The next generation of Aotearoa’s Community and Voluntary Sector: What’s needed?

One of the biggest challenges facing our grassroots community groups in Aotearoa New Zealand is that we are so busy with the business of doing, we often can’t find the time to think about how things could be different.  

In previous community roles I’ve had when I was working at a grassroots level, I could clearly see what systems needed to change, but didn’t have the time to even think about how to make those changes.  It was a bit like being stuck in a washing machine – I’m sure many community groups feel they are being washed around in our current broken system, trying to find funding and support, and trying to build their own capability and capacity. They struggle to find a path to meaningfully progress their community group’s goals past their immediate service delivery needs.

As a peak body for the community sector (or a “mycelium network”), I am grateful that Hui E! Community Aotearoa gives me the time and space to think about how to do things differently and opportunity to make or influence real change. This has been a key focus for me in my role as Kaiwhakahaere Matua. 

Working at a national level across the community and voluntary sector gives me the opportunity to identify the flaws in our historical systems and structures. It also allows me to think about how we can better disrupt and rework them to create better outcomes for all of us.  Yes, we can tweak existing systems to make them better, but what we really need is a full systems change.

This will be a substantial piece of work and it must look different than we’ve ever previously talked about.  If we can create pathways for people to come through with fresh ideas, new ways of working, new innovations and different lived experiences, we would begin to see much more equitable solutions being delivered.

Systems change is hard!

The first challenge, of course, is that the very idea of systems change can be very confronting for those who are already holding positions of power.  Change is hard and can seem intangible and threatening for some. But we have no choice but to adapt and shift to ensure we’re meeting the increasingly complex needs of our communities.

We’ve proven that the old ways of working are no longer meeting the needs of our community groups and our communities. We can’t wait for those controlling systems to make their tweaks; we need transformational change now!

For a long time, I’ve contemplated where and how this change can get started. Here are three recommended changes to begin this long journey towards better serving our communities.

Change 1: Recognising and understanding our sector’s value

Part of my role at Hui E! is to challenge the false narrative that business and government are the only two core pillars of society. In reality, it’s actually a three-legged stool – business, government and community – that successfully builds our society. A common misconception is that the community and voluntary sector is all bake sales and sausage sizzles.  

“It’s that idea of a kind of ecosystem that everything fits in together, and often the community sector is not seen in that system and it’s not necessarily funded in that way, as a core part of the service delivery.” – Community leader[1]

The community and voluntary sector are an essential third component of Aotearoa’s social, economic and environmental capital. Our non-profits contribute $8.1 billion to our economy and another $4 billion in voluntary hours. This makes up 4% of our GDP. We also employ more than 150,000 paid staff and contribute more than 159 million hours of voluntary mahi each year.

We’re big! And impactful! You may not have noticed because we’re usually quietly getting on with delivering the mahi in spaces you’ve never seen or been to. Also, we have small-to-non-existent marketing budgets, so we can’t possibly compete for your time and attention like large brands can. We simply don’t have resourcing to fund lobbying and PR to enable you to see us and hear from us. You need to seek us out. Most of us have websites, almost all of us are on social media and we’re delivering in your local community. Plug in!

Vu Le at his speaking event in Tāmaki Makaurau

“Non-profits are like air. We’re invisible. People don’t really appreciate it until they really need it. You don’t appreciate air until it’s gone.” – Vu Le[2]

Change 2: Improving our language

Another barrier we can get caught up in is using deficit-based language as a sector. In a constrained funding environment where we operate on limited resources, we can often feel weighed down by what we don’t have, rather than focussing on the magnificent things we already deliver across the motu. 

In many cases, this deficit-based language is a by-product of the competitive funding models we operate under. It’s also driven by the way constrained funding breeds competition. We often see funders presenting themselves as ‘financial saviours’ which demonstrates a huge inequality and power imbalance. It also means we feel forced to fit our organisation’s service delivery under funding criteria we didn’t set and which doesn’t meet the needs of our communities.  

It becomes too easy to think that a declined funding application shows that your community group doesn’t deserve to be funded.  Some community groups will simply never apply again because of the perceived shame of being declined.

The starting point to ‘being valued’ is ‘to value ourselves’. Using strengths-based language both publicly and privately will better help others understand the immense contribution we make to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Change 3: Recognising the value of collaboration and whakawhanaungatanga

Thankfully, I see a lot more collaboration happening as we, as a sector, reclaim our power and step aside from competition.  I can feel a generational shift happening around me where community groups are building new models of collaboration and new ways of working together.  It will take time and resourcing to embed these collaborations.

We’ve proven over the last three years of the global pandemic that collaboration is possible and already happening (and has been happening all along, but that’s another blog post!). Instead of fighting for funding, people have just started picking up the phone and looking for immediate solutions to their community needs. 

Our future sustainability as a sector will grow out of this collaboration and relationship. I think this will naturally come together as we position ourselves collaboratively, as an equal partner with decision-makers, government, business, and philanthropic funders, building a group of advocates, and then expanding that to bring better recognition, support and resourcing into the sector.

“I think COVID has opened a lot of conversations and doors and recognition that working together is the way forward to try to bring about some of this change. I think that will help build some of the shift in attitudes and understanding of the contribution of the community and voluntary sector as we go forward. It’s about opportunities for business, government, the community sector to work together on solutions.” – Community leader[1]

For me, these types of shifts clearly show we already have a functioning ecosystem across the community and voluntary sector. At Hui E!, we’ll be continuing to encourage and help build those ongoing collaboration links. We’ll also be pushing for proper recognition of the incredible social impact our thousands of community groups provide to Aotearoa New Zealand.

[1] Quoted in ‘COVID-19 Hauora Wellbeing Survey of the tangata whenua, community & voluntary sector

[2] Nonprofit AF – Exploring the fun and frustrations of nonprofit work

—>Read The Next Generation of Aotearoa’s Community Sector: Tech as an Enabler