plenty of encouragement to do just this at the recent Australasian Retreat for Advanced Management of Volunteers.  Focus Up! was a key message.  Recognise our roles as Leaders, Educators, Movers and Shakers and do something!  Even if it means getting out of comfort zones, causing a stir, sticking heads over parapets.  We owe it to volunteers and to our communities.

April 29, 2012

In the Wind

Posted in A Bigger Picture tagged , , , , , , , , , at 9:44 pm by Sue Hine

I’ve been to a few meetings lately, listened to presentations and viewed the power point slides.  They were not meetings about volunteering or volunteer management, but the information and ideas sure made me sit up and take notice.

Here is my take on some of the straws in the wind that have come my way.

  • Demographic trends indicate a shrinking working-age population

We’ve heard about the dramatic increase of older populations for decades.  On the flip side is a decline in people of working age, which will give us the benefit of lower unemployment.  We are going to get ZPG without even trying. The bad news is a big revenue problem for government and a rise in resource demands.  All this, on top of a national economy struggling to recover from the impact of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

NGOs, already struggling to maintain their funding base, will be under pressure to do more with less.  In rural areas where population change will be greater community organisations will face shrinking resources, of both funding and volunteers.  There are serious implications for national organisations providing outreach services in provincial areas.  On the other hand there could be opportunities to work more closely with local government, to develop partnerships with other organisations and subsequent economies of scale.

  • Collaboration, Participation, Innovation

These words are the catch-cry for change in the community sector, the drivers for action.  Proposed changes in both central and local government offer an opportunity for community organisations to articulate a new view, to occupy a new space and to develop new coalitions.  Yes!

Can we do it?

  • Collaboration is the buzzword of the month

There are plenty of models to follow: community development partnerships, through community engagement, the effective use of social capital and linked with social enterprise.  None of these words are new, but they gain increased currency in a time of sector uncertainty.  What is new is the trend towards alliances with the business sector and philanthropic trusts.  But I worry about collaboration, and whether it is another word for the public and private sectors to take control while proffering the hand of partnership.

  • “A new phase of capitalism, where new ways of creating wealth are identified”

In all the talk of Social Investment and Social Impact and Outcomes it is difficult to see who benefits.  Governments can transfer risks to the community sector.  Social investment from the private sector could lead to creaming off the best of NFPs and ignoring others, thus creating new forms of underclass.  It also leads to the Marketisation of Charities.  That sounds more like a death knell for the sector’s capacity for innovation.  When organisations become risk-aversive it is too easy to curtail services in areas where outcomes and impacts are less impressive.  The spectre of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor is resurrected, specially when funding gets tagged to results.

  • “The community sector is not considered a peer of Government

Too true, I sigh, and has been so for decades, despite terminology like Third Sector and concepts of Civil Society.  Volunteers and their organisations might enjoy praise and platitudes of appreciation, but never do they get to be equals at negotiating tables.

So I am disappointed the recent report on public services makes never a mention of relations with NGOs, NFPs or the community sector.  It is like these organisations do not exist.

Well, it is proclaimed, the Government and the community sector need to get to know each other better. They need to build mutual trust and understanding, not stand-off bargaining.  They need to reduce the power imbalance, get a pay-off for both funders and recipients (not to mention the beneficiaries).  I wish.

Yes, I know the NFP sector is complex.  We struggle to establish a common definition and language, and to determine the essence of the sector.  Yet the diversity of communities and organisations means a single voice and a unifying philosophy is unrealistic.

Yes, there is room for collaboration where there are shared interests.  Yes, we need to break down the silos and patch protection.  And Yes, we have been in the business of change for generations.  Except this time it seems like the change is being done to us, and not in the spirit of community development.

To gain a stake in the future it we need to stake a claim, on our terms, for the territory of our communities and their missions.

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