By their very nature, charities are innovators. Each and every one was established because they identified a need, a problem to be solved. A group of people organised, generated ideas, drew up plans and launched into action. They did so despite what may at first have appeared to be an overwhelming task before them. The size of the task did not deter them; rather it galvanised them, and sparked action.
There is no doubt the charity sector was tested last year due to the global pandemic. Many charities had to contend with disruptions to their operations and a range of changes to how and where they worked. Many lost income; established fundraising events had to be cancelled or modified, donations fell, and other income sources diminished. To compound the crisis, a significant number experienced an increase in demand for their services; homelessness services, foodbanks, mental health services and material aid providers were among those particularly affected.
Fortunately, many charities discovered new ways of doing things. Staff and volunteers switched to working from home rather than from the office, they held meetings online rather than face-to-face, event venues were swapped for virtual ones to host fundraisers, fun-runs were solo instead of en masse. Some charities changed their governance to enable them to pivot operations to contribute more directly to the pandemic response.
Unfortunately, the challenge continues as the pandemic response is still in train. But this year, charities can build on what worked for them last year, and learn from what did not. Some stop-gap measures could well have proved to be more efficient or more productive. Perhaps it would benefit a charity if some of those new measures continue. Innovation will look different from one charity to the next, but it can be a tool for overcoming restrictive resources, obstacles and mindsets to develop new approaches that deliver service users best value and extraordinary results.
Online meetings, for example, have become the norm. Such change may present an opportunity to expand membership of your charity’s board or committees to include people from regional and remote areas, or from interstate. Perhaps more staff and volunteers can undertake professional development via online courses.
Some of your charity’s programs may be able to reach more people if delivered online, particularly to people with mobility barriers or caring responsibilities that limit their travel. Perhaps your charity could better meet its goals through collaboration with other organisations, or developing corporate partnerships.
At its core, innovation is about the ability to adapt and change, to solve problems, and to find new and better ways of doing things to meet needs. It can be challenging and involve a process of trial and error. I am privileged to meet many charities across Australia each year. Each is steadfast in its commitment to benefit others. Whether they provide relief after natural disasters, house those without shelter, provide food for those who are unable to provide food for their family, provide health services or care for injured animals, their work is crucial. I often say that if charities did not exist, we would have to invent them.
In those visits, I have witnessed high levels of resilience and adaptability. At the ACNC we want to support innovation because it underpins the health of the sector. One way we do this is by making the most of the data we collect to raise awareness of the work charities do. This year more than ever it will be important to monitor the robustness of the sector, and to support charities to innovate so they survive and thrive. We will be considering other ways to facilitate exchanges about innovation and the new ideas, technology, approaches, systems and processes that are helping charities deliver on their purposes more effectively and in ways that stretch the charity dollar further. I believe by harnessing the innovation and ingenuity upon which they were founded, each charity can find new ways to succeed in its mission and demonstrate the value and impact of what they do.
The Hon Dr Gary Johns