Change takes preparation, time and investment

By: Andrew Johnson   |   CEO, Reichstein Foundation   |   https://reichstein.org.au/

This is part of a series where we explore recent examples of system change – what drives it, how it happened and its outcomes. At the centre of the series is the question – what can we do to create lasting change to reduce and eliminate injustice and inequality?

It has been an extraordinary year for change and adaptation for all, for citizens, for government, for corporates and NGOs and for philanthropy. This year brought home the mantra that there is nothing more constant than change itself. Social change movements have had an enormous opportunity to use the circumstances to discuss underlying and systemic issues in ways like never before, social inequalities were laid bare, climate change continued its forward march and systems and services were stressed to breaking point. At this moment in time, we will see if we have learnt lessons of equality, demonstrated in how the West shares dividends of the vaccine.

The pandemic brought home that the goal of equality and investments in universal services assists us all and were central in Australia riding the virus better than almost any other country in the world. The examples of the virus finding inequalities whether that be in Singapore with migrant workers, or the over representation of Black and Hispanic people in the US or here at home in the aged care sector, laid bare how much more work we need to do to ensure equality for all and therefore in turn make us all safer. It was a reminder that the course of equality, racial justice and social inclusion has a long way to go.

Then in the midst of the crisis the world was watching the importance of racial equality in the justice system, and more recently the importance of gender equality before the law especially when it comes to violence and harassment in the workplace.

On January 6th we all watched the unprecedented attack on democratic principles and ideals, it showed that even the strongest democracies are not safe, that we need to invest in strong and independent media and an informed citizenry. That we need to invest in strong and robust NGOs that challenge the status quo. When NGOs are driven by the voices of those they serve and when they act through the lens of lived experience, they underpin parts of our democracy untouched by government and the private sector. Civil society is an important source of information for both citizens and government, its role in monitoring government policies and actions and holding government accountable has always been vital, and the catch cry, “If not now when?”, should drive us all to invest in strong independent civil society processes, collaborations and organisations.

Having worked in some of the most complex emergencies, I have learnt from so many others about the importance of the voices and the experiences of those who were victims of the emergency to be heard, and on a good day, that they be involved in the design, implementation and monitoring of the programs and advocacy that were there to serve them.

What we learnt from the worst crisis and emergency that beset the world in the 1940s was that we must ensure an understanding that all human beings have dignity. This was the corner stone of moving forward after 1945. A belief that everyone had fundamental human rights, that human rights needed to be protected and invested in. We now live in a time that has reaped an underinvestment in democratic ideals and the promotion of human rights and human rights approaches, but we are not too late to make the proper investments.

A clear example of a human rights approach was seen here at home. We saw the lesson of investing in Aboriginal owned and controlled organisations, this sector was able to outperform so many others given their connection to the communities that they served. The extraordinary results of this sector showed that often at times we see risk the wrong way round, that not funding Aboriginal organisations increases the risk of failure.

The last year has been a reminder that social change takes time, that the sector must continue to invest in organisations, in processes, in learnings and most importantly that we invest in “failures”.

Social change takes luck, I am fond of the quote attributed to Roman philosopher Seneca - that luck is where preparation meets opportunity. How do we then prepare? What do we already know that will make us more prepared?

Social Change is brought about by many people and many organisations, social change is rarely if ever brought about by people and organisations that say “I”. Fundamental to taking advantage of opportunities is to ensure that we have funded collaboration and as the philanthropic sector we have great power in incentivising collaboration.

Most importantly, we have great power in funding elements along the journey to where preparation meets opportunity. Funding projects that on the face of it fail, are sometimes far more important to receive funds than those that achieve short term results. Given the scale of social change, the signposts and learnings along the way are vital, sharing our learnings is fundamental to kicking the can down the road. Promoting learnings amongst civil society and the philanthropic sector is where we are most likely to be able to catalyse the multiplier effect which is so important to the success of social change. 

Social change takes preparation, time and investment. What is important is to ensure that the lessons from emergencies, the lessons of 2020, the lessons from BLM, are seen as reminders of what we knew all along. At Reichstein Foundation, in our 50th year, we have known, like so many of you, that social change is about eternal vigilance and patience and that sometimes our investments and giving takes decades to see ultimate realisation. The path of social change, the path of realising the rights of those that are socially excluded takes time and if this year has taught us anything, it is that we have no time to waste.

Mar. 24, 2021

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