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How to build and support resilient communities

26 August 2022
Strengthening the for-purpose sector for future crises
A new report by Sydney Policy Lab offers crucial insights and lessons for those who work in the for-purpose sector.

The severity of the current Omicron crisis, which has seen tens of thousands of new cases a day, increased hospitalisations, and a strained workforce, reminds us that people and communities continue to need support during this challenging period, even as we transition to living responsibly with COVID-19.

Sydney Policy Lab has released four short papers on key areas of civil society capability – leadership, community connection, systems and networks, and advocacy and influence – to support groups and organisations looking to better serve and represent people and communities.

Building the civil society of the 21st century has never been more important. It involves strengthening and agitating existing organisations, as well as creating new institutions. Reflecting on this practice in partnership with others, with the discipline of research partners, can have a long-term benefit to the civil society groups that are essential to our common life and democracy.
Devett Kennedy, Queensland Community Alliance

In partnership with the Paul Ramsay Foundation, the Sydney Policy Lab engaged with over a hundred civil society practitioners and leaders across the country to understand how the for-purpose sector could be re-energised and strengthened to better prepare for future crises. 

Guided by the expertise of an advisory panel, this research question was looked at through the lens of four broad and interconnected capability areas, which have been released as separate chapters from the major report Nurturing Links Across Civil Society – lessons from Australia’s for-purpose sector’s response to COVID-19.

Capability Areas

Are ideas changing about what leadership means? 

Based on the insights of civil society leaders engaged in this research, leadership is being increasingly regarded as a skill and practice that must be developed, learned, and refined over time. This critically involves moving towards a more relational and adaptive process that consciously develops leadership in others and creates space for grassroots leadership to emerge. 

They identified failing to see the bigger picture, being consumed by operational matters, and being stuck on a narrow path all served as barriers to practising and developing leadership. At the same time, they saw the utility of creating relationships across difference, fostering leadership in others, and acting collectively in response to change as being key enablers to developing a style of adaptive leadership. 

Arising from these barriers and enablers, the research team formulated three key principles that could work to strengthen leadership across civil society: 

  1. Non-government, non-profit and for-purpose organisations can play an important leadership role in society, often challenging entrenched power structures and systemic disadvantage. To succeed in this role, organisations need to work collaboratively to take calculated risks. 
  2. Leadership is a skill that can be nurtured and developed. It is also important to look beyond notions of top-down leadership and understand that leadership requires careful cultivation of respectful relationships within existing networks, as well as new connections across difference. 
  3. An important aspect of leadership is recognising leadership in others. This means nurturing emerging leaders within organisations and networks, as well as engaging and encouraging leadership in communities that civil society represents and serves. 

Read the full chapter on leadership here.

How do we listen to the communities we represent and serve? 

There has been a renewed interest and commitment to community-led and place-based solutions, ensuring that people are at the forefront of designing and implementing solutions to the challenges they face. However, conducting this work is often easier said than done.

In conversations with civil society leaders across Australia, three distinct barriers hindered civil society’s ability to build genuine and powerful relationships with the people they aim to serve. These include having a charity mindset, transactional cultures, and the collective erosion of trust. At the same time, links and connections can be strengthened when organisations value lived experience, enable community leadership, and are flexible to situations as they emerge. 

As a result of the research process, the following principles emerged for strengthening and increasing community connection:

  1. Effective community connection requires building relationships around common interests and going beyond activities, such as service provision, consultation, or campaigning. 
  2. Organisations employing a strengths-based community development model can build supportive relationships with communities around their aspirations, goals, and challenges. 
  3. Organisational structures impact connection to community. Well-designed organisations can bridge the gap by ensuring diversity of experience across leadership and decision-making roles.

Read the chapter on community connection here

How do we collaborate and coordinate effectively?

The uneven distribution of the impacts of COVID-19 amongst those already disadvantaged or marginalised has highlighted the need for civil society practitioners and leaders to work collaboratively in networks to systemically address these social challenges.

Those engaged in the research project noted collaboration can be enabled by a focus on prioritising relationships, working with intermediaries, and building cultures of learning. At the same time, they identified that the power of networks can break down when one person or organisations assumes they can do it all, when unequal power dynamics go unspoken and unaddressed, and when people approach relationships with overly competitive mindsets.

Arising from discussions around these barriers and enablers, research participants identified key principles when it comes to working in networks across complex systems: 

  1. Civil society is stronger when people, communities, and organisations work in collaboration. The challenges facing people and communities often originate within complex systems governed at a distance. No single community, organisation, or even sector can shift these systems alone. 
  2. People and organisations undertake different roles within networks. This includes the creating and holding spaces for collaboration and learning; bringing people from varying backgrounds into contact with each other; and encouraging action around shared goals. 
  3. Effective collaboration requires resourcing. Sharing experiences, learning from each other, and creating collective agendas for action requires time, money, and people. 

Read the chapter on systems and networks here.

What does it mean to effectively create change? 

Most civil society organisations aim to reform systemic policies and practices through some form of advocacy, which can range from public activities such as debate, protests and petitions, to more discursive tactics such as research, direct lobbying and being part of policy networks. 

Civil society leaders highlighted that advocacy is made more difficult by the constraints of funding, acting alone, and trying to communicate the systemic causes of policy problems. Essential components of successfully building and wielding influence include prioritising impact over tacts, putting people and communities first, and being prepared to act quickly to new circumstances as they unfold. 

Arising from discussions around these barriers and enablers are three key principles when it comes to effective advocacy and influence: 

  1. In a strong democracy, civil society is a crucial avenue for constructive debate that can inform and shift public policy. If governments are overly hostile to feedback and try to stifle dissent, people and organisations can become risk-averse when it comes to challenging entrenched power. 
  2. Advocacy is a strategic and collaborative activity. A clear focus on the desired outcome determines where power needs to be shifted, what relationships need to be built, and what specific tactics could be best employed to create the argument for change. 
  3. It is essential to involve those with lived expertise in advocacy. This extends beyond tokenistic activities like consultation or using people’s stories, to organisational support and respect for community leadership, and deeper involvement in deciding advocacy priorities and strategies. 

Read the chapter on advocacy and influence here. 

Find out more about the Strengthening Australian Civil Society Project and how you and your organisation might participate.  

The Strengthening Australian Civil Society partnership is generously funded by the Paul Ramsay Foundation. 

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