The Third Sector: A Summary
Article by Livia Albeck-Ripka
DESPITE KONY 2012 bolstering the cynic’s case and scarring the believer, it is fair to assume that good intention and change underscore the actions of at least most charities, cultural groups and activists.
Yet red-tape is often a hurdle between passion and outcome, with the enormous challenges facing non-government organisations (NGOs)* continuing to grow, despite their critical role in Australian society. Between funding causes and managing relationships with the public, business and governments, NGOs are increasingly squeezed for time and resources.
With over 65 per cent of Australians belonging to a community group, their impact on Australia’s health is being increasingly recognised. Over the past 30 years, accumulating evidence shows that the well-being of individuals and populations depends on their bonds with the organisations that shape society. Research indicates that involvement is even more meaningful and effective when groups are empowered to set their own priorities and agendas.
Australia’s 600,000 community groups range from book clubs and animal welfare societies to large organisations like the Brotherhood of St Laurence or Mission Australia (who hold the power to influence policy). The unique relationship that NGOs foster with the public means they become advocates and mobilizers - driving support and voluntary contribution where governments cannot.
On a global scale, strong links with community groups and civil society organisations in developing countries means NGOs can play a role in regions where government-to-government aid is not possible.
Particularly active in areas of health, education, the environment and social justice, NGOs promote awareness, in the general public and in the corporate world, of issues that are not always on the agenda of big business. These groups are a practical means of generating social capital and community networks, as well as a manifestation of an active and vibrant democracy.
However NGOs have not always enjoyed a smooth relationship with the Australian Government, particularly under ex-PM John Howard. Over the years these groups have fallen under scrutiny for their lack of accountability and the way that money is spent.
In 2000, public perception of NGOs shifted when the Australian Bureau of Statistics identified and reported on the not-for-profit sector’s contributions. When Rudd took the reigns in 2007, recognition of the ‘third sector’ was reinforced by then Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard highlighting the crucial role NGOs had to play in Australian society.
Last year, PM Julia Gillard formally recognised the $50 billion dollar not-for-profit sector with the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Taskforce, charged with setting up a commission whose aim would be to elevate NGOs alongside government and business. Reforms taking place include improvements in the areas of social inclusion, tax reform, and changes to regulatory and administrative requirements.
Meanwhile, Minister for Health and Ageing and Social Inclusion, Mark Butler, has been seeking partners for the National Compact: “a high-level, aspiration-based agreement setting out how government and the sector want to work together in new and better ways to improve the lives of Australians”. Sworn in last December, Butler said the government recognised the invaluable role that not-for-profit organisations play in enriching Australian communities.
“This partnership will ensure that we work together to sustain a strong, productive and innovative sector which is essential in supporting our society, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged,” he said.
On the legal front, the Australian Tax Office has released a revised paper on proposed changes to tax law for charities with overseas connections.
While the last few years have seen changes for the non-government sector, many groups remain under-resourced and vulnerable. But an antidote exists in Our Community (OC), a social enterprise set up nearly ten years ago by investors who wanted to connect individuals, communities, business and government.
OC’s 2003 opening ‘manifesto’ declares the need for an agenda that places communities in control by valuing and reinforcing their decisions.
“For communities to survive and thrive,” asserts the paper, “they must be in charge of their own destinies.”
Executive director at OC, Kathy Richardson, defines this as a “bottom-up” approach.
“It seems logical that people should be in control of their own lives and solutions,” she says.
OC’s three-pronged method consists in: practical support to assist NGOs in setting their own priorities, permitting NGOs to design their own approaches and fostering the birth and implementation of solutions. OC helps NGOs find funds, boards, members and volunteers. In addition to making products and services available to small groups either for free or at a subsidized cost, they serve as an independent voice to speak out about the needs of community organisations.
“For one organisation it might be servicing clients, for others it will be raising money, for others it would be about reporting requirements – there would be a different answer for every organisation you asked,” explains Richardson.
The bane of any NGOs existence, however, is funding - a challenge aided by OC’s grant assistance program and Give Now, a free online donation service available to every group.
While under-the-radar community groups can contribute most significantly to empowering individuals and communities because of their strong foundations and meaningful connections, they are often the least adept at understanding government requirements, accreditation processes, grant applications and public liability. An increasing demand for transparency and accountability (particularly in relation to accounting for donation and grants) places pressure on these groups to provide evidence for their social capital.
Meanwhile, changing technology has spurred a barrage of associated problems like data security and managing social media outlets like Facebook©, Twitter© and wordpress©. Understanding effectiveness, reach and legality involved with these forms of marketing are especially difficult for grassroots movements without sufficient expertise.
While these practicalities serve as major hurdles, NGOs dissolve without motivation. The Communities in Control forum, now in its 10th and final year, was set up by Our Community to provide groups with sustenance and inspiration.
“While it is true that it is representatives of not-for-profit organisations who will mostly be attending, the conference is not so much about their own challenges or survival as the role they play in building and healing communities and the people within them,” explains Richardson.
“The thing that people tell us they value most about coming to Communities in Control is the chance they get to have a breather, stand back from the day-to-day demands of their work, and reflect on what they’re doing – and why,” she says.
At the first Communities in Control conference* epidemiologist Leonard Syme explored how the effectiveness of the public health model depended entirely on the way it interacted with communities.
“Our only hope is to develop better strategies for preventing disease and promoting health and not simply waiting to fix problems after they occur. And to do that, we will have to work with the community as an empowered partner,” he said.
OC engages advocates like Syme to remind NGOs of their significance and to alert partners and government to their value and potential. Although the issue hasn’t received much attention in the mainstream media recently, this may soon change in light of the upcoming conference and OurSay forum this month - which will give you the power to help shift the public policy agenda.
From May 15, pose and vote for questions on OurSay which you want answered by a panel of key players, before they are put to the relevant local, state or federal government.
More information can be found at www.ourcommunity.com.au.
This piece was commissioned by OurSay.org.
*The terms NGO, community group, not-for-profit sector, third sector, nonprofit sector and social sector are used interchangeably in this article.
* Communities in Control 2003 was convened by Our Community and Catholic Social Services.
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