A landmark study of Australian not-for-profit governance has created the clearest picture yet of an often-misunderstood sector, revealing that organisations are most worried about government relations, funding, demographic changes, workforces, and the difficulties faced by clients.
The 82-page study, Rethink What You Know about Not-for-profit Governance, has analysed the most pressing issues for the country’s 600,000 not-for-profits based on a detailed survey of nearly 1900 sector leaders.
The biggest ever non-government study of not-for-profits conducted in Australia was overseen by the Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA), a membership body for not-for-profit directors. ICDA interrogated the findings to create a “roadmap” for action in 2020 and beyond, an interactive data visualisation, and a “cheat sheet” for sector leaders.
Alongside the issues that “keep community leaders awake at night”, the study tackles:
- Capacity and skills
- The chair’s role
- Impact, data, digital tools
- Fraud and cybercrime
- Relations with government and peak bodies.
The analysis also draws on data from other sector bodies, including the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. That body’s inaugural commissioner, Susan Pascoe, who now serves as chair of ICDA’s Community Directors Council, was among those providing expert commentary about the report.
“While other regulatory and member-based bodies have written reports on the state of the not-for-profit sector, this is the first time that ICDA and Our Community, with support from the Community Council for Australia, have combined to delve into the circumstances of community-based not-for-profits,” Ms Pascoe said.
“In a sector where many organisations struggle to keep up with the latest technology, the institute and Our Community have used their significant in-house data analytic capability to hold a mirror to the not-for-profit sector.”
ICDA would use the report to target sector deficits, committing to extra support where needed, such as through the Festival of Community Directors 2020 training and events program, Ms Pascoe said.
The study allows for interrogation of the data through an online interactive tool that allows users to explore the sector’s biggest issues, as identified by board members and senior staff. The tool can be filtered by state, sector and organisation size.
The roadmap follows the publication earlier this year of six “Spotlight” reports that drew attention to critical issues for the sector. The roadmap makes further recommendations to not-for-profit boards wanting to boost their performance through training, technology, strategy, tools, reading, and other resources.
Lead author and Our Community executive director Kathy Richardson said the study had an unashamedly practical focus.
“The survey confirmed some of what we knew, but also uncovered some things we didn’t know about governance in the not-for-profit sector – knowledge that we can use to direct our quest to shift the dial towards better governance,” she said.“This is a blueprint for action.”
The data analysis was led by data scientist Paola Oliva-Altamirano, a former astrophysicist who now works in Our Community’s Innovation Lab.
Dr Oliva-Altamirano said the large dataset allowed her to uncover new insights, as well as highlighting the difficult but important work being done by community leaders.
“What shines through is that not-for-profit leaders want their voices heard. Their responses help create a new perspective that reveals their everyday struggles and the immense effort they put in,” she said.
Dr Oliva-Altamirano said she hoped the study would encourage all organisations working with not-for-profits to take steps to make that job easier.
Survey respondent Andrea Nave, CEO of Forget Me Not Australia – which battles international child trafficking – made one of many stand-out comments about what most worries sector leaders.
“I lie awake at night trying to structure impactful responses to the old chestnut that charities should have extremely low or zero administration/operation costs,” Ms Nave wrote. “Charities are charged with solving some of the greatest social problems, yet social ignorance demands they do it for free.”
The roadmap was released on the same day that ICDA published its 2020 calendar of training and events. The 2020 Festival of Community Directors aims to provide directors with targeted help on their most pressing issues, much of it free of charge.