May 17, 2015

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Civil Society, Impact Measurement, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , at 5:10 am by Sue Hine

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If the value of volunteering remains largely out of sight, it is likely also to remain out of mind.

 

Now there’s a sentence to make me sit up and take notice.  It is a conclusion reached by Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist for the Bank of England in a speech on the social value of volunteering.  (An edited version is available in e-volunteerism issue for January 2015.)

While Haldane laments the “market failure problem” of volunteering he is also offering a coherent account of the importance of measuring not just labour inputs and an arbitrary economic value: we should include the private value to volunteers (health and social well-being), and its social value.  Even economic dummies like me can see what could be achieved if organisations could afford to hire specialists in social cost-benefit analysis.

I have long wrestled with the issues of measuring volunteer impact, especially in the ‘soft’ social service areas like personal support, the buddy programmes and telephone counselling.  “Not everything that counts can be counted” was Einstein’s take.

But it is not just a lack of accounting that contributes to the low profile of volunteering.  Here is my hit-list of factors that indicate a lack of attention to the nature of volunteering and to recognising and appreciating the value of volunteer contributions.

  • There’s the metaphoric symbolism of locating the volunteer office, and the manager’s desk, in the basement or down the end of a long corridor. That could really put volunteers out of sight and out of mind.
  • The lowly status of a manager of volunteers becomes clear in the job title (‘Volunteer’ manager / coordinator) and a pay scale that can be 20% below other managers in the organisation – though the numbers of volunteers could be ten times the number of paid staff. And too often the manager misses out on strategic planning meetings or management training sessions because “you don’t manage staff”.
  • We all know how volunteers do not come for free, yet too often there is no budget allocation for programme costs. Worse are funder contract terms that expect volunteer engagement to contribute to service delivery, while making no allowance for reimbursing volunteer out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Fundraising and marketing offices take precedence in organisation hierarchy these days, and assume that volunteers will be on tap, on time, all the time. Volunteers are a taken-for-granted resource, and the manager is expected to provide the numbers regardless of short notice.
  • When it comes to appreciation, too often the occasions of National Volunteer Week and International Volunteer Day are a brief flare of publicity. Or there’s a raft of awards at local and national levels, and it’s nice to distribute certificates or to host a social gathering for volunteers. But it is rare to get a sense of understanding just what volunteers do and what they have achieved, and why they are ‘so wonderful’ and ‘needed’. Even the organisation’s annual report can leave acknowledging volunteer contributions to a paragraph on the last page.
  • There is much irony in the handwringing that accompanies a funding cut which is then followed by a reduction in services. There is no place for volunteers to pick up responsibilities; it is as though they have been a mere decorative flourish for the organisation. That’s enough to cause the organisation’s founding volunteers to turn in their graves.

If this list is not enough to go on with there is more outrage to be found in the latest Energize Hot Topic.  Or you could start wondering about a UK government pledge to launch a potential 15 million volunteers from the public and corporate sectors for 3 days volunteering per annum.  Note they would be getting paid leave to do so.

In all these examples there is a utilitarian approach to involving volunteers.  Volunteering has become a commodity, a resource to used for what is increasingly perceived as a political, economic and organisational gain while the social and cultural benefits of volunteering and its critical function for a healthy Civil Society are totally ignored.

Before I get run out of town for such dismal views, let me say I know they do not have universal application.  Let me give credit to those organisations who involve volunteers in positive and valued ways, who ‘understand’ the nature of volunteering.  And then I ask, why can’t others learn from these best practice examples?

Having said all this just offers reinforced support for getting momentum on measuring the true economic, private and social value of volunteering. In New Zealand we can apply the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations.  Volunteering Australia launched this week its updated National Standards for Volunteer Involvement. Both documents offer the essentials of good practice and an audit tool to illustrate performance.  The publication of The Economic, Social and Cultural Value of Volunteering to Tasmania is another example of efforts being made to calculate the full extent of volunteering contributions.

These are small steps to measuring the scale of volunteering, and a start to taking giant leaps to make volunteering visible and a ‘market success’.

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June 8, 2014

The Business of Non-Profit Organisations

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Funding and Finance, Marketing, Politics of volunteering tagged , , , at 2:56 am by Sue Hine

People-first-300x300[1]I nearly bought myself into an argument recently, wanting to defend the claim “Charity organisations are different from a business”.  Now I have done some reflecting and marshalled the points I could have made at the time, as a kind of dialogue with myself.

Of course they are different, given the ‘for-profit’ and ‘non-profit’ labels.  But I have never liked the use of ‘charity’ in reference to non-profit organisations and NGOs.  The word has got too many connotations of ‘doing-to’ consumers/users/clients, as many a for-profit business operates.  I prefer the concept of ‘doing-with’ people – groups and individuals in the community.  When I hear concerns expressed about large nonprofits operating like corporate businesses I have to concede my opponents might have a point.

On the other hand it is not an unreasonable expectation that non-profits operate in a businesslike manner, especially in a contracting environment.  Of course non-profits need to be accountable for their financial management.   They also need to prove their value, to demonstrate outcomes and impact, or in current business-speak, to show a social return on investment.  And yes, they need to establish a strategic plan, set policy, outline the programmes and services they will deliver.

But still I cry: they are different from a business.  They do not exist to make a profit.   They deliver services, they fill a gap, provide for a need, or they offer opportunities for healthy lifestyles and leisure interests.  These organisations bring communities together, engage people in activities and actions outside the market-place.  Collectively the non-profit sector and its associations represent Civil Society, acting as a counter-balance to the weight of the private and public sectors.  Otherwise non-profits get swallowed up in politics and the economics of consumerism.

  • That does not excuse them from governance responsibilities and ensuring practice standards are maintained.

Of course not.  If they are not meeting expectations, if they are not offering an environment for member or volunteer satisfaction then the organisation will fold.  Non-profit organisations are different from businesses in their aims and obligations.  They began with a specific mission, and they hold particular values.

  • But so do business organisations. They are no different in holding statements on their vision, mission and values.

Yes, I am reminded of the snappy mission held by Canon: Beat Xerox!  That competition element is a big driver in business, always looking for that niche in the market, and to improve market share.   That is not the business of nonprofits!  Non-profit organisations tend to live by their vision and values.  In business these can be just words and not treated seriously, as the Enron history shows.  Not to mention the shady dealings of finance companies exposed in the Global Financial Crisis.

Non-profit organisations do not compete, they complement each other.  They are fulfilling particular needs for a specific community, at a particular time and place.  And there is much more focus on collaboration, working together and sharing information.  Businesses work to protect their intellectual property and ensure their bottom line is always a good one.

  • And so we should! If it wasn’t for business and our ability to create profits and pay taxes non-profit organisations would not be ‘in business’.

Now you are getting narky.  And also highlighting the fundamental difference between business and non-profit organisations.  Put it this way: business is about making monetary profits which go to shareholders, the investors.  The profit for a non-profit organisation is the benefits and gains seen in community and individual well-being, and in the contributions of a well-run volunteer programme.  That’s why it’s important that we stay different.

You are still not convinced?  Yes, there is plenty more ground to cover in this debate.  What would you have to say?

 

May 12, 2013

A Shift in the Wind

Posted in Civil Society, Impact Measurement, Politics of volunteering, Role definition, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 5:35 am by Sue Hine

sailing-3[1]Earlier this week Volunteering New Zealand issued an invitation on FaceBook to consider the ethos of volunteering and the meaning of ‘giving time’ for the common good.  It was in response to a news item about Christchurch youth who had pledged four hours of volunteering in return for tickets to a music festival –The Concert – held late last year.  Except around 600 pledges have not been fulfilled, and according to the terms and conditions of the pledge (clearly stated) they are to be named and shamed.  They can expect to be outed on The Concert’s website.

There is absolutely no doubt the people who have participated in Student Army projects deserve recognition and a thanksgiving for the work they have been doing in quake-ravaged Christchurch.  From all accounts the concert was a great success.

The website includes clear information on whys and wherefores, including a FAQ section which defines volunteering as performing a service freely and for no charge.

Here’s the rub.  There may be no fees for volunteering, though there is always an opportunity cost for the donation of time.  The pay-back for that time can be offered in a huge number of ways, from a regular smile and ‘thank you’ to formal functions and speechifying, not to mention a lot of feel-good factors and personal gains.  But to offer a tangible (and highly desirable) carrot suggests the volunteering response is not given altogether freely.  What to do when the offer is not fulfilled?  Just let it go and mumble-mumble about free-loaders, or do the public name-and-shame?  To be fair, the 600 unfulfilled pledges represent only 7.5% of the 8000 people who created 50,000 hours of volunteer service.  And if they are outed, will public humiliation put them off volunteering for ever?  Will that matter?   Is going public with non-volunteering so different from the bad-mouthing that a poorly- managed volunteer programme can attract?

Alternatively, will volunteers elsewhere now expect enticing carrots when they offer their time, something a bit beyond the annual Christmas party?

Let me add these questions to voluntary sector conditions I have been noting in my posts in recent months:

  • A Register for violations of Volunteer Rights is suggested for Australia.  (Leading to a Union of Volunteers, as one comment has suggested?)
  • A major event is politicised to create a legacy for volunteering, to the point where £5million Lottery Funds are allocated “to be spent on Olympic inspired volunteering schemes”.
  • New ways to fund and provide social services (Social Bonds, Social Finance) are being discussed, without consideration of volunteer input.
  • Lack of understanding and appreciation of volunteers and the potential of volunteering are highlighted in recent academic research.
  • The focus on measuring social service impact and outcomes is not doing any favours for volunteering, specially where the quality of relationships makes the critical difference to outcomes for individuals.
  • The rise of Obligatory Volunteering is also evident, including internships, compulsory community service and conditional welfare entitlements.  Which is where the Christchurch Concert pledge fits in:  ‘free will’ is not so free after all.
  • Corporate responsibility and ‘workplace volunteering’ can sometimes be more self-serving than real social responsibility.
  • In addition we should take into account trends in volunteer preferences, like micro-volunteering, time-limited and task-focused assignments, and time-banking.

There we have a heap of shifts in practice to impact on the ethos of volunteering, and many of them influenced by Government directives.   Government is even supporting a new approach to community development with funding and advice.  It is disappointing to see how the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector is ignoring the long history and proud achievements of ‘community-led development’ that happens without any form of government intervention.

So it seems the ethos of volunteering has enlarged its sphere to include more formalised, more structured practice, and a variety of practice modes.  Volunteering is certainly less central to service delivery for many NGOs than the volunteering I grew up with, decades ago.  That’s OK – nothing is forever, and I’m getting used to living with constant change, in organisations and in volunteering.

But, and it’s a big but: formalised volunteering programmes, complete with policies and professional management of volunteers, are pretty small bikkies in NFP statistics.  Ninety per cent of volunteer organisations in New Zealand do not employ paid staff.  Think about it: that’s close to 90,000 organisations that do their own thing, working in their communities for the common good, and doing good, pitching in where needs must, scratching for funds, and keeping  their services going anyway.

So the ethos of volunteering, performing a service freely and for no charge, has not gone away.  It has just got a bit larger.  Denouncing volunteers who do not fulfil commitments is not yet within the boundaries of regular practice, not yet in the spirit of volunteering, even though volunteers are free to tarnish an organisation’s reputation if they don’t get the experience they expect.

As any yachtie knows, a shift in the wind means you have to trim the sails, and adjust the course to make the most of the wind-power.  That’s the excitement of sailing, being at the mercy of wind and ocean currents, and mastering your way around these forces.  Volunteering can shift with the wind too, yet will keep enough of its core to maintain a true course.

April 21, 2013

What’s to Become of Volunteering?

Posted in Civil Society, Funding and Finance, Impact Measurement, Marketing, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 4:04 am by Sue Hine

jan24_forgoodforprofit

There’s my question for the week, something to puzzle over after reading the headline Some community social services could be funded privately in future, under a new agreement with the Government.   This is the first public statement on Social Bonds from a New Zealand government minister.

‘Social Bonds’ is a process of advancing funds to NGOs by philanthropist groups (‘private providers’) for the term of an outcomes-based contract, and then reimbursed by Government when the NGO delivers on pre-determined targets.  This funding arrangement has been researched and discussed within government in New Zealand since 2009.   Earlier this year a roadshow promotion from Treasury and Ministry of Health travelled the country to inform community organisations, and to start public discussion.

Those of us who do the media watching, monitor trends, and understand the politics of the day will not be overly surprised.  In the UK Social Bonds have been transforming the community and volunteer landscape since Big Society became the favoured social policy of the Coalition Government.  An Australian report indicates ongoing discussion and debate on details of a Social Bond programme.  Maybe we should heed a Canadian view that says “Social Impact Bonds are a new way to privatise public services.”

On the face of it, the intention of a Social Bond arrangement makes a lot of sense – as any venture capitalist would want from investing in a new enterprise.  You put in the money, and you expect to see some real returns on investment, like a reduction in the rate of teen-age pregnancy, fewer smokers, or a drop in criminal re-offending figures.   Social Bonds also link favourably with current developments in New Zealand for user-friendly contracts between government and NGOs, including multi-agency contracting and simple format financial reporting.  Social Bonds sit well with the results-based programme set by Better Public Services – though this ambitious agenda needs to involve all parts of the community and voluntary sector, from the beginning.

Nothing is yet certain, except for evidence of government intentions for change.  In my reactionary moments I see a pincer movement to corral organisations into a private sector model of service delivery, to get the job done in the shortest time at the lowest cost.  There are risks of reduced public accountability.  Worse is how the ethos of a welfare safety net is further eroded, because investor profits will take precedence.  At the work-face performance-based contracting could mean a selective practice devoted to the most ‘deserving’ clients who will boost the return on investment.

Nowhere in the discussion so far has there been a mention of volunteers – neither their existing contributions to NGOs, nor their future potential.  Non-Government Organisations are those which contract with government. To be drawn closer to web and snares of government is to revert to the decades-old acronym of QANGO – a quasi-autonomous non-government organisation, the ‘almost, but not quite’ independent body, a phrase that will fool nobody.

Not-for-profit organisations (NFPs) can be thankful they are outside this net.  Yet they too will be drawn into this new environment, if only in their efforts to secure a share of the charity dollar.  Will philanthropists consider NFP applications favourably alongside a guaranteed return for investing with NGOs?  And, if the ROI from government contracts is lower than finance market rates doesn’t that reduce the size of the over-all funding pool?

What will become of volunteering when government-sponsored community services become the norm?

Well, here’s your example.  There is one institution, developed and run by volunteers for many years.  Since it gained a government contract a few years back there has been a huge growth in paid staff, and volunteers have been side-lined, reduced to wondering what their role is, and whether they are needed any more.  They do not feature on the organisation chart; they are bit-part players, not really essential to the way the organisation is playing out its mission and vision.

If I was writing a fictional scenario for the future I would be describing the growth in NGOs marketing and fundraising departments.  The organisation-wide volunteer programme will be down-graded in favour of ‘greater efficiency’ from paid staff.  Volunteer activities will be confined to promotional and fundraising events.  No need now for managers of volunteers, because HR and FR people know how and can do.

But if I was looking for inspiration I would go straight to Inspiring Communities, where community-led change is still the mantra to follow, where they know about ‘learning by doing’, about community development thinking and action.  Or I would read again the stories from NZ Social Entrepreneur Fellowship.

Volunteering shall not die, because it is in our nature to collaborate and to care about our families, neighbours, and communities.  We just need to our voice to be heard, and heeded.

October 21, 2012

An Opportunity Missed

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Organisation responsibilities, Professional Development, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , , at 4:06 am by Sue Hine

There are a lot of disappointed people around the country this week.  There were just not enough of them to prevent cancellation of the conference planned by Volunteering Auckland for the beginning of November.

Let’s Get Connected aimed at bringing together people from across sectors – community, business and government – to listen and discuss topical issues relating to volunteering.  Just what we needed in times of change.

Just what we need when every day there are new stories about business sponsorship and partnerships with NFP organisations.  Just what organisations need, in order to get to learn more about social enterprise.

There has never been a better time to Get Together, to take the opportunity to sit at the same table and to listen and learn from each other.  Getting community, business and government together could have kick-started new relationships and collaboration.

We have missed out because registration numbers were too low.  Because, it is said, there is little money available for training and development in the current economic climate.  I hope reference to the recession is not a euphemism for organisations giving low priority to a conference related to volunteering and managing volunteers.

That would mean a big mistake as well as a missed opportunity.  It’s also a bit of a worry for future conference planning.  Prospective sponsors and funders may look twice at a group that could not muster the numbers for a conference in their own best interest.

In the UK one writer refers to present state of the third sector as a ‘great unsettlement’.  Certainly in New Zealand there are signs of potential transformation.  The government’s Better Public Services report promotes a focus on results and outcomes, greater efficiency and effectiveness, and getting value-for-money.  A responsible businesslike approach for the 21st century you could say – with an inevitable flow-on impact on community organisations providing services under government contracts.

Streamlined contracting arrangements are to be welcomed for reducing compliance costs and duplication.  Meeting conditions of provider capability, and more rigorous performance measurement will undoubtedly test organisational capacity to meet new arrangements.

This is no time to doubt community resilience, responsiveness and volunteer readiness.

This is where forging connections with business and social enterprise, as well as government, could stimulate new models of development in community organisations.  There’s a helping hand in a new report offering information and tools to help businesses and charities work better in partnership – produced by the government’s Department of Internal Affairs.  Let’s Get Connected, indeed!

In real life we can curse a bit when we miss a travel connection: it’s simply a frustrating delay till the next bus (or whatever) comes along.  But missing an opportunity to consider new ideas and new ways of operating is like leaving the rugby field open for others to score all the tries.

July 21, 2012

Getting it Together

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Language tagged , , , , , at 11:11 pm by Sue Hine

There’s an old word getting serious attention these days, giving me pause for some serious thinking.

Collaboration is a word that denotes ‘working together’, for a common goal. It is a word that connotes shared interests, which can lead to shared resources.

In my mind Collaboration is associated with Cooperation, Consideration of others, Collectives, and of course, Community.  The idea of Collaboration invokes team-work, collective problem-solving, multi-party representation and partnerships.  At the end of the day Collaboration has the potential to offer a gestalt, a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Collaboration has been turning up in different contexts, so it is starting to look like a trend.  Here’s the evidence:

  • The practice of Public/Private Partnerships (PPPs) is not a new form of collaboration, though it is a hot topic in New Zealand at present.
  • I am following the rise and rise of social enterprise, and the partnerships negotiated between business and community organisations, between government and community.
  • I note one philanthropic funding source is encouraging joint ventures for community-based services.
  • The influence of community organisations on government policy is limited by the diversity of organisations, and I hear a passionate plea for collaboration, at least at a national level.  Dammit, we need to get our act together.
  • Genuine partnerships between Not for Profits and Government, corporates and clients are “crucial to the achievement of positive social outcomes”, is the theme for a conference in Western Australia later this year.
  • Volunteering New Zealand’s Management of Volunteers Project has certainly benefited from shared information and a collective approach to developing the programme.  There is a great deal of collaboration from diverse interests to achieve an outcome that will be mutually beneficial. The Draft Competencies are now out for consultation.  (Note how ‘consultation’ can also be interpreted as a relation of ‘collaboration’.)

What is going on here?  I know we can all be ground down in efforts to be heard, so “if you can’t beat ‘em, you join ‘em”.  I know how funding pressures can push an organisation into new collaborative ventures with another party, outside the regular frame of reference – or out of existence altogether.

I also know about ‘patch protection’, how proposals for economies of scale like sharing back-room functions with other organisations never go anywhere, and how a ‘silo mentality’ can blinker many a community organisation to the potential benefits of shared interests and collaboration with others.

Because the way the world works is through competition, right?  Evolution determines survival of the fittest.  Supply and demand in the market place predicates which product, which business wins out.  Business mergers are more about swallowing and destroying competitors than a re-invention of enterprise. Politics is all about winning over rivals, or the other party.  Right now we are heading into the opening of the London Olympics and a few weeks of achieving individual glory and national rivalry to top the medal tally tables, no matter how much we talk up the spirit of internationalism.  All of which is the antithesis of collaboration.

I daresay the business of competition will never go away.  We will still want to cheer the All Blacks to another World Cup, and to climb a few pegs on international tables.

Yet, the signs of collaboration on the radar suggest there are some new dynamics entering the business of political, social and economic organisation.  The opportunities for ‘doing good’, for achieving qualitative and positive social change are there if we go look.  As Tom Levitt says in the preface to his book Partners for Good, “In today’s Big Society it is said that ‘we are all in this together’”.

Does anyone notice there is never a mention of volunteers and volunteering?  Nor of managers of volunteers who have been practising collaboration for years, working with volunteers to get great outcomes wherever they are engaged.

 

June 10, 2012

The Changing Volunteer World

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Leadership, Leading Volunteers, Managers Matter, Professionalism, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:06 am by Sue Hine

Nothing can be certain, said Benjamin Franklin in a letter written in 1789, except death and taxes.  I am surprised he did not include ‘change’ in his aphorism.  He lived through a fair bit of historical change himself, in his enterprising career and as a Founding Father of United States, and he must surely have seen what was coming to France when he wrote his letter.

Well – change in the not-for-profit sector, and in volunteering, is all around the world at present.  I read the exhortations for managers of volunteers to get up to speed with social media – for everything from organising fundraising events to volunteer recruitment, and for regular organisation promos.  And for networking and conversations on common interests for managers of volunteers.

I read about the impact of generational differences and the statistics on who volunteers and what for and why.  Short-term, time-limited assignments please.  A specific focus, relevant to my skills. Or please, some work experience that will get me a job (when you give me a reference).  There are significant increases in prospective volunteers out there.  They are clamouring for roles – particularly the younger age groups.  And despite the huge bubble of older people, the baby-boomers, newly retired, this cohort is not rushing to fill the ranks of volunteers.

There is no denying the global financial crisis (GFC) is creating change, forcing governments to downsize, to rethink priorities for community support and development.

Change is coming from another direction too: the ethos of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is generating waves of corporate volunteering.  Corporates are going beyond conventional sponsorship and funding grants: active partnerships with non-profits are being pursued.  Even ‘Philanthropy’ gets a new connotation, loses its original glow of generosity, munificence and beneficence.  Now philanthropy is about venture capital for social change.

A whole new way of looking at the community and voluntary sector is evolving.  The social value of volunteering is increasingly seen in economic terms.  We trumpet the significant contribution volunteering and the NFP sector makes to GDP.  We are trying to improve reporting on volunteer impact beyond numbers and hours and donations in kind.  We look for ways to measure the social return on investment (SROI) in volunteering.  The word ‘social’ starts appearing in front of words I thought only bankers and accountants used: capital, innovation,  investment – and even New Zealand’s OCVS has a raft of papers and information social finance and social enterprise.  What will these terms mean for volunteers and
the community sector?  They sound good, but will they really do good?

Well – if we want to get volunteering and management of volunteers properly appreciated and recognised by those holding the purse-strings, then we need to learn and understand this language.  We need to be able to promote our causes and to argue our cases on an equal footing.

Yet in all the heady engagement between the not-for-profit sector and business and government, and with current trends in volunteering, I have not seen specific comment on the future for managers of volunteers.  Yes, we need to ride with changing times, adapt programmes to fit with the expectations of new generations of volunteers, be flexible innovative, creative.  But no-one has raised a direct question of what an alliance between public, private and community sectors might mean for managers of volunteers, and what will happen to volunteering further down the track.

What if CSR becomes the dominant source of volunteers, a formal process that may require a different style of management?  Different from the basic model of engaging individuals who want to ‘help’ add value to an organisation’s services?

That’s when managers of volunteers need to rise to Rob Jackson’s challenge: instead of organisations headed by “someone who knows how to make money … what we need is people-raising skills” (my emphasis).

We have been people-raising for several decades.  We have adapted to major change in the past.  Let’s demonstrate for the new era the know-how and can-do of our management expertise.

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.