The road from citizen to consumer: outsourcing altruism

Back in May, Tony Nicholson, the Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence gave a speech on the future of the community welfare sector.

He said in part,

I want to consider the path our community welfare sector will take over the next two decades. In the next year or two decisions will be made about its future that in all likelihood will be irrevocable. I fear that if the wrong decisions are taken, they will inevitably lead to the erosion of what our voluntary organisations have stood for over a century. So I think it’s time we had some difficult conversations about the future – conversations that have been deftly avoided to this point.

By way of analogy he told the story of setting up a refuge for homeless kids in the early eighties as part of a band of enthusiastic volunteers. He went on to say,

But before long things began to change. Government funds became available, several trained staff were employed, a case management approach was adopted and the role of volunteers was regulated and narrowly prescribed. While the service capacity was built, the ethos of the enterprise changed. It had professionalised. Unfortunately the volunteers got a dispiriting message. What they brought to the lives of these young people – a willingness to help in any way they could, an investment in making a difference in their lives, voluntary care – was not particularly valued.

Inevitably they drifted away and the refuge service quickly evolved to a now familiar welfare model of paid professionals, case managing their young, homeless clients, under rules specified by a government funding agency. Its roots in the local community were largely severed. From there on in, it operated largely in isolation from the local community…

 Is this a nostalgic tale, romanticising times gone by? Well yes, some will readily dismiss it as that. But I think it is worth pausing for a moment to consider what this story can also reveal.

Thirty years on, I believe it can be seen as a parable for where we find our community welfare sector today. Models of care, funding, governance, the relationships between the community and community sector agencies, are all critical to this tale.

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.

There are aspects of the current paradigm that are undesirable. We have clearly gained things through the professionalisation of care but importantly we have also lost things. My youth refuge parable illustrates how easily the power of the voluntary contribution of the broader community can be lost.

We not only lose the sense of responsibility that citizens have for issues in their community, displacing it to the community welfare sector, we also lose the diversity of networks and connections and opportunities that the broader community can bring to social needs. And most importantly we lose that intangible quality of authenticity that is created through voluntary caring relationships. As a consequence, the richness and effectiveness of service provision is greatly reduced…

Our organisations were established by visionary members of the community – ordinary folk who recognised a need and gathered people together to address it.

Don’t be mistaken. This is not an argument for abandoning the professionalised community welfare sector. Rather it is a plea to establish a sector that re-imagines its place within, and its connection to, the broader community. Where organisations re-discover and re-invigorate their mission as vehicles for harnessing the altruism of their local communities, rather than simply as contractors to government.

So how could we begin to do this?

We need to begin, right now, to shape a new community development model for service delivery that can rally local communities, local people, local businesses to invest in creating solutions for vulnerable and disadvantaged people. We need to discover how, in this complex modern world, we can mobilise people – from all walks of life – to enhance our basic service offerings.

See the full text here- Tony_Nicholson_speech_on_community_welfare_sector_27_May_2014

In my view this analogy works on a broader scale. On the road to making more money and spending it, we have all become participants in the hollowing out of civil society, witnessed by declining active memberships of churches, trade unions and professional associations.

Whatever communities we belong to, real or virtual, large or small, we need to help those communities to re-imagine their place within, and their connection to, the broader community.

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