Mobilising people to support Collective Impact

We’re pleased to introduce our first guest blogger – Doug Taylor, CEO  of United Way Australia.  Doug recently presented at the 2013 Volunteering Australia National Conference. Below is an edited version of his presentation – The new frontier of volunteering- mobilising people to support Collective Impact.

My first job out of University was as a Residential Care Worker for people who had previously been homeless. It was a great to start working at the coal face.  However, I quickly realised that this was not where my skills lay and that others were much more capable of supporting people through this critical life transition.

I also discovered that the people who often achieved the most in supporting this group were not the paid professionals, but the volunteers. They were much less ‘professional’ and instead more human and played a transformative role – in simply being a friend. This all sounds ridiculously simplistic, and perhaps heretical, when you put it down on paper. It reminds me of someone years ago that said at a community forum ‘in this incredibly complex welfare system with a myriad of services, sometimes what a person needs most is friendship, which is often what we are most reluctant to provide.’ Too often I have seen not for profits and their professionals being so focused on providing a service to the client that they have forgotten that ultimately their business is about building a relationship with the person.

It’s clear to me that in the human services industry there’s a role for voluntary individuals in equal measure to the paid professionals. This thinking is something of an anathema to the many who believe in the primacy of the ‘expert’ from the professional not for profit institution and in the belief that it’s the government’s role to fund not for profits to provide services equitably and accessibly in the community.  My problem with this notion is two-fold. One we would need a massive amount of government funds and institutions and staff to address the social need that currently exists in our community, we don’t have those funds and in fact the government purse is shrinking. My second issue is that this notion misses out on the great talent, skills and expertise – not to mention passion and humanity – that volunteers bring to servicing and addressing social issues. This is why I believe we need both, the social sector professional with technical skills in health care etc and the volunteers that come with the human connection and their skills and experience. In addition, I fundamentally believe that people have a right to exercise their citizenship and be actively engaged in their community and the NFP sector has an obligation to facilitate this – after all many not for profits were formed by volunteers to do just that!

It seems to me that there’s an important role for professional and volunteers but it worries me that too many not for profits don’t see volunteers and the broader community as important resources in fulfilling their social mission. Undoubtedly the huge growth in government contracting has had a big impact on not for profit institutions as they’ve had to professionalise and become increasingly compliance focused. This was brought home to me to me a few months ago when speaking at a conference on Collective Impact. One person on this occasion asked a good question, that I have since forgotten, because of what she said next, almost as a throwaway line was concerning; ‘anyway, the not for profit I lead is not funded to collaborate.’

I remember sitting down and thinking that throwaway line because it encapsulates one of the greatest challenges we face in the social sector; our belief that our organisation working individually is the most efficient and effective way to create a better world. This is being challenged by many who argue that this model has been tried now for last 50 plus years, especially the last 30 years with the rise of the professional not for profit organisation. Whilst this model may have lead to a lot of good it has been accompanied with the growth of an increasingly complex world and in the often described ‘wickedly complex problems.’

In Australia, social disadvantaged is increasingly intensified in places and consists of the same groups of people. The evidence is clear that these problems are not addressed well by organisations working alone on executing their projects or at worst in competition or duplicating existing efforts. As Kramer writes in his seminal piece on Collective Impact ‘Adaptive problems…are complex- the answer is not known, and even if it were, no single entity has the resources or authority to bring about the necessary change’[1]

There are a lot of fantastic discussions underway about what this more collaborative approach might mean for the Australian social sector. Sadly, so much of this continues to be about institutional collaboration which to a large extent perpetuates the old problem of the professional not for profit dominating the social change landscape and marginalising the role of voluntary individuals. United Way understands and values the critical role volunteers can play that professionals by their very nature can’t. Whilst we are an active agent in promoting cross-sectoral institutional collaboration we are also focused on mobilising individuals as a critical part in this work. This means that we need to intentionally bridge the gap between the professional not for profit sector and the voluntary individuals and organisations such as Service Clubs, Faith Communities and Sport Clubs.

At United Way Australia we have recently launched a new strategy focused on mobilising the village to raise a child and ensure they start school ready to learn to read. We have a fantastic array of partners from across the sectors and volunteers from the community, local Rotary Clubs and business are critical to makingREADLEARNSUCCEED deliver the outcomes we need to see for Australian children. These volunteers will work together to lead these local collaborations and provide practical support through raising resources and reading to children at special events.

So what this all tells me is that volunteering is here to stay. Despite the rise of the not for profit professional and the emergence of new strategies focused on organisations working together to achieve Collective Impact, volunteers play a distinctively important role in the community. My question is whether the contemporary not for profit is really purposed to engage volunteers and maximise the very real benefits they bring to institutions and individuals in the community?

About Kerry Graham and Dawn O'Neil

Social change consultants

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