Voluntary Sector Umbrellas – Sharing for Strength

Pat Webster is a former Executive Director of the Council for International Development and was also a member of ANGOA’s Executive for many years. She is currently completing a PhD at Massey University on the marketisation of charities.

Every time I hear the words umbrella organisations I think of huddling together for protection against the rain, or worse to keep out the sun. Fortunately most “umbrella” organisations call themselves different names – associations, federations, councils or even platforms – words that conjure up their real collaborative and cooperative nature. Most associational organisations are formed when their members find that they have something in common they want to pursue, something that is better done collectively than individually. I will stick with the term umbrella because I believe that, as a famous playwright once said, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and I believe an umbrella’s success comes, whatever its name, from how it supports and enhances the work of its members.

There are different levels of umbrella cooperation. Many in the voluntary or charitable sector get together because of their common work in one area such as age, health, community housing, international development, students or social services. Organisations at this level focus on the issue they have in common and how to get the best value for the little money they often have in reserve for things like research, publicity and lobbying. When each organisation puts in a little, a project that would have struggled for air in a single member organisation is breathed into life. When the Council for International Development wanted to change the government’s approach to its aid programme, It asked each member to contribute towards a piece of research which looked at best practice in aid in other donor countries. That research was used not only by the Council’s members, but also by the OECD to persuade our government to change its policy. At other times the gathered story of multiple organisations is more powerful than the individual one as when Platform commissioned research into its member’s experience of contracting. All umbrella organsiations have similar stories about the power of the collective.

At other times, umbrella organisations can build on member philosophy and ideas to create new ways of working. At a time when health organisations were required to develop quality standards programmes, designed mostly for private sector businesses, members of Healthcare Aotearoa decided to develop one for voluntary sector organisations. The Te Wana programme which grew from that allowed the organisations who used it to focus on what was best and unique in the voluntary sector culture instead. But umbrellas are not all about innovation. Much of their work is also about providing advice and support for their members going about their daily business.

Umbrellas can also associate with other umbrellas. Members of Social Development Partners and the Association of NGOs of Aotearoa (ANGOA) may be umbrella organisations in their own domain, but they come together to focus on issues about the type of organisation they are and the broader role they play in society. At this level they are interested in government policy which affects the sector as a whole. The current review of the law on Incorporated Societies is an example of an issue which has been dealt with at this level. ANGOA has run workshops around the country to engage the wider sector, share information, educate, and encourage the development of submissions.

Another example of activity at this level is the ground breaking work the Federation of Voluntary Welfare Organisations (now Social Development Partners) did on the value of volunteers. This work changed the way people in government, and in voluntary organisations themselves, viewed their members. The new-found understanding of the intrinsic value of volunteers, as well as their advantage in a contract environment, strengthened the arm of many voluntary sector organisations in contract negotiations, and brought new insights into their own planning and decision-making. Some started to realise that letting volunteering wither and die was a really bad idea. The result was a new commitment to the support of volunteering (as well as the creation of a new umbrella organisation!). Organisations are trying new ways to encourage volunteers and engage them in today’s society.

So, if umbrella organisations are so good you may ask why they struggle for survival. There are a number of reasons but I will touch on two. One is the lack of funding sources for umbrella organisations. Government has, in the past been a key funder, particularly when Ministries welcomed the collective insights the umbrella brought to policy matters on behalf of their members. Since contracting, government funding has become more narrowly focussed on concrete, measurable outcomes. This may work to some extent when you are delivering an immunisation programme to infants, or ensuring people with disabilities get the support they need. It doesn’t work with less tangible activity like bringing members together to discuss common issues, particularly when the results often help the sector to put their partisan case more effectively to funders and policymakers. ANGOA is currently funded by a combination of a family trust and contract fees from individual government projects. However better funding, in small doses from the plethora of sector organisations could build a strong and independent organisation to pursue sector interests.

Unfortunately the second difficulty for umbrella organisations is the sector’s own fear. In the New relatively powerless Zealand Voluntary Sector, there is suspicion about hierarchy and loss of control over aspects of an organisation’s work. Where an organisation has carved out its own niche, it may feel it is ceding the gains it has made with its own community and with government, if others take over. Yet if an umbrella organisation, or association is working well this should not happen. Names, like Platform and Social Development Partners are possibly better descriptions of an umbrella’s work but in the end it is the behaviour of an associational organisation that makes the difference. Where there is agreement with members about the role a coordinating body plays, and that agreement is stuck to, voluntary organisations can, through their umbrella’s do a lot to strengthen their themselves and the sector as a whole. Umbrellas are not about shading members from the sun. Used appropriately they can provide the right conditions for members to flourish and develop, to be heard where they need to be and to share where they can.

ANGOA and Social Development Partners have decided to explore joining forces to strengthen this aspect of the sector. It seems a timely move as the sector struggles to loosen the constrictions of contracting and find its voice again.

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