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Strengthening Australian civil society

For-purpose sector resilience and capability in crisis and beyond

In partnership with Paul Ramsay Foundation and in collaboration with civil society leaders from across Australia, the Lab has embarked on an ambitious new project to strengthen civil society and build community resilience.

A crucial feature of Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the response of civil society. From advocating in the halls of government for essential national policy measures to coordinating community-based food deliveries for people in need, Australia’s multitude of independent, non-government ‘for purpose’ organisations have responded to the crisis in a variety of ways.

The COVID-19 pandemic, closely following the extraordinary 2019-20 bushfires, has presented Australian for-purpose organisations with challenges and opportunities both old and new. To support the sector and the communities they serve, this partnership between the Sydney Policy Lab and the Paul Ramsay Foundation seeks to understand:

How have for purpose organisations responded to the needs of people and communities in the face of COVID-19? How can they emerge stronger in the years to come, rising to the challenges that will unfold in the aftermath of the pandemic?

At the end of 2019, social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam issued a call to action for an organised civil society as an engine of creativity, knowledge and innovation grounded in lived experience, to “create anew the conditions for human flourishing” and re-imagine “human existence in new ways that are generative for people and planet”. The first half of 2020 has sharpened the need for these discussions.

Over a two-year period, the Sydney Policy Lab is leading a collaborative research project, working directly alongside civil society and for-purpose organisations as they continue to respond to the ongoing economic and social challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. It will provide unique insights into our social fabric at a historically unparalleled time.

Working through a series of focus groups, interviews and discussion papers, this research project will enable civil society leaders to share their own insights into the capacity of civil society to act for the common good and better to identify potential future trends.

Drawing on current thinking on the nature of civil society responses to crisis, as well as the experiences of practitioners in Australia and internationally, the project explores its major question through four distinct lenses:

  1. differing styles of leadership
  2. strategies used to maintain connectedness to community
  3. the importance of place-based and broader organisational networks; and
  4. the ability effectively to influence professional decisionmakers.


Four pillars of for-purpose capability

Are ideas about leadership changing?

Crisis demands a distinctive style of leadership in the for-purpose sector and the transition out of crisis into a “new normal” may do also. This first review area assesses what kind of leadership is currently being exhibited in the sector; how prepared have leaders felt for the challenges they face; what supports have they received; and how leadership practices compare with what we know from best practice in other sectors and in the study of leadership internationally.

How connected are for-purpose organisations now?

One of the gravest dangers of the current crisis is that those who depend on services delivered directly or indirectly by for purpose organisations “fall through the cracks” and fail to receive the support they need. This review area examines the strategies and experiences of different for-purpose organisations in tackling this difficulty, identifying good practices and tough challenges as it does so. It asks whether efforts to take support services “online” have worked, identifying those who have “disappeared” from service provision and exploring whether there are any clear patterns in the kinds of service recipients who have either been successfully retained or not.

How and where is collaboration occurring?

In recent years, for-purpose organisations have paid increasing attention to the relationship between themselves and other organisations, including their funders, both governmental and philanthropic. These connections have deepened their work and enabled them to develop a broader and deeper understanding of the disadvantage they seek to tackle. It is therefore vital to know how these connections have fared in the current crisis. Research in this review area asks how for-purpose organisations have maintained place-based systemic connections with each other and other stakeholders during the current period, establishing what has worked and what has not, and what lessons have been learnt for the immediate future.

Are new advocacy strategies emerging?

The COVID-19 crisis has led to an enormous expansion of governmental authority and a fast rolling out of key policy initiatives at a local, state and federal level. Decisions that might have significant long-lasting implications have been made astonishingly rapidly and often through unusual channels. How do For Purpose organisations feel they have been able to influence the policy-making? What strategies have they deployed given the current extraordinary circumstances and what merits might those have in a return to the “new normal”? Have some strategies met with more success than others and how consistently have those learnings been shared across the sector?


This approach to examining the effectiveness of Australian civil society organisations, working through the Lab’s distinct relational and collaborative research method, is intended to create distinctive and original insights for broader dissemination, and well as generating a subsequent research agenda around for-purpose sector capability beyond the pandemic.

For more information about the project, or to find out how you and your organisation might participate, please contact Leah Emmanuel via  

Chief investigator: Professor Marc Stears,

Core research team: Mark Riboldi, Lisa Fennis and Leah Emmanuel

Advisory Panel: Maha Abdo OAM (Muslim Women Association), Tara Day-Williams (Stronger Places, Stronger People, Australian Government Department of Social Services), Jason Glanville (PwC Indigenous Consulting, Australian Indigenous Governance Institute), Devett Kennedy (Queensland Community Alliance), Edwina MacDonald (Australian Council of Social Service: ACOSS), Liz Skelton (Collaboration for Impact), Anita Tang (Australian Progress), Dame Julia Unwin (Civil Society Futures) and Anandini Saththianathan.

“COVID-19 has disrupted and changed countries all over the world, but what is clear is that it is civil society that has helped communities survive, and any economic, social and health recovery, anywhere, depends upon re-energised, renewed civil society.” Civil Society Futures Chair Dame Julia Unwin

“As the world continues to adjust to a new way of life. securing our safety and wellbeing, together we can bring back peace with compassion. Through our interactions and relationships with one another, we can facilitate peace, by serving with compassion, kindness and hope that’s wrapped in faith, sincerity, and authenticity, for together, we are better.” Muslim Women Association Executive Officer Maha Abdo OAM

“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.”  Queensland Community Alliance Lead Organiser Devett Kennedy

This partnership is generously funded by the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

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

Lead image courtesy of Addison Road Community Organisation. Used with permission.

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