by Stephanie Clerc
A recent meeting between three Australian social organisations has left me feeling more optimistic about the future of the social sector in Australia than I have since I was a bright-eyed uni student.
I’m not just talking about the sector itself, but rather its capacity to radically transform the way society operates, creating real equality: its capacity to truly address the underlying causes of disadvantage.
That’s what we are all trying to achieve, right?
A world that works for everyone, with nothing and no-one left out, as Buckminster Fuller says.
Unfortunately, despite the hordes of passionate people dedicating their lives to a fairer world, and the billions of dollars spent on community projects large and small, the disadvantage and inequality seems to be growing. The scale of the problems is huge, but the scale of the solutions to these problems and the organisations offering them is not.
Too often, it seems that the solutions being presented are simply band-aids, cleaning up the detritus of a fundamentally corrupt world, without ever addressing the systems that allow the problems to proliferate in the first place. I’m often left with the oppressive feeling that It Simply Isn’t Enough.
To return to the meeting that left me unusually positive and re-inspired: it took place in a co-working hub in Sydney, between One Health Organisation, the School for Social Entrepreneurs, and Good Foundations. It involved a huge whiteboard, lots of coloured markers and emphatic arm-waving as the board became covered with scribbles and everyone’s passion for real change was given permission to be unleashed.
All three of us are what you call ‘intermediary organisations’. This means that we do not work directly with the communities on the ground, but rather our clients are the organisations and individuals who work directly at the ‘coal face’ of social change. We help them get better at what they do; we form the interaction point between NGOs and businesses, philanthropists and community organisations; we hold the collective wisdom of all the projects and organisations we’ve worked with. We’re largely invisible, we’re often less interesting to the public and less attractive to funders. It’s hard to measure our impact or tell an engaging story about our work. But our work is a crucial ingredient to success nonetheless.
We are the ones that work on the social system, not in it. And that day, we gathered to brainstorm how the system can transform, to enable us to see the change we all dream of. If it’s anyone’s role to grow the social sector into a strong and healthy eco-system that truly has the potential to transform society, it’s ours.
Some of the questions we tackled were:
How do we keep the sector values-driven, with our ultimate and shared goal of a fair world right up front?
How do we keep business, government and philanthropists from making the sector donor-driven and keep the needs of the recipients up front?
How do we keep the system inclusive, where the voices of the most disadvantaged individuals and communities are equally heard?
How do we ensure that resources, knowledge and experience is being shared throughout the sector, preventing the reinvention of the wheel, or the repetition of the same mistakes?
Perhaps most importantly, how do we structure ourselves in a way that is not simply a mirror of the corporate capitalism that has generated many (if not most) of the problems we are now faced with?
We don’t have all the answers yet, but one thing is clear: it involves collaboration.
Intermediary organisations have particular opportunities. Unlike the people on the ground, we’re one step removed from the pressing crush of overwhelming human need that exists in the most disadvantaged communities.
This gives us a wider view, and the ability to focus on broader issues like governance, measurement, advocacy. It allows us the space to have these kinds of conversations, not just with other intermediaries, but with funders, communities, businesses, NGOs, change-makers and governments. It enables us to get everyone’s cards on the table, so that stronger and more effective strategies can be developed.
This is tricky.
One of the fundamental challenges of a world run via organisations (governments, NGOs, companies) is that – despite not really existing – organisations have their own survival instinct. When we’re competing for resources, talent and recognition, we get cagey about sharing our secrets. Different organisations, projects, communities and funders working together in a truly collaborative way can generate fear of organisational death. “What if you learn what I know, then you do it better than me? I’ll cease to exist!”. We have a fear of letting funders and auditors see our weaknesses, for fear of losing support. We are afraid that if the public knew just how much money it takes to run an organisation, that they will accuse us of embezzlement. We are protective of our knowledge, our rights, our ways of doing things.
Recently, over an espresso martini, the strategy coach Cameron Burgess asked me, “Do you want to be the one to do it, or do you want to see it done?”. I nearly fell out of my chair. If ‘it’ is making a fairer world that works for everyone, I want to see it done of course. It’s the perfect question to keep ego (personal or organisational) out of the equation.
It’s possible that true collaboration results in some organisations ceasing to be, some merging and possibly new ones emerging. If this is the road to greater change, then so be it.
When it comes down to it, we all want to see a world where the most vulnerable are cared for, where inequality is actively guarded against, and where all peoples can enjoy a high standard of health.
To do this will require all of us, working intelligently towards our shared vision together.