Advocacy loss as funds fear silences non-profits

Strategy

Australia’s not-for-profit sector more than ever needs a strong voice in public debate. But too many NFPs are afraid to engage in advocacy for fear of Federal Government funding cuts. The community is poorer for their silence.

The view of respected NFPs deserves to be heard. Not only at Christmas, when stories about charities helping the poor appear.

More important is sustained advocacy from the NFP sector. We want NFPs – across healthcare, aged care, the arts, sport, community associations and other sectors – to tell it like it is. They should use their on-the-ground knowledge to enhance public policy.

Federal and State Governments should work with NFPs, not against them. Thankfully, Western Australia’s NFP sector has a history of collaborating with the State Government and achieving results. It seems the rest of Australia can learn from WA.

Consider what is happening nationally. One in five respondents in a recent University of Melbourne survey on NFP advocacy said their funding agreement restricted their ability to comment on government policy.

Remarkably, 69 percent of organisations believed ‘dissenting organisations risk having their funding cut’. And 40 percent directly linked the airing of dissenting views as a threat to their Deductible Gift Recipient status (which confers special tax treatment).

Put another way, some NFPs are worried they will lose precious funding if they dare criticise government policy – even though advocacy is a part of their charitable purpose.

Of course, not all NFPs feel this way and care is needed extrapolating survey results. Still, there is enough evidence to suggest the NFP sector nationally is losing its voice.

That is not the case in WA. In my experience, the relationship between the NFP sector and the WA Government, on both sides of politics, is more constructive compared to other States, and federally.

I put this down to three reasons. First, there are long-term relationships between WA’s NFP sector and government. There’s always room for improvement, but I do not see a combative approach from our Government towards the NFP sector.

Second, WA’s capacity for innovation is evident across the NFP sector. Our remoteness necessitates new approaches to getting things done.

Third, there is a co-operative spirit within WA’s NFP sector. Our NFPs work together and share resources to help those in need.

I have seen the outcomes first-hand. In 2015, Budget pressures forced the WA Government to axe a financial counselling program for people facing hardship. Anglicare WA, which I chair, the Financial Counselling Association WA, the WA Council of Social Services and UnitingCare West successfully lobbied the Government to reverse its decision.

Anglicare WA then collaborated to create an innovative approach to financial counselling that the WA Government accepted and implemented. The WA Government listened to a united NFP voice on this issue and acted.

WA has a long history of NFPs working together. What is now the Disability Services Commission was created by the community sector, consumer advocates and families proposing to the government of the day a unified approach to serving people with disability.

The Chamber of Arts and Culture WA was established in 2010 to bring a single voice to our State’s arts sector and has successfully argued the case for long-term sector planning by government. Through my consulting firm, I helped develop the strategy for what would become the first Chamber of its kind in Australia – and a model for other States.

In 2010, the former Government established the Partnership Forum to oversee the relationship between the public and community sectors - a mechanism that brought the voice of the NFP sector directly into government, and another Australian first led by WA. The McGowan Government is extending this initiative with the Supporting Communities Forum to maximise partnering opportunities.

I hope the relationship between Government and the NFP sector in WA continues to strengthen and that other States benefit from our example. Moreover, that NFPs across Australia feel empowered to speak up when they disagree with government policy.

NFPs are not only there to provide food, clothing or shelter for the disadvantaged. They must speak on their behalf when needed. Our community is stronger when NFPs say what they think, and deliver on their Purpose through reasoned advocacy.

John Barrington is Managing Director of Barrington Consulting Group and Chairman of Anglicare WA and Perth Festival. He received the AICD PwC Director Award for Excellence in the Not For Profit sector in 2017.

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