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Time to wake up to what’s happening in the community sector.

June 2015


The 2015 CEO Forum was held at this year’s FINZ Conference for the first time. Speakers included cabinet ministers, and community and business leaders. Fraser Carson was there and noted a tidal-wave of change that asks community and fundraising leaders to act more collaboratively and to start addressing some big issues.

Bill English strode into the FINZ CEO Forum fashionably late, but his keynote message was bang-on time.

The deputy prime minister’s latest reconnaissance mission to face the community sector was delivered typically devoid of the snazzy bonhomie more often associated with the PM. His deadpan message was apprehended early when he told the audience of his belief in smaller governments, therefore “something else needs to get bigger”.

Through the day other speakers reinforced a view that community organisations needed to face the change realities of the world and adapt, or risk withering on the vine. This was apparently a global phenomenon and one New Zealand would be well served by addressing.

But while the deputy prime minister may be guided by political beliefs and his government’s current agenda, such as for social investment and bonds, many in the audience of community and fundraising leaders will have been nervous about the real impacts of changes that might reduce the quality and quantity of services, or generate more uncertainty and dysfunction.

Such sensitivity is inevitable, but it is worth reminding ourselves that governments will continue to support worthwhile community activities and interventions, and the community sector will go on delivering much of it for itself. However the central question must be: what level of responsibility (and control) will governments and communities be prepared or able to accept? For example, if communities need to take more responsibility for social impact, will they be able to acquire the same proportion of control?

A commonly reported issue already, affected by lines of responsibility and control, particularly for crisis situations and interventions, is the difficulty in identifying who should be taking responsibility and achieving coordinated and timely responses between a host of community and government agencies.

Even in accepting that it is communities that ultimately determine what governments will do (through the ballot box), the eventual goal is surely the provision of the best possible services, provided efficiently and with minimal wastage. In this regard governments have a simple answer if they take the larger responsibility for community provision – they can cheaply and efficiently raise the money (from taxation) and determine much of how and where it is delivered. This has in the recent past been branded “nanny state” with the charge that it places too much emphasis on a ‘non-productive sector’, while undermining the ‘productive sector’ with higher taxes.

Of course few could argue that funding research to cure diabetes or keeping young people away from prison is non-productive, for example.

So, while governments can efficiently raise money, the delivery of services that money supports has increasingly fallen to the community sector where the needs are best recognised and the services delivered most productively – so the theory goes.

The community, on the other hand, is a body with a million heads and is variously described as not-for-profit, non-productive or simply the charity sector. It is driven by beating-heart values and sits at the cliff-face of social need. Its various parts compete with each other for government and big-ticket funding and, increasingly, from public philanthropy. Many organisations live from hand-to-mouth, rely heavily on volunteers and have inadequate management and governance support. On top of this, competition for resources ties up compliance time and begs for expert help they can’t or won’t afford. It also fuels fragmentation further and distorts organisational motivations towards cash streams, perhaps sometimes counter to where the need is greatest.

This is not to be pessimistic or unfair to the thousands of organisations performing miraculous things. On the contrary, astonishing work is being done and we should be optimistic for the future. But a host of change realities must be faced, together with a desire to do better, if real across-the-board solutions are to be found.

A pathway ahead

“The only thing that is constant is change.” So said Heraclitus.

Traditional solutions have so often been found through government interventions or assistance, but the community can no longer rely on government for many solutions. Even setting aside the political divide between more or less government beneficence, the mere fact that government policies and deliverables change with the political wind renders it an irregular companion. In this environment, I still argue for a positive role from government, but consistency, more security and resilience will inevitably be better served if the community sector begins to find more of its own solutions.

If we accept this view and given the rate of change occurring, the question that must urgently be asked is: how can the community sector become more the architect of its own future?

How can the community sector become more the architect of its own future?

The answers can be found only if the sector works together much more to find smarter solutions to some big challenges and a million small ones, too.

That’s a simple answer but will it be easy? No it won’t, but there is no time to waste if communities are to catch up with the changes already happening.

A more robust community sector must start by thinking more assertively about ‘why’ it exists as the powerhouse for social impact, rather than just a collection of charities fighting for crumbs, and it needs to find the leaders with a vision to express it. That could happen if enough people in the community sector share a view of ‘what success should look like’ and seek out new ways to meaningfully engage with each other, and with other less traditional allies such as business, investment and technology. In doing that, it must be willing to disagree and accept different opinions in the name of true collaboration and a genuine desire to find the hard answers. And while it’s doing that, it must be emphatically more professional, open and trusting of expert advice. These are not physical barriers; they are people issues.

Going cap-in-hand to government cannot be the only show in town, but partnerships and a new willingness to seek solutions, wherever they might be found, can only be positive. Maybe then the community can start to have a different conversation with government – that’s about listening as well as talking – to find the correct balance of power and responsibility each side has for taking care of the community and its most precious resource – our citizens.

Perhaps it’s best said in an old slogan from the International Red Cross: “The need is real; the time is now.”

Fraser Carson is a director of FRESCO, a commentator on marketing, communications and community issues, and a Member of Fundraising Institute of New Zealand.


5 point Magna Carta for change

Fraser Carson offers 5 pillars he believes can help guide a positive transformation in the community sector – with a nod to the Collective Impact model.

  1. Community Charter: Agree on a values-based, cross-sector Community Charter that helps generate agendas for collective social impact, and a foundation for organisations to build their own purpose and mission within a wider context. This must respect the diversity and autonomy of groups and organisations within the sector.
  1. Collective Voice: Establish a Community Forum that can represent a collective voice to government and other sectors, in similar vein to Business New Zealand, Federated Farmers and the Council of Trade Unions. This may need to be new and not be based on traditional membership structures.
  1. Capabilities: Encourage and promote a universal commitment to best practices in management, governance and operations, including the highest possible ethical standards and transparency.
  1. Shared Measurements: Establish shared and open methods for sharing data and results measurements, which is consistent with relevant government processes, to assist alignments of effort, accountability and transparency.
  1. Collaborative infrastructure: Operate live and digital channels for better cross-sector and inter-organisational communications where information resources, activities, news, events, ideas and offers of help can be more easily shared. A key to better collaboration is through building a culture of change via shared communications and supported infrastructure.
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