Once Upon a Time Part Two

Following on from Mondays blog on the increasing marketization of the community sector, David Tennant, CEO of Goulburn Valley FamilyCare discusses what this means for Not-For-Profits, and in particular, those who work in regional, rural and remote communities.


There has been an increasing pressure on the community services sector to adopt market-type processes. As articulated in Monday’s blog, there are still questions around whether that results in better outcomes for service users.

Just how well is the sector faring in meeting the challenges of increased marketization and the preference for large, single service provider contracts? In a major speech on the Future of the Community Welfare Sector in May 2014, Brotherhood of St Laurence CEO Tony Nicholson expressed grave concerns about the direction the sector is heading.

Our sector has evolved to a critical stage underpinned by a particular paradigm. Central to this paradigm is the idea that our sector can continue to meet society’s current and emerging needs by contracting to government, expanding and aggregating organisations, driving for greater efficiency, and further professionalising, regulating and circumscribing care. [1]

Reflecting on his own experiences, Nicholson urged a return to simpler times when the not-for-profit sector was a mobilising agent for community ideas and passion for social change. There is no doubt the community sector, as the name suggests, is at its most relevant and potent when genuinely connected to and working with community. It is also true to say that the larger and more complicated not-for-profits become, the harder it is to build and maintain genuine community relationships. But is the problem one associated with professionalising, or commercialising, and is there any practical difference between the two?

Community services cannot, in my view, return to a time where intending to do the right thing is enough. It is reasonable to expect that not-for-profits will keep striving to improve and to stay abreast of developments in areas of practice relevant to their work. To accept otherwise assumes that people who experience any number of vulnerabilities and disadvantages, including low income, unemployment, health problems and so on should put up with whatever they can get, even if it is second rate. Being the best not-for-profit provider you can be requires a professional attitude and I see no rational disagreement with that proposition.

The traits of being professional do not include being the biggest, or securing the most funding. Where indicators of that type are treated as equal to or above the needs of the clients and communities a not-for-profit serves the nature of the entity has altered irrevocably. Another respected elder of the community sector, St Vincent de Paul CEO John Falzon, recently delivered a stirring address at the Progress 2015 Conference in Melbourne, aptly titled the Resistance and Hope Speech. Falzon suggested that community providers may in fact be contributing to their own demise in a race for market share:

If we accept the lie that government should withdraw

from the arena in which inequality is being battled

how can we be surprised by the marketisation of essential services

the not-for-profits unwittingly clearing the path

for the multinational companies to take over the space

and put profits before people?[2]

There is no doubt that the environment for resources to sustain community not-for-profit services is tough and will likely remain that way for some time. The best hope for sustaining the sector may not be so much about money. Borrowing from both Nicholson and Falzon, as a traditional voice of the marginalised, community providers might be better served in bringing their passion and professionalism to bear on much older concepts like fairness and equity.

The elevated risks for Regional, Rural and Remote Communities

In September 2014 the agency in which I work, Shepparton-based FamilyCare, joined a group of independent regional Victorian community not-for-profits in providing a submission in response to the draft report of the Harper Competition Review. We shared a concern that the conversation about the value of community, not-for-profit and volunteer endeavour was not only lacking but thoroughly misinformed. We also held the view that the potential damage to the sustainability of community not-for-profit services was at its most acute in regional, rural and remote settings.

The submission provided a number of practical examples of how regional community not-for-profits harness and channel goodwill to the broader benefit of those communities. The examples included FamilyCare’s Annual Charity Golf Day, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in March 2015, The Bridge Youth Service which not only collects and redistributes donations of goods and clothing through its REVAMP opportunity shop it also provides training and employment options for disengaged young people and Mallee Family Care’s Chances for Children which in 15 years of operation, has assisted more than 1100 young people by providing donated grants in excess of $4 million.[3]

I have worked in the not-for-profit community sector for just over twenty years. The last five years have been in a regional setting. The contributions that well-connected and focussed not-for-profits deliver can be vital regardless of where they are located. But there are differences between metropolitan and rural and regional providers.

Rural and regional community groups tend to be a more accurate reflection of their communities and more directly connected with and answerable to those communities. Challenges faced are more easily shared and understood. That deep engagement with community is not easily replicated by outside providers. A commercial comparison might be the myriad challenges created by fly-in/fly-out workforces, particularly in mining communities. We strongly oppose any replication of those problems in the delivery of community services.[4]

A fresh wave of ill-considered competition, underscored by an expectation that market principles always work, will place extraordinary pressure on not-for-profits located in and committed to regional areas.

Significant by its absence in the Harper review is any analysis of what attracts people to donate or volunteer to assist a community not-for-profit. In the context of recommendations emphasising as a foundation principle that not-for-profits and for-profits should be allowed to compete in the same space, that is a glaring omission.

One can safely assume I think that the attraction to freely give time, labour, money or all three, to a profit generating enterprise will not necessarily be the same.

Historically community service provision has evolved precisely because of market failure or perversion. Exactly what we have been missing by not having the for-profit sector involved is entirely unclear. If we encourage for-profits to enter that space and not-for-profits disappear as a result or cast their missions and values aside to survive, we should be absolutely certain that regional communities will not end up totally abandoned if the promised markets do not materialise, or are not sufficiently profitable to be sustained.

[1] Nicholson, Tony; The Future of the Community Welfare Sector; Speech for the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Melbourne, 27 May 2014, page 3

[2] Falzon, John; Resistance and Hope Speech to Progress 2015 Conference; St Vincent de Paul Society, Melbourne, 7 May 2015

[3] The Bridge Youth Service; FamilyCare; The Independent Agency Network (IAN); North East Support and Action for Youth Inc (NESAY); Comments on the Draft Competition Review Report; FamilyCare, Shepparton, 22 September 2014, pages 6 and 7

[4] The Bridge, FamilyCare, IAN and NESAY; Comments on the Draft