A recently held forum of nearly 200 community organisations found that collaboration is the top ranking challenge. What does that mean in real terms?
Looking back over my 20 odd years of working with community organisations in a variety of roles, I can clearly understand the importance of collaboration in the sector. But I also realise that talk about collaboration fails spectacularly when talk turns to action. Or rather, lack of it.
Too many community organisations, regardless of their size, depend on funding from governments. Almost cripplingly so. While stats will suggest that the majority of money does not come from government coffers, the fact is that a government contract is much more a powerful influence on how an NFP works than whatever money it earns through fundraising, corporate support, philanthropy or its own commercial enterprise (thrift shops, training and the like).
It can be challenging for many organisations to face an inconvenient fact: the NFP sector is addicted to government funding and its approach to business is influenced by government culture. This is neither sustainable nor in the best interests of the public, and thus the need to embrace collaboration and innovation. The six million dollar question is: Is the sector as a whole really prepared to do just that?
Although optimistic about the capacity for change, I am not convinced at all that there is real broad readiness for embracing collaboration and innovation. Here is why. Firstly, I think that change does not happen overnight with some magic declaration by an employer. As one futurist said ‘you can’t innovate on a whim’. So is the case with culture change. Not-for-profits are still largely relying on good relationships with governments as a safe-bet strategy. Nothing wrong with developing and maintaining good relationships except when they are on the terms of one party. Governments continue to send mixed messages to the community sector and have no real appetite to play a different role from the one they are used to. Essentially governments do not reward innovation, and collaboration much less so. Let’s face it; if a group of organisations pull together in a truly collaborative manner they will achieve more, but in the long run they will mostly find that, as a result, government funding will diminish. That may not be the absolute case but it is definitely a rule of thumb.
Secondly, the sector lacks real imagination. It does well to point out a myriad of socio-economic and environmental issues. It is also good in explaining what those issues are and how they impact on society. What it does not do well is solve the problems. Admittedly, the major reason for this is a lack of cash. But where cash is not the king there are other ways to succeed which not-for-profits tend to ignore. On the positive side, it is precisely that lack of imagination that motivates many young people to go it alone and try to do something without being involved with established NFPs.
Thirdly, and in my view the most crippling obstacle, is outdated leadership and thinking about the way we go about solving socio-economic issues facing Australia. I attended a public lecture recently where a group of leaders were discussing refugee issues. Interestingly the panel was made up of a group that has nothing in common with the people it was seemingly concerned with. Leaders in the not-for-profit sector still have the attitude that helping those less fortunate is a noble, benevolent act – certainly reminiscent of a bygone era.
There are other factors that can be examined and debated. And debated they should be for the sake of all. At the time when the fiercest corporate competitors choose to collaborate in order to stay relevant it begs the question how long will not for profit sector cling to changing whims of government of the day for funding. Collaborate or become irrelevant is what I urge.