Adapting to change and staying true to your purpose: exploring organisational identity in the community sector

At the Jesuit Social Services annual fundraising dinner on Saturday 19 March, CEO Julie Edwards talked about the organisation staying true to its purpose in a changing service environment. This edited version of Julie’s speech continues our dialogue on the future of social services and the community sector, and will interest anyone contemplating the role and resilience of not-for-profit organisations in civil society.

Yesterday in the car I heard a program on the radio about the Biennale. This year’s theme, a quote from science fiction writer, William Gibson, is “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed”. And it made me recall a startling fact I’d learnt a number of years ago: that in the state of California, in the US, those responsible for the planning of correctional services use the reading level of Grade 5 students to predict the number of prison beds and new prisons that will be required a few years down the track. We pretty much know the future of those Grade 5 students then, don’t we? And we all know, more broadly, that the future is already here – that it’s not evenly distributed; definitely not geographically.

Some months ago, Jesuit Social Services released our research into locational disadvantage, undertaken with Catholic Social Services AustraliaDropping off the Edge 2015. The research mapped every postcode in Australia according to various risk factors like substantiated child abuse and neglect, early school leaving, family violence, unemployment, criminal convictions and prison population. We found what we’ve found four times before, over a 15 year period: that a small number of postcodes are over-burdened with poverty and disadvantage; over-represented on these and other risk factors. For example, 50% of people in prison in Victoria come from just 6% of Victoria’s postcodes. We know the future of the children born in these communities who are caught in a web of disadvantage – unless we do something different.

Tonight, though, I don’t want to talk to you about the facts of disadvantage and the specific interventions that Jesuit Social Services uses to address these. I want to stand back for a moment and share with you something deeper about Jesuit Social Services, which points to why we intervene to address disadvantage in the first place, or undertake this research, or do the advocacy that we’ve done in relation to its findings. I want to talk briefly to you about organisational identity – our organisational identity that gives us our particular flavour, culture and orientation – grounded in the Jesuits’ commitment to social justice dating back to 1540.

The question of identity is always important – at the level of the individual, the community, the nation. But it’s also important at the level of an organisation, or sector. I believe that Jesuit Social Services, and the community sector more broadly, is an important part of civil society – not just in delivering quality services, but in strengthening the fabric of community, building networks of solidarity, and undertaking advocacy to build a more just, inclusive and sustainable society. And so, for the greater good, it’s critical that we stay true to our purpose, in the face of whatever threats and financial challenges we face.

In reading the research and literature about organisational identity, one claim that emerges strongly is that an organisation’s identity can be determined by identifying what is central, distinctive and enduring about it. Now this sounds quite rigid, suggesting a fixed understanding of ourselves: this is who we are; this is what we do. But a core strength of Jesuit Social Services, I believe, is that the elements that are central, distinctive and enduring about us - our very identity - are features that are more characteristic of an approach or an orientation, rather than a set of rules. They are essential and non-negotiable, but they are also dynamic, propelling us to be nimble and responsive.

So what are some of these central, distinctive and enduring elements? A foundational element from our Jesuit heritage is gratitude – because everything is gift – and in response we’re called to be generous. So that’s our starting point – not a mean spirited, duty driven, problem saturated approach, but a life-affirming orientation to our world. Another element is seeing good in all things - forming respectful relationships that allow people to flourish; focusing on the development of the whole person; accompanying and supporting people to reach their potential, to build their skills, to participate, to be generous, and to make their unique contribution as citizens; and strengthening communities to improve people’s life chances. Another is examining the broader society – reading the signs of the times and identifying the policies, practices, ideas and values that perpetuate inequality, prejudice and exclusion; then moving to action to tackle structural injustice and to promote compassion and justice. Always moving from experience, to reflection and discernment, to action.

These elements are non-negotiable. They keep us focused on our direction, while ensuring we are fleet-footed, free to innovate and to be responsive. But there’s another critical factor about organisational identity that we need to understand. It’s not something we simply inherit. It’s not static. It’s also socially constructed, formed in relationships with others, through conversations and shared practice. It’s a constant state of ‘becoming’; something we do rather than something we say about ourselves. This brings me to the other key strength of Jesuit Social Services, in addition to our roots. It’s our people - our staff, volunteers, donors and supporters who help make our identity a living, breathing, organic reality. I’m grateful to each one of you for being with us as we endeavour to keep living this identity, becoming what we’re called to be and what, I believe, the world needs us to be.