Lip service isn’t helping

In Challenge by kerrygrace-2014

If there’s anything that boils my blood it’s the use of disadvantaged communities for their sexy statistics of disadvantage.  And the resulting commodification of problems.

Actually, I ‘get’ the commercial imperative of these actions.  I understand that it’s a tough world for NGOs big and small (particularly small) right now.  I get that ‘poverty sells’.

But what I truly look forward to is the time when funding applications are assessed for their ability to address true community need, as opposed to being a well-written, soundly integrated tightly administered tick box repurposed garbage.

While I want to state here I’m not completely against big NGOs, I do believe funding bodies both government and philanthropic alike must pay keen attention to the benefits and drawbacks of providing funding to grassroots organisations as well as larger counterparts.

When I managed a small NGO in a little township I became keenly aware of organisations both small and large that would utilise the statics of the township to gain funding – hec, we did it ourselves.  But I do believe there is an ethical and moral imperative in doing this that is simply not being adhered to in modern funding practice in the non government sector.  Furthermore, I thoroughly believe that this is one of the biggest contributing factors to the lack of change in disadvantaged communities.

And let’s face it – if the problems in these communities were going to be fixed like this it would have happened a long time ago. (thank you Einstein).

What am I talking about?  Let’s look at a few different applications of this practice:

The skimmers: When funding applications are written for larger geographic regions the region will invariably contain at least one ‘hot spot’ aka highly disadvantaged community.   The skimmers simply add the community to their application, perhaps adding to it evidence of a local partnership, an understanding of the community and/or (my favourite) an offer to outreach to the community.  They are then, by proxy part of the social fabric of the community and a viable contestor to deliver services there.  Some skimmers are even smarter positioning themselves via partnership within communities for years before reaping the rewards of long term service provision.

The scammers: Similar to skimmers, the scammers partner with local community.  But relying on community factions (resulting in people not speaking with one another) they go one better and just colour in the full picture to make a whole story – philanthropists are most at risk of investing in these unethical ploys and you can bet your bottom dollar if they are funded there isn’t going to be a lot left in community at the end of the day.  I’ve seen a funding application written by one such outfit which utilised the misfortune of a family to gain funding.  It was only by conincidence that the application was intercepted at the last moment and the potential funder came to understand that the family didn’t actually agree with the proposed project.

The suckers:  Organisations that are great at the funding application end but pretty crappy at delivery.  This happens at both ends big and small and for some un-known reason there are some organisations out there known for their crappy service delivery but continually find more funding in the bucket.

This might sounds like a big guy – little guy – in town – out of town bagging session.  Actually, my own observation and experience of community and economic development in little townships highlights enormous opportunity in this context.  But the opportunity can only be fully exploited when a community knows what it wants, and is prepared to stick to it’s guns no matter what.

Let’s dream for just a moment.

So, let’s say a community planning process has addressed a broad cross-section of desires of the community.  Not it’s problems (let’s face it, problems will always arise), but what truly matters to a community, and what that community is prepared to do in order to make that happen.  It’s not rocket science to align those desires back to the policy of the day and from there identify current funding opportunities to enable the community to realise it’s desires.

THEN it’s time for service land to mobalise.

Little NGOs and their local knowledge and place-based practice, bigger NGOs and their sustainability and delivery frameworks working in partnership to address the identified desires of the community.

It’s not about ‘us and them’, ‘hicksville and bigtown’, ‘skilled and winging it’.  It’s about all players working in true collaborative spirit to address a set of goals in a community.

OK, the dreaming time is over.

Doesn’t sound so hard right? So why oh why is this so hard to truly realise?

The best answer I can come up with is simply… people.

As I walk around communities listening to people talk about one another (yes, I’ve also been guilty) I hear about service workers from big agencies that are ‘stuck up’, ‘stupid’ or refuse to listen – sometimes true observations, sometimes made up depending on the situation.  I’ve also heard people at the other end of town speak of little community board members being ‘hics’, ‘stubborn’ and ‘hostile’.  Why aren’t these conversations instead focused on what can truly happen in community?

WHY IS IT THAT “DOING GOOD” IS justification for bad behaviour, wild egos and generally being a despicable human being?

Grassroots organisations with local staff, volunteers and committee members know their community.  Although they may be swayed by community factions they hold the knowledge of what’s happened in the past, what the true community issues are, and they probably even have some ideas about what needs to be turned around (really, turned around).

Larger organisations usually have better capacity for purchasing, training, marketing, skills.  Of course it would feel a safer bet for a funding investment, or at least so it would seem.

Assuming that the not for profit environment is actually the best environment to solve community need the only way to truly bridge this conflict is the creation of true partnerships among services.  No, not the type of bubblegum partnerships that cease round about the time of funding announcements, rather, partnerships that contain elements such as:

  • Respectful and authentic communication
  • Demonstrate genuine care for a community – yes, this goes beyond turning up to government organised meetings about hotspot communities – it means actually working in the community to understand its’ authentic needs
  • Investment in community from infrastructure to planning (so – gasp! there is some possibility of government agencies, small and large NGOs working towards similar goals)
  • Identification of role taking into account specialisations, community need
  • Collaborative funding proposals ensuring all organisations have capacity for sustainability
  • Skill sharing
  • Shared philosophy – or at least an agreement to disagree and how that will look in community

After over 15 years working in community, I’m really starting to believe that solving our most entrenched problems doesn’t need to be as difficult as we are making it.  It’s just the hierarchical tap dance that clutters the results…

What do we need to do to truly put community first?