Not-for-profits are facing the Age of Fraught

Posted on 06 Feb 2024

By Brett de Hoedt

Brett de Hoedt believes many organisations will react to this era of hyper-sensitivity by being more sedate than ever in a bid to avoid controversy.

New year predictions are a fool’s game so I’m well placed for this gig.

I’ve been reflecting on the heightened animosity of public discourse and I’m predicting a resulting conservatism by community organisations and governments. Yep – I’m going big!

Brett de Hoedt
Brett de Hoedt

You already know that “the people” are angry and no wonder. They can’t afford to rent a room (forget about buying a house), purchase a trolley full of groceries or see a GP. Inflation, covid and the growing abyss between the rich and the rest have left us a tad… angsty. Meanwhile, our media and political class have never been more ready to take sides, deny facts and inflame matters.

Welcome to 2024 – the Age of Fraught.

Organisations and individuals who take a stand on anything are open to ferocious criticism. And by “criticism” I mean anything from an angry tweet to a collection of dead ‘babies’ placed outside your office. Rallies are now baked into people’s calendars and the campaigns are fundamental to their identities – this goes equally for anti-vaxers and pro-Palestinians. Like John Farnham, this time they are playing to win.

In theatre companies, art galleries and the world of local government, October 7 showed us how events a world away can echo in our neighbourhoods. Right now there’s a ground war in my patch between grown adults sticking up posters of support for their side of the Israel–Hamas–Palestine catastrophe and those who tear them down.

Lighting up your town hall – or choosing not to – will end up in tears. Likewise your choice of Christmas street decoration copy or library entertainment, as the City of Stonnington in Melbourne discovered when it opted for “Make Merry”. And of course the wrong choice of sponsor, speaker or terminology can also land one in hot water, as Louise Adler said on ABC TV’s 7.30. In fact, a long-forgotten Facebook post or Masters thesis is enough to cause a SNAFU.

Many organisations will react to this era of hyper-sensitivity by being more sedate than ever in a bid to avoid controversy. Why have a stance about anything when it may alienate your stakeholders? Sponsors, donors and VIPs are more willing than ever to retract support if their political sensitivities are offended – and then publicly boast about it.

Angry protest
It appears that we're living in an era of hyper-senstivity, and we've even avoided using a real protest picture. This one was created by Dall-E.

The vibe

The vibe is much, much harder to pick these days with the mix of people and interests more complex than ever before. Those who once controlled debates are facing newly activated opposition. The Israel–Hamas–Palestine war is the perfect demonstration of this, with pro-Palestinian activists refusing to be ignored. They are young and organised and their arguments chime with current thought about colonialism, religion and power.

The not-for-profit sector’s overwhelming support for the Yes campaign showed how out of touch many organisations are with the broader community. (Awkward but true.)

While the vast majority of community organisations supported Yes, the population as a whole rejected the notion. The referendum highlighted the disconnection between not-for-profits as employers and their workforces and the people they aim to serve. Note: the referendum was a simple Yes/No proposition. Most issues are far more complex.

The lawyers win

In 2024 we’ll see more and more contractual stipulations aimed at limiting political expression in employment contracts, sponsorship agreements and bequests. This will work in both directions – employers and organisers limiting the expression of those they engage and donors and supporters demanding silence on certain issues as a pre-requisite for their support.

The result? A vanillarisation of debate and a retreat from diversity of opinion.

Nobody wins

While organisations will increasingly stick to their knitting, this is no guaranteed way of avoiding criticism, as silence is now interpreted as compliance. This is utter madness and a form of bullying by my fellow progressives but it is increasingly popular with those who demand that their agenda is your agenda.

It’s simply not possible to take a stand on every issue. For those who push back on this Just Say Nothing approach, please publicly state your views on the following:

  • Israel–Hamas–Palestine
  • Capital gains tax exemptions on the family home
  • Population growth and migration policy

Stand by. Your backlash will be with you shortly.

Partisanship and the decay of democracy

Supporters of political parties have never been so partisan. This goes for my fellow progressives too – budget overruns, tender irregularities, jobs for the boys, grey corruption and the inconvenient findings of independent authorities are routinely ignored if they reflect badly on “our” side. Likewise, bad news can be swept under the Fair Trade Afghan throw rug if the media outlet reporting on the matter is deemed conservative.

2024 marks Hootville’s 25th anniversary and this disregard for democracy and accountability by my fellow progressives is the biggest shift I’ve seen. This is not the way to a healthy democracy. And if progressives ain’t bolstering democracy nobody is.

Brett de Hoedt is the mayor of Hootville Communications, which assists not-for-profits with media, marketing and communications. Read about Brett’s recent webinar on crisis management for not-for-profits here.

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