From unity comes strength

Posted on 25 Jul 2023

By David Crosbie

Jig saw pieces

It’s time not-for-profits stood united and refused to continue accepting scraps from the table of power, argues Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie

“The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” – Rudyard Kipling

If there is one narrative that dominates charity and not-for profit imperatives, it is doing more for less. The pressure is always on to do more, but resources rarely match expectations.

Most for-purpose organisations manage their limited resources by drawing on the same miraculous skills that might have enabled a carpenter’s son to feed the masses with only a handful of loaves and fishes.

Even these skills may not be enough.

As charities and NFPs we are also expected to measure our impact, be more like business in driving efficiencies, achieve a digital transition, manage all our risks including cybersecurity, recruit and retain the best staff, enable volunteering and broader engagement, leverage our assets, and market ourselves on multiple platforms to diversify and increase income streams in an incredibly competitive environment.

We cover the cracks in our programs and services by working harder, longer, for less, in the hope we can keep serving our communities despite the lack of resources.

We do what needs to be done.

Why do we do this? Because we believe in our work, in the difference it makes, in the individuals, families and communities we change for the better.

An eminent visiting American professor once told me that the work I was doing with young offenders was exceptional.

Summing up his observations after spending time watching my organisation’s strengths-based approach to engaging with troubled youth, he said, “This is the best program I have visited in years. It is also the most vulnerable program I have visited in years. Your problem is that the work you do is not valued, by anyone really.”

Hungry dog
NFPs must ensure their voices are heard and stop competing for scraps falling from the main table.

Ten years ago, the then Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten pointed out the same problem about the value of our work in an address to the National Press Club. Having cited the statistics about the extent of the charities and NFP sector in Australia, he said, “Interestingly, despite your numbers, you don't have the influence on national policy your weight should warrant. There is very limited public discussion about your needs or your issues as a sector.”

“One of the inherent difficulties for the Third Sector is that you are all so flat-out with the activities and services of your group that to some extent, overall sector issues have missed out.

“When I talk with people in the not-for-profit sector and ask them what they most need, they usually talk about the needs of their clients, the people they serve, their community.

“Making their organisation stronger or more sustainable is a second order issue, and the needs of the broader not-for-profit sector come a long way behind.

“Often small groups don't recognise they are even part of a ‘sector’.

“Like all groups with asymmetric bargaining power, you need more unity.”

"We have become experts in doing more for less, perpetuating our own weakness."

More unity.

Without unity, without collective action, our sector will continue to be relegated to the side lines and won’t be regarded as a serious player in framing national policy.

Groups like the Community Council for Australia are built around unity. It’s why Our Community is publishing the Community Advocate and supporting the Institute of Community Directors Australia.

When CCA brought together the Charities Crisis Cabinet, we drove changes in national responses to covid-19 that enabled many charities to survive.

This work was largely supported by volunteer efforts. Susan Pascoe, Tim Costello, and 20 other charity leaders gave generously of their time. Cat Fay at Perpetual allowed money previously allocated for other purposes to be used to support the behind-the-scenes work of the Charities Crisis Cabinet.

It wasn’t perfect, but it worked, because it was an effective and responsive collective voice into national policy.

Within government and within broader community debates about our future as a nation, the for-purpose sector has few effective collective voices.

Investing in unity and collective leadership in our sector is not seen as a priority within most organisations. If there is a choice between more money for programs and services, and more money to back a peak body or other collective action, most for-purpose organisations will not allocate resources to unity.

David Crosbie
Community Council for Australia, CEO, David Crosbie

I am pleased to say that at CCA we have around 80 outstanding charities that have chosen to prioritise unity and invest in collective action. They are exceptional, and together we have achieved some good outcomes for the sector.

Unfortunately, too many charities find reasons not to join CCA.

CCA’s effectiveness as a peak body pales into insignificance when compared to that of the Business Council of Australia or even the Council Of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA), a charity which has ten times the turnover of CCA.

COSBOA’s extensive government funding has included more than $5 million for a campaign to promote small business.

The charities and NFP sector cannot get government funding to develop a sector blueprint, let alone a national campaign to promote the sector.

Unlike COSBOA, CCA has never received any government funding.

Our sector has strong community backing, good evidence and arguments in support of our positions, and opportunities to make our case to governments and policy makers, but that is rarely enough.

Governments and policy makers have repeatedly demonstrated that they don’t see for-purpose organisations as a priority. That’s not surprising given how little we have invested in making our collective voices heard.

We compete for scraps falling from the main table. We meekly accept inadequate levels of funding and resourcing, dismissive approaches to our policy input, and polite assurances that deliver nothing of consequence.

We have become experts in doing more for less, perpetuating our own weakness.

Change will happen only if we take a different approach. Unity is strength. It’s up to us.

One more thing before I go

I note it is now free to become a member of the Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA).

For those organisations interested in membership of CCA, visit Membership – Community Council for Australia. Membership starts at $121 annually.

David Crosbie has been CEO of the Community Council for Australia for the past decade and has spent more than a quarter of a century leading significant not-for-profit organisations including the Mental Health Council of Australia, the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and Odyssey House Victoria.

He has served on numerous national advisory groups and boards including the first advisory board for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission, the Not-for-Profit Sector Reform Council, and the National Compact Expert Advisory Group, which he chaired.

His diverse career outside the sector includes stints as a teacher in prison, a probation officer, a university lecturer, a farm hand, a truck driver, a bank teller, a public servant, and a musician in a successful rock band.

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