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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