2018 - Dark Times, Bright Stars

Sometimes it takes dark times to see bright stars, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie, who reflects on 2018 and says he is looking forward to seeing more bright stars shine across the charity sector next year. 

Dark Times, Bright Starts, Pro Bono News, 20 December 2018.

As we draw to the end of 2018, I have been asked to reflect on where Australian charities are and how we are responding.

As every charity manager knows, in 2018 the environment in which charities operate did not get any easier.

The three main sources of charity income have become increasingly difficult to secure and maintain.

There is less long term sustained government funding available to charities.  This is partly because the cost of meeting existing government service provision commitments rises year on year, partly because there are many more players competing for the similar levels of government funding, and partly because there is less certainty about future policy direction and government commitments.

Fundraising as a source of revenue is now more hotly contested than ever.  There are an expanding number of on-line and peer to peer fundraising platforms, and more groups than ever before competing for what is a relatively unchanged level of giving.  Even the largest charities are finding they need to invest more to achieve the same level of return.

Income for charities from fees and service charges is subject to increasing levels of disruption including from a growing pool of for-profit companies.  Already in education, employment, housing, health and social services we see emerging for-profit companies competing by offering scaled investments that allow for short-term losses in order to drive charities out of the market and achieve long term profitability.

Charities are also facing increased uncertainty, increased competition in all other areas, and increased accountability measures.

Added into this mix of challenges, Australia is experiencing the down sides of hyper-partisan politics informed by short- term popularism, an escalation in truth decay where facts are treated like opinions, and a further diminution in public trust in all our institutions.

All these pressures have conspired to allow governments to push the boundaries of organisational freedoms in seeking to restrict the rights of charities to pursue their charitable purposes through issues-based advocacy.

These pressures on charities are not theoretical constructs, but fundamental shifts in the way charities pursue their charitable purpose.  

In 2018 many charities found themselves in unchartered territory, questioning how best to ensure they could continue to make a difference in the lives of the communities they serve.  

Tough times often demand tough decisions.  How do we make the right decisions? We know that the leaders of charities are the key factor in organisational resilience.  As George Stalk Jnr has written in the Harvard Business Review:

“We would argue that a culture of organizational resilience is built largely upon leadership, what we refer to as ‘resilient leadership.’ … we believe key leadership personnel, often frontline leadership, appear to have the ability to ‘tip’ the organization in the direction of resilience and to serve as a catalyst to increase group cohesion and dedication to the ‘mission.’ They do this, we argue, by demonstrating four core attributes of optimism, decisiveness, integrity, and open communications”

Thought leaders in the business world have long recognised the fundamental importance of leadership in ensuring businesses stay resilient and focused on their mission.

In my experience, there are some outstanding leaders in the Australian charities sector who epitomise these principles of resilient leadership.  Their leadership shows in the way their organisations have responded to both external and internal challenges.

One of the goals for our sector should be to better support more of these leaders across the charities sector, people who will make the brave decisions, put purpose before profit, people before process, and create real value in the communities they serve.

I believe our sector is stronger than ever before, despite the challenges we face, and this is in no small part because so many within our sector have been prepared to take a stand for what they believe in, what they are seeking to achieve.

In 2018 the pressure put on charities not to engage in the public policy discourse increased partly because of our increasing effectiveness, our growing collective voice testing the comfort zones of politicians, government officials and other policy makers.

While there is increasing community despondency about our political leadership, I believe there is growing respect for our charity leadership.  

Sometimes it takes dark times to see bright stars.  

In reflecting on a year of many disappointments in the way Australia has approached so many important issues, I am looking forward to seeing more bright stars shine across the charities sector.  Who knows, in 2019 we may even be able to light the way to the kind of Australia we want to live in.

Read on Pro Bono News: https://probonoaustralia.com.au/news/2018/12/2018-dark-times-bright-stars/