Too much love?
A new Government much more involved in working with charities and communities is positive. The challenge remains to achieve meaningful change. That might best start with charities thinking about capacity, focus and resilience, writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News.
We changed the government in Australia, and the country is now changing. We have an assistant minister for charities rather than one against charities, and the charities regulator now has a leader with real expertise and understanding of the sector.
Our new government is much more involved in working with charities and communities than previously, and numerous opportunities for positive change are emerging. But there are also many areas where charities are going to face challenges in 2023.
Earlier this week I chaired a meeting of CCA member policy advisers and government relations specialists. It took over half an hour for a dozen people to outline all the policy submissions they are preparing or have provided to the federal government over the past month across many areas of government and charity activity. There is an unprecedented level of consultations and calls for input into policy. In fact, there are so many opportunities to provide submissions to government that some charities are choosing only to engage in a select few opportunities.
CCA is working on the Treasury DGR consultation, the ACNC related party transactions consultation, the Senate Inquiry into disaster management with a particular focus on the role of charities, while also having input in relation to the proposed new requirement for all NFPs to provide a return to the ATO, the blueprint for the charities and NFP sector, supporting the Voice campaign, pushing for fundraising reform at the next meeting of finance ministers and a number of other emerging and ongoing issues.
Being able to have input into federal government policies is a good thing. Most charities felt completely frozen out of any policy input or decision making during the term of the Morrison government. But having the opportunity to express a view is not a cost-free exercise. And resources are limited.
Aside from the numerous consultations, we are also seeing the rebuilding of federal government policy infrastructure. In 2014, the Abbott government shut down most of the federal government policy consultation mechanisms established over many years by previous governments. Groups like the Not-for-profit Sector Reform Group ceased to exist and all their work was shelved. The Abbott government preferred to rely on the advice of their own insiders and party members rather than seeking community input through charities, not-for-profits, peak bodies and other processes.
Examples of the new policy infrastructure include the establishment of peak bodies for mental health carers and mental health consumers, new advisory bodies in the arts including Creative Australia and a First Nations Led Arts Advisory Group, an Economic Inclusion Advisory Body, a new Administrative Appeals and Review body (replacing the politicised AAT), and many others.
The biggest challenge in the consultations and establishment of new policy infrastructure is whether they can actually achieve any change. There is a long history in Australia of hard-working groups producing well developed policies, reports and recommendations that almost everyone agrees to, but without any real commitment to implementation. Many of our policy documents float like fluffy clouds above reality, not even casting a shadow.
This may seem like a harsh analysis of Australia’s federal policy landscape, but I raise these concerns about implementation in the hope that all the policy work currently being done by charities and NFPs will be focused on achieving real change rather than delivering sets of decorative words.
Another concern that drives a level of hesitancy about investing valuable resources in providing policy input is what we know is likely to inform the government’s approach to the next Federal budget. Already we have seen the Prime Minister publicly stating that all new proposals must include budget offsets. In practice, this means for every additional expenditure item there also needs to be equivalent cuts to current and future expenditure. There will be very limited new money available to support government initiatives in the next budget, regardless of the merit of any new proposal.
Cost of living is now having a real impact in many charities, and in many of the communities where charities offer support to those in need. The rising cost of fuel, power, housing, food, transport, education and healthcare are all impacting both charities and those who rely on charities. There are many ways in which we see the impact, most notably in the level of homelessness and people seeking emergency relief.
The pressure on charities to pay more for staff is also impacting the bottom line, but with so many skills shortages across many industries there are few options available for charities who need to get close to matching market rates if they are to attract the best staff.
Like many in our sector, I am concerned about how well charities are placed to deal with emerging threats like cybersecurity and climate change. But can we ask charities to do more in these areas while also expecting them to participate in more consultations, do more to train and retain their staff, meet rising demand for their services, and face ongoing funding uncertainty in a tight and competitive funding environment?
There is a lot happening in the charities sector, some good, some presenting new challenges, some exacerbating longstanding issues.
It is for these reasons that I have suggested charities might need to be a little more selfish in 2023. We need to invest in ourselves as well as our communities, to build capacity and effectiveness.
We all want Australia to be a fairer and more inclusive country, and perhaps the best place to start is within our own organisations, making them stronger, more focused and resilient. This might mean saying no more often (including to some government proposals), setting limits to our work, documenting our value, and trying to do what we do better rather than seeking to constantly do more with less. It will require more collaboration, more sharing of capacity and knowledge, more investment in our collective strength rather than relying on individual organisations to find the way forward.
In much the same way that a more active and involved government is changing Australia, a stronger, more effective, collaborative charities sector will help create the kind of Australia we want to live in. It is ultimately up to all of us to make that happen.
Read on Pro Bono News: changing-australia