April 7, 2013
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.