Brexit, Trump and civil society: Lessons from 2016 for Aussie NFPs

Donald Trump

By Jane Arnott, General Manager, Consulting and Business Services

Like many of us, you may be sighing in relief that 2016 is over, but anxious to understand what the long-term implications will be. In particular, whether the shock results of the Brexit vote and American presidential elections will be mirrored in other countries, or at home.

In this article – the first in our ‘future proof’ series for Foreword – we look at the lessons the Australian not for profit (NFP) sector can draw from the controversial political events of 2016.

The tyranny of distance

The analysis of the Brexit and Trump results has consistently told us that the political system has become too distant from the people it is intended to serve; and that the public has become disillusioned with the people who are meant to represent them. Whilst this clearly throws down a huge challenge to our politicians, it also challenges the very fabric of the not for profit sector.

Civil society is critical to the democratic system. It is the active embodiment of freedom of association and freedom of expression. It provides a safe and meaningful place come together to give voice and agency to issues and people who would otherwise be excluded or sidelined by the mainstream. Historically, on a global level, civil society has kicked some major goals in challenging discrimination and conserving our natural environment and heritage.

Can we be truly confident that we are connected to the full diversity of our communities in a meaningful way, or has the increased professionalisation and commercialisation of the sector turned us into just another faceless bureaucracy that only really engages with more people like us? And, are we too involved in self-validating engagement that distances us from our stakeholder constituency, rather than challenges our thinking?

The risks of becoming remote from our stakeholders are multiple and potentially devastating. For not for profits, loss of trust makes it incredibly difficult to attract and retain donors and volunteers, and to secure the engagement of beneficiaries and communities that builds our legitimacy. If we can no longer claim to be a credible voice for our communities – and if our communities organise in different ways, through different channels – we will become irrelevant and redundant and lose our licence to operate.

Making meaningful connections

So, what can we do to ensure that we continue to connect with and represent our audience and in turn, preserve what makes our sector great? Below I’ve outlined four key questions I believe NFPs should be reflecting upon in the year ahead.

  1. Are you truly listening to your clients? One of the key changes (and advantages) brought about by NDIS and consumer directed care is that the beneficiary becomes the direct customer. This will force not for profits to become directly accountable to the consumers of their services, which presents an open opportunity to listen to the customer, collect and act on their feedback. This feedback loop will ensure that not for profits continue to provide the services that their customers need and connect in a way that is engaging and accessible to them. When developing new services, co-design them with your clients, so you can ensure that you are providing the services that they need, rather than the services you think they need.
  2. Is your marketing reaching the right people, with the right messages, through the right channels? Social media provides a powerful tool for two-way communication and allows you to monitor which content resonates most with your audience, so you can efficiently invest your resources in messaging that addresses your audience’s needs and interests, rather than just telling them what you want to say.
  3. What does your employer brand say about you? Where your office is based, how you advertise and recruit for board positions, jobs and volunteers all go a long way towards reflecting your employer brand. For instance, are you are recruiting people that reflect your beneficiaries and can connect with them? I previously worked with an organisation that deliberately located its operating centres in areas of high ethnic diversity so that the staff demographic reflected the customer base.
  4. Is your focus inward or outward? Are your resources too focused on internal operations to engage externally? One option may be to outsource back office functions and non-client facing services. This can have a double benefit of giving you access to resources with broader experience that can offer new approaches and challenge your ‘group think’, and leaving your own resources to focus on direct engagement with your client group.

The political events of 2016 should serve as an alarm bell for the sector – we need to wake up and ensure that we are truly engaging with our communities and listening to the difficult messages, not just the things we want to hear.

In the next article for our ‘future proof’ series (to be published in the March edition), we will take a look at the role automation will play in the not for profit sector.

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