August 24, 2014

The End is Nigh

Posted in Civil Society, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering tagged , at 3:49 am by Sue Hine

jan24_forgoodforprofit

The lugubrious title for this post captures the sombre tone of a recent news headline: Academic Warns of Australia’s Disappearing NFP Sector.  And the full account of Professor Paul Smyth’s seminar presentation is worth reading to follow the arguments.  Here are some variations on his theme:

A new order of things where the private sector practises social responsibility and states seek to be more entrepreneurial, while community organisations become more and more business-like.

Not only is your mission as a community sector organisation irrelevant but your practice risks ending up indistinguishable from private sector providers.

The voluntary sector is seen as having no distinctive value add to bring to the welfare table but becomes just another rival ‘business’ in a privatised service market.

These views are not exclusive to Australia – indeed they represent a trend that can be found elsewhere, including New Zealand.  I’ve been collecting indications over the past couple of years:

The meaning of ‘Democratic deficit’ allows governing bodies the power to do what they like.  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.  (Grey & Sedgwick research, 2013)

Volunteer sector service providers are under public management.  The contracting environment has introduced competition within the sector, undermined  efforts at collaboration, and reduced the flexibility and responsiveness that is a hallmark of community organisations.

There’s a decline in volunteer numbers, and their role has become instrumental rather than a means towards mission achievement.   There is even some anxiety about using the word ‘volunteer’.

I have bleated about these themes in various ways, considering the ‘business’ of NGOs, the future of volunteering, and the two-tier status of community organisations.

A logical outcome of marketisation of non-profit organisations is a weakening of Civil Society.  We are seeing this already in the fall of public participation, particularly in ‘voter apathy’ at election time.  When major NGOs become ‘privatised’ they take on the formality and philosophies of the corporate sector.  When non-profit and community organisations are required to dance to government dictates they are effectively disempowered, losing control of their purpose and practice.  When Civil Society is weakened it can no longer offer a counterbalance to the power and control of the market and government: citizens and their communities are the poorer for that.

“It’s time for outrage!” is a cry that has not yet been taken publicly.  But we do need to start the “difficult conversations about the future”.  It can be argued that the present paradigm for delivering social services is neither sustainable, nor desirable: “there is an emerging consensus that the welfare sector … is being stripped of its ethos of service to the community and of the ethic of voluntarism”.  Professionalisation of care services delivery diminishes the power of voluntary contribution from wider community.  We lose the diversity of networks and connections and opportunities that the broader community can bring to social needs.

None of these views are new.  You can read about their evolution in New Zealand in this history of the non-profit sector.  This publication includes a reminder that our present is a product of past conditions, and:

….non-profits have always had life cycles, and that there was a historical pattern of growth and decline.  This has been an essential element in the vibrancy and adaptability of the sector.

It is time now to get beyond outrage.  We need to revive that vibrancy, the commitment and concern that created the sector in the first place.  The end is not nigh, but we do need to reaffirm the strength and status of volunteering and community organisations.

______________________

Cartoon sourced at http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/news/nfp-kneebone   24/01/13

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