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Nurturing links across civil society

The Australian For-Purpose Sector’s Response to COVID-19
Built on in-depth conversations with civil society leaders from across Australia, this report from the Sydney Policy Lab offers crucial insights into the for-purpose sector’s ability to help people in need during crisis and beyond.

The impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic have stretched far beyond the immediate public health concerns. To explore these, the Sydney Policy Lab’s Strengthening Australian Civil Society research team engaged with leaders and practitioners from across the country in a series of reflective conversations between June 2020 and October 2021.

These conversations focused on four broad and interconnected capability areas, essential considerations for those who build and support strong and resilient communities – developing leadership as a practice, continually renewing connections to community, working in networks across systems, and building the influence to advocate effectively. 

Through examining the barriers and enablers to working in each of these capability areas, as experienced through the COVID-19 pandemic, this report highlights core principles for civil society capability, identifies barriers and enablers in each capability area and makes six core recommendations for nurturing and strengthening the links across civil society:

For civil society organisations:

  • Organisations should develop or renew their strategies and plans to deepen collaborations and share power with communities beyond the organisation itself.
  • Larger organisations should consider how to share power and resources to create opportunities and platforms for smaller organisations and communities.

For legislators and policy makers:

  • Encourage advocacy and constructive criticism from across civil society.
  • Devolve strategic decision-making to local communities.

For philanthropists and other funders: 

  • Increase funding for intermediaries and hubs.
  • Increase funding for organisational collaboration and relationship building.

Along with reinforcing and extending findings from previous studies, the report also surfaces numerous case studies of civil society capability in action, and presents four COVID-19 stories illustrating the interconnectedness of the capability areas: Responses to COVID-19 from Australia’s First Nations; The Melbourne Towers COVID-19 Lockdown; Food Security and COVID-19; and Non-citizens and COVID-19.

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 (p.13)

This report represents findings from the Sydney Policy Lab’s strategic partnership with the Paul Ramsay Foundation, Strengthening Australian Civil Society. In its initial phase, the research project has explored the Australian for-purpose sector capability in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Future stages will test the findings and recommendations of this report in a series of conversations co-designed with partners across the country.

Report Authors: Mark Riboldi, Lisa Fennis and Marc Stears

Research Team:  Leah Emmanuel, Lara Smal, Alison Orme, Danny Cooper, Nancy Lee, Katie Gabriel, Sylvie Ellsmore, Amy Tong and Jananie Janarthana.

Download the full report here (PDF, 4 MB)

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