It’s time Not For Profits become more than just service delivery professionals
By Doug Taylor, CEO United Way Australia.
Recently I was sitting at my desk and jumped when I heard fighter jets fly over the Sydney CBD. It was not an invasion but the RAAF acknowledging the Memorial service for Gough Whitlam at Sydney Town Hall. Although I wasn’t inside the Town Hall, I did see hundreds of people outside and many wearing t-shirts with the memorable ‘Its Time’ slogan from the Labor Party’s 1972 election campaign. It reminded me that new movements and ideas, often after many years in the wilderness, eventually ‘have their time.’
It seems to me there is an ‘its time’ phenomenon under way at the moment in the Australian Social Sector with the growing realisation that the way we are doing business just isn’t working and doesn’t provide a road map for the future.
In many ways the numerous conversations regarding this are a call for Not For Profits to rediscover the early days when the sector was more than an arm of Government but had a mission focused on involving local communities in solving their own problems. Undoubtedly there were inequities in this and other challenges but it seems to me that contemporary focus on ‘providing services to clients’ has meant that we have lost our ability to consider individuals as part of communities. Communities that have fantastic capabilities and assets. I would go so far as to suggest that if a Not For Profit is not genuinely working with their local community, then perhaps they should relinquish the tax benefits created to help Not For Profits offset the extra costs incurred in this important work.
I’ve heard two people make a compelling case for why the dominant modus operandi of Not For Profit service delivery is fundamentally broken. The first prophetic challenge came through Tony Nicholson’s, CEO of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, recent speech on the ‘Future of the Welfare Sector’. Tony challenges the prevailing wisdom that: ”our sector can continue to meet society’s current and emerging needs by contracting to government, expanding and aggregating organisations, driving for greater efficiency, and further professionalising, regulating and circumscribing care.“ He makes this challenge by arguing that this model is neither sustainable nor desirable. The sustainability challenges come from our growing population and the unlikelihood of Governments to be willing and able to raise taxes to meet growing social need, meaning that: ”there will simply not be the money to fund current practitioner intensive service models to meet the growth in population.”
In this speech Tony also claims that a sole emphasis on this model is undesirable because ”it is sapping the very ethos and moral drive of the sector and, with it, the wider community”. While acknowledging that there have been many benefits gained through professionalisation, he argues that it cannot take us into the future because of what it means we have lost. In other words services are necessary but not sufficient. He goes onto say: ”We not only lose the sense of responsibility that citizens have for issues in their community, displacing it to the community welfare sector, we also lose the diversity of networks and connections and opportunities that the broader community can bring to social needs. And most importantly we lose that intangible quality of authenticity that is created through voluntary caring relationship.“ This reminds me of my early years of working as a Residential Care Worker for people who had experienced homelessness and the realisation that it was often our volunteers who had the greatest impact because of their ability to speak to the residents as a friend. It sounds simplistic but should not be overlooked.
So ‘we have a problem Houston’ but what do we do about it? This is a nice segue to another thought leader I heard recently who I think has some clues for how Not For Profits can get back to their purpose and start rediscovering an important muscle that has withered away in recent years. It’s critical that we rebuild this muscle if we are to address the well-articulated concerns expressed by Tony Nicholson about the desirability and sustainability of focusing just on professional service delivery to clients. Last month I was privileged to host a number of presentations by Rich Harwood, founder of the Harwood Institute, in Sydney and Melbourne. Rich has worked with many of the largest global Not For Profits and Foundations as they’ve increasingly come to the realisation that they have become more and more internally focused and no longer able to genuinely connect their work with the community that they seek to serve. As Rich says, in times of crisis and change we too easily turn inward and ”make our conference room, not the community, our frame of reference for our strategy and planning.”
My United Way colleagues in the US would say for a time that they became too inward orientated and focused on the means(fundraising) and not the ends (the extent to which they respond to the changing needs in their community and improve people’s lives). Rich has helped my colleagues rediscover their core purpose of listening and working with the community to address the many education related challenges the country faces. In Australia, Rich has worked in partnership with Local Community Services Association in NSW to train 100 Public Innovators in the lost art of catalysing Collective Action by building Public Knowledge and not just being focused on delivering services. Judging by the fantastic response to Rich’s many presentations, I think he’s hit on something that’s a timely reminder for Not For Profit professionals. He reminds us that we need to make room for the community in all that we do by genuinely listening to and partnering with the community and not just undertaking our perfunctory community consultations and client surveys. He challenges those interested in creating change to focus more on creating community ownership of the work, develop strategies that fit the community, create a sustainable enabling environment, a sense of belief that things can get done and a narrative that changes mindsets.
There have been some green shoots in recent years, with people starting to think about the strategies that need to complement service delivery, such as Collective Impact. It’s another ‘it’s time’ signal that Not For Profits are realising they need to work more collaboratively. For those pursuing Collective Impact, Rich provides a challenge to ensure they put the Community into Collective Impact and don’t get obsessed with another professionally driven agenda that leaves individuals and the community behind. He also makes a good case for being responsive to community rhythms and has developed the Five Stages of Community Life. These rhythms underscore the importance of developing strategies that fit our communities with the implication being that Collective Impact is best suited for a community that is ready for a comprehensive strategy and not in the earlier stages of working through impasses and catalyzing small initiatives.
Invoking the iconic ‘it’s time’ catch cry from 1972 is somewhat ambitious given the amount of change that resulted from the election of the Whitlam Government. However, I’m convinced that magnitude of positive change will be realised in partnership with local communities if Not For Profits can rediscover again their historical community building mandate as a complement to their more recently developed service delivery focus. If they can’t, then I suspect communities will do it for themselves just like they did before Not For Profits existed!