Placating the beast: the market-drive imperative to collaborate
In an increasingly competitive environment, collaboration in the community sector is seen as a way of overcoming some of the challenges involved in market-based approaches. It enables organisations to share risks, gain efficiencies and combine efforts to strengthen the organisations themselves, and improve outcomes for service users.
However, there is a risk of 'mission drift' - that is; in attempts to strengthen our organisations position and secure funding, we drift from the central reasons our organisations exist. This is a real tension that community sector organisations must hold if they are to exist in this new environment. In this post, I reflect on these challenges and pose questions about what these approaches can mean for mission and social justice.
Societal views on market-organised and market-driven economies are interesting. We collectively feel beholden to the economy, and decisions we make need to work toward making the market… well, happy. This reification of the economy and its conceptualisation as a living beast – that cannot be controlled by us, but only enraged or placated – means we often place too much power in the hands of the market and not enough on our own capacity to actively challenge it.
This is where the role of community and civil service organisations is so important. Our role is largely to address some of the social problems that free and competitive markets create. Effectively, it is to work with people who cannot access the economic system, or who are marginalised by it. Even the most conservative economists – I think rightfully – argue that community organisations are the ones best placed to appropriately respond to these social problems, as their priority is not profit, but social justice. One of the major questions of how this should operate is where the responsibility lies for funding and supporting charitable organisations, and what role the state plays in moderating this.
Of course, there are many more complexities we face in organising the economy than just those mentioned above, to ensure fewer people slip through the cracks; and elements of market-based approaches have their advantages. However, it is important to name the very real tension that exists in how the community sector sees and organises itself. The community service sector is becoming increasingly marketised. This means we must attempt to hold two incongruent concepts at the same time – that is, using market mechanisms and the market itself to address some of the issues that the market creates. This is evident through the rise of social impact bonds and other forms of market-type finance.
Competition between organisations in the community sector – for example for clients in client-brokered services, or for securing government contracts and funding – creates a risk that the community sector will become myopic and siloed, and no longer have the collective voice needed to advocate on behalf of those at the margins and to challenge social systems. Agencies may feel the need for self-promotion at the expense of others in order to secure funding. Mission-based organisations risk drifting from their values in the ‘grow or perish’ constructs of capitalism. However, there is a financial imperative to think differently about the way we organise our work. There has also been a significant paradigm shift in the way government is viewed more generally. Fiscal responsibility, relentless scrutiny of government spending, and a trend toward individual responsibility is becoming a prominent lens through which much social policy is viewed.
Karl Marx posited that the natural inclination of players in a market-driven economy is not to compete but to collude. In the context of social justice and the common good, this may be a positive outcome of marketisation. The question we need to keep asking ourselves is: are we colluding (in affect) in order to protect our position by forcing other organisations out of the ‘market’, or are we collaborating in order to further important causes and improve outcomes for people on the margins? A key difference between collaboration and collusion is the motivation and this is another tension we must hold. Of course we want to keep our organisations viable, thriving and continuing into the future and working with other organisations is an important way of doing that. But we also must keep the needs of those we work with first and foremost. There is a fine line – or in fact a direct parallel – between collusion and collaboration that we need to remain mindful of.
If market forces are, however, creating a greater need for collaboration, this is not a bad thing. Working with the ‘unusual suspects’ and those organisations that are part of the system that is responsible for some of this social exclusion can actually be incredibly effective, if done properly.
Collaboration can create better outcomes for service users, and avoids some of the issues associated with financial sustainability and risk. There can be great strength in genuine collaboration. While ‘individual voices are important, we need to be singing as a choir’.  It can strengthen policy arguments when there are organisations with very different memberships (such as the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Council of Social Service) singing to the same tune.
True collaboration is difficult as you must negotiate differences as well as common goals. This is true for collaboration within sectors as well as across sectors. While this is a challenge, it does not mean working in this way is not rewarding. This approach recognises the obligation of market participants to directly address some of the negative consequences market practices create, and the fact that as a sector, working collectively can give us a more powerful voice.
The evolution from philanthropy to co-investment creates an opportunity for the community sector to move from a perception of passive funding by government or philanthropics to actively negotiating their role as co-contributors. The changing paradigm allows for a change in power dynamics and can actually be a positive outcome. Our challenge is to ensure that community organisations continue to be a force that actively questions market outcomes and promotes social justice if we are to transform the system from within.
 Speech by David Crosbie at the Measuring Social Outcomes Conference, 19 February 2014, Sydney
Tanya Corrie, Social Policy Researcher at Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service