Losing our most important news platform

CCA CEO David Crosbie reflects on the impact and contribution of Pro Bono News over its 22 years.

Losing our most important news platform, Pro Bono News, 23 March 2023

Over a decade ago when the Community Council for Australia (CCA) was being established, the need to increase charity and NFP access to timely and relevant information was seen as a critical role for our new peak body. There were many discussions about how this goal could possibly be achieved, especially given the limited resources available to CCA. 

In 2010, the first CCA board agreed that the best approach to information provision for the sector was to back the maturing Pro Bono News, and to partner wherever possible with Karen Mahlab AM and her team to build the knowledge base across the charities sector. For almost 13 years, this partnership has served CCA and the charities and NFP sector well. 

Pro Bono News has provided timely information on an incredible range of important issues over many years including: giving and philanthropy, leadership and development, outcome and impact measurement, volunteering, governance and legal issues, marketing and communications, mergers and collaborations, government relations and policy, innovation and digital transformation, social enterprise and impact investing, the list goes on. In many of these fundamental areas Pro Bono News has provided an essential reference point, a stepping off platform for charities and NFPs to think about their own organisational structures and practice, and how they might increase their effectiveness and capacity.

This issues driven information provision has been invaluable for our sector, but it is really only the starting point for how significant Pro Bono News has been. 

Charities and the programs they run are often vulnerable, largely because they are not valued as much as they should be. For charities to build their value and reduce their vulnerability, they need to create and share knowledge about their outcomes and impact on individuals, families and communities. They need to be able to tell their stories of change.

With mainstream media increasingly lost in superficial click bait competition, it has become harder to find appropriate channels for our stories. Pro Bono News has provided hundreds of charities and their leaders the opportunity to tell their stories on their terms, to share their perspectives and build value in the work they do, the communities they serve, the organisations they are part of. In promoting the work of charities and NFPs, Pro Bono News has built the value of many organisations, enabling them to increase their profile and their capacity to survive.

Beyond offering a knowledge base and a platform to build sector value, Pro Bono News actively promoted and supported a collective voice. In doing so, Pro Bono News became a critical driver of sector reform.

Anyone who thinks the charities and NFP sector is not competitive has clearly had limited exposure to the realities of running a not-for-profit organisation. There are limited resources available from government, fees for service, or fundraising. Need almost always far outstrips supply. Those who care about the work they do and want to see it continue know they’re probably going to have to compete to get the resources they require to keep operating. This ongoing competition is not conducive to organisations working collaboratively together, even on issues of mutual benefit.

Karen and her team are one of the few groups who take a broader view – beyond individuals, organisations or causes – to how our efforts, leadership, values and contribution can come together to create the kind of society and the kind of future we want. 

It is no accident that the charities sector response to the horror Abbott-Hockey Budget in 2015 was the convening of our sector’s most exceptional changemakers and big picture thinkers – the first Pro Bono Impact 25 and CCA members – to articulate an alternative vision for Australia. Generating national mainstream media coverage of what the ABC called a “council of war”, we called for an aspiration beyond a set of economic numbers, articulating a vision for the just, fair, safe, inclusive, equal opportunity, authentic, creative, confident, courageous, united, kind, generous and compassionate Australia we want. A vision that has enduring value.

The contribution of Pro Bono News proved pivotal yet again when the Coalition government developed a bill to dismantle the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission. In addition to providing a forum to raise concerns about the government’s approach and promote the value of the ACNC, Pro Bono Australia conducted important national surveys demonstrating sector wide support for the ACNC. 

I know from my discussions with several key politicians that the Pro Bono News surveys showing strong sector backing of the ACNC were important in making the arguments about keeping the ACNC. As was pointed out to me by several cross benchers and even some government MPs, it is generally unheard of for a sector to argue in support of its own regulator. 

In my view, without the active collaboration of Pro Bono News and CCA, I doubt we would still have the ACNC. The battle to keep the ACNC was about collective action, and Pro Bono News was a focal point for our collective voice.

I could continue to write about the various ways Pro Bono News has been invaluable to our sector, but there is one other fundamental point that needs to be emphasised. 

For as long as Pro Bono News has been published, it has been watched over and financially supported by one person, Karen Mahlab AM. Over the years I have had many conversations with Karen and the one consistent theme has been her drive to support and improve the charities and NFP sector as a fundamental lever to create the change we want to see in our society, our world and our future. Pro Bono News has been a costly exercise, and not just in monetary terms. Karen has spent countless hours ensuring it was able to continue. I know that at times the personal toll has been enormous. 

While it is very sad to see Pro Bono News ending, those of us who know what it has taken to keep it going for 22 years can only offer our thanks and appreciation to Karen for carrying the load for so long. 

Many of us will miss many aspects of Pro Bono News, and we are incredibly thankful that it has existed and made such a valuable contribution to our sector, but we also understand the realities of the current media landscape. 

I offer my heartfelt thanks to Karen and all who have been part of Pro Bono News. I hope you know and appreciate the difference you have made. 

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