‘Merge or shut down’: moving beyond debate towards real social change in Australia

By: Kevin Robbie, CEO, United Way Australia.

This week’s call for charities to merge or shut down by David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council for Australia, has come at a tipping point for our sector. The communities we serve, the staff on our programs, fundraising teams and CEOs know it is time to move beyond debate.

This need to change was one that United Way faced seven years ago, leading to the merger of four localised entities under the umbrella organisation United Way Australia. The merger made us more efficient and stronger. It enhanced our ability to deliver impact in communities. Now, as we embark on our next 10-year strategic plan, collaborating to achieve even greater social impact is at the top of our agenda.

Why? Because despite massive investments of energy and money, it seems our sector has not yet solved many of the issues it set out to. Indeed, many issues are increasingly complex. Something has to change.

Our sector must get better not just at working with each other but also with government, philanthropy, donors and business to achieve social change. The business world is increasingly perplexed by the plethora of charities seeking support and not collaborating towards the change they seek. This duplication of effort is widespread, and well evidenced in recent work by United Way Australia identifying 31 different transition to work programs in just one Western Sydney school. 31 organisations, yet youth unemployment rates in the area hadn’t shifted markedly.

So how do we reduce the number of charities and improve outcomes for people using our services?

I have four suggestions to consider:

  1. Funders have a key role to play – we can’t exist without the philanthropists, trusts, foundations, PAFs, companies, government and individuals that fund our work. If they focused on outcomes and funded those delivering real social change, I believe our sector would face a rapid and radical overhaul. Funders know that the era of the single purpose organisation attempting to bring about social change is over. The key to social change is increased collaboration. Imagine what we could achieve if hundreds, or thousands, of Australian charities stopped competing and joined forces with the likes of progressive funders to drive change.
  2. Collective Impact provides another framework for the sector to use to redefine itself and work collaboratively. The approach is based on a backbone organisation that works with the community to identify needs, develop shared goals, ensure shared measurement and drive behaviour change through service providers via innovation, new funding models and collaborative working. It is early days for Collective Impact in Australia, including The Hive in Mount Druitt NSW, but indicators are that if well supported this model could change how charities work together to affect long term community change.
  3. Organisations need to think about their end game. ‘If you ceased to exist, who would miss you?’ is a question I asked organisations when giving business development advice at Social Ventures Australia. Too often it uncovered that other organisations could fill the gap, which meant the organisation I was advising would be focused, to some extent, on competition at the expense of delivering on its mission. (To those considering starting a new charity, might it be better instead to go to existing organisations to see if it’s possible to adopt or develop the idea together?). A focus on the purpose of the organisation rather than a competitive imperative should drive more collaboration within the sector to achieve better outcomes.
  4. There is a glaring gap in development opportunities for innovative social ventures. Birthed by social entrepreneurs with great ideas, energy and passion, some social ventures lack the ability to scale. In the private sector successful entities are often given that next step by acquisition. The entrepreneur is rewarded and starts again. Imagine if we had the same pipeline in the charity sector, where successful social ventures with proven programs were bought and scaled by larger charities. An evergreeen fund enabling new social ventures to grow, with the entrepreneurs that have done it before well placed to access start-up capital funding for their next venture. That would truly drive innovation.

Increased collaboration is a core part of United Way Australia’s business model, and an approach United Way Worldwide takes in 1,800 communities across the globe. We believe the call by the CCA is timely given the increasing numbers of examples of new approaches to collaboration.

As a sector we shouldn’t be driven down this path by government cuts or imperatives, we should be focused on the best way to achieve outcomes for the communities we service. And those communities would often be better serviced by increased collaboration.

Nov. 17, 2015

 Tags: charities

Philanthropy Weekly Newsletter

Sign up to our weekly e-newsletter for sector news, expert opinion and resources.

Sign up here