Not-for-profits are yet to truly embrace the power they wield, former World Vision chief Tim Costello believes.
Now chair of the Community Council for Australia and a director of Ethical Voice, an organisation guiding not-for-profit leaders to ethical decisions, Reverend Costello has seen time and again the failure of community organisation to stand up for themselves, and he plans to do something about it.
“Most not-for-profits feel awkward about ‘self pleading’, saying, you know, ‘We need more resources’,” Mr Costello said.
But big corporates have no such qualms, and it’s reflected in their exercise of power.
“The Minerals Council [of Australia] doesn't feel that. The Business Council of Australia doesn't feel that. They just have their lobbyists go in and get self-interested outcomes. I think not-for-profits have to flex their muscle a bit, raise their voice, organise, come together.”
He is helping guide the Community Council for Australia’s new mission to create a “charities blueprint”, using his unparalleled connections and persuasiveness to press for improvements to the sector, and to encourage organisations to work together.
Mr Costello believes his latest mission reflects his own goals.
“I have been in the not-for-profit sector all my working life, and I love this sector. It is so important, so in stepping up it's to ask: 'How can this sector actually have a voice, and resources to match the sacrifice and service that it's offering’?”
“Because we're in silos, because we're just focusing on our particular charity's interests, we don't speak with one voice.”
And it’s for that reason not-for-profits’ power is not realised, he said.
“We're not invited to the table by government if it's discussing productivity, if it's discussing the drought, if it's discussing wages. It’s about not-for-profits coming together and saying, ‘You. Must. Recognise Us. We are the voice of the community.’ This is really what this blueprint is about.”
Increased recognition for a sector that turns over $146 billion in essential services and employs 1.3 million Australians is overdue, and at the same time the sector is squeezed by growing needs, shrinking resources, and an expectation it will simply focus on delivering services, he said.
“Most not-for-profits know that they are under enormous stress, that there are so many unmet demands for services: whether it's mental health, whether it's homelessness. In just about every area, the pressure is on not-for-profits just to be ‘transactional’ and not on building community, not on building relationships, which we know is the answer for people.”
The result of this additional pressure on organisations is “they’re really seeing corners cut, they're under stress”.
He said the blueprint will highlight the fact that the whole community is hurting as a result of the unrealistic demands on not-for-profits, and will build “an architecture for flourishing”, with the backing of a coalition of not-for-profit leaders.
The benefits of the blueprint would flow to the nation, to help battle the biggest issues facing the country, such as the “epidemics” of anxiety and loneliness, in which nearly 40% of all Australians eat dinner alone each night, with “only a TV or a laptop” for company.
That’s because not-for-profits, as the “glue that holds society together”, are better placed than any other group to address those issues, he said.
"Empathy is simply … saying, ‘I can do something about that. I can visit, I can cook a casserole, I can give, I’ll reach out."
“For-profits only exist if they're making a profit, otherwise they're out of existence. Government exists for the policy settings, and so we have elections. But most Australians know that the community, and where they live, and who actually cares for them – often in a voluntary way, in a sacrificial way – is what really matters. That's the glue.”
“Not-for-profits build community, build care, build purpose.”
And underlying that community-building work is a level of empathy found wanting in other sectors. So what does Mr Costello think community groups can do to ensure they cultivate empathy?
“I think empathy is the most important trait of being human. Deny it and we deny our humanity.
“Empathy is simply saying, ‘'What if that was me? What if that was my children?’ It’s imagining yourself in that situation, and then saying, ‘I can do something about that. I can visit, I can cook a casserole, I can give, I'll reach out’."
But Mr Costello said Australians had varying levels of empathy, depending on the group in need.
“We have empathy when we hear about our farmers in drought. There’s been great empathy, because we know this is the driest continent on Earth. But there are other areas where we struggle, [such as] empathy for the homeless person.
“In some ways, the government has a war on the poor, [suggesting for instance that] people on Newstart … well, they should be just in job transitioning. Well, try and live on less than $40 a- day! But they haven’t been provided enough social housing, and that's why we've got homelessness.
“Empathy is leading to advocacy, and then to public policy change. And that is what charities and not-for-profits are on about.”