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 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, the Sydney Policy Lab and the Paul Ramsay Foundation seeks to understand:

How do for-purpose organisations respond to the needs of people and communities? How can they be supported to strengthen their practice, rising to social and environmental challenges as they unfold? 

The Sydney Policy Lab research team has primarily examined these questions through a capability lens, exploring four interconnected skill areas for those attempting to build and support community aspirations:

  1. The practice and development of leadership; 
  2. The vital importance of community connection;
  3. The need to working across networks within complex systems; and
  4. The ability to advocate and generate influence.

Through a series of reflective interviews, workshops and public events, the Strengthening Australian Civil Society research team has worked with a wide variety of civil society leaders and organisations on publications and other projects which are building an evidence base around civil society capability.



The Strengthening Australian Civil Society research team produced a short communique – Supporting people and communities in need: Australian civil society’s response to COVID-19. This initial statement of principles around civil society capability was guided by the broad expertise of the project’s Advisory Panel and initial insights from in-depth relational interviews and workshops with civil society leaders from across the country.

Download a pdf of this document here.

In 2021, the Sydney Policy Lab and Paul Ramsay Foundation commissioned Essential Media to develop a pilot Australian Civic Engagement Index to explore how Australians connect to their communities. The inaugural index consisted of a national online survey made up of 16 questions, which 1,098 participants responded to. The index scores individuals based on their levels of trust, participation and connection with other members of their community. 

Key findings: 

  • Younger people who grew up in a home where English is not the primary language spoken emerged as the most engaged citizens. 
  • People who were older, poorer and lived in rural areas rated significantly lower when it comes to civic engagement. 
  • People with children rated significantly higher on civic engagement than people without children, suggesting family draws people into civic spaces. 

Download Essential Media's full report here

During the height of the Delta outbreak in NSW, the Sydney Policy Lab held an online discussion with civil society leaders across the country to identify what needed to be done to tackle the social inequalities left in the wake of the pandemic.

In this webinar, the Lab also launched the Australian Civic Engagement Index and Marc Stears’ new book, Out of the Ordinary: How everyday life once inspired a nation and how it can again (Harvard University Press, 2021).

Watch the discussion here. 

Any kind of progress or social change requires strong movements, passionate leaders, effective organisations, compelling stories, and bold voices that speak from experience. However, this sort of work can take a toll on personal health and wellbeing.  

So, how do we respond to, and rebuild from COVID-19 whilst taking care of ourselves, our organisations and our movements? 

In partnership with the Paul Ramsay Foundation, the Sydney Policy Lab delivered a lunchtime webinar for civil society practitioners and leaders across Australia to reflect on how work in the sector can be sustained with a focus on personal health and wellbeing. 

Globally acknowledged leader and advocate for women’s rights Elizabeth Broderick AO was joined by academic and Gomeroi First Nations woman Amy Thunig, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia Karen Willis OAM, Changemakers host and GetUp! Co-founder Amanda Tattersall, and inaugural Director for the Sydney Policy Lab Marc Stears in a lively discussion and Q&A. 

The Sydney Policy Lab prepared a case study that draws on the knowledge and practice of the Bourke Tribal Council through Marangnuka, a community-led initiative based in the town of Bourke in Western NSW. 

Specifically, the case study examines the Maranguka Cross Sector Leadership Group, a formal meeting point for governments, non-government organisations, philanthropists and service providers to engage directly with local Aboriginal community leadership. 

The report, funded primarily by Dusseldorp Forum, offers four lessons for other government and non-government organisations wishing to align policy and resources towards supporting community-led agendas for change: 

  1. Strong community leadership to which other partners align their activities; 
  2. The commitment, time and skills required to engage in deep collaboration and build trust around a common purpose; 
  3. The importance of authorisation, including the need to respect Cultural Authority, and the role of political leaders in giving ‘permission’ to act; and 
  4. Different levels of accountability, formalised through milestone documents, structures and processes which lay the ground and tone for future activity. 

Download the full report here

The Sydney Policy Lab partnered with Australian and New Zealand Third Sector Research Inc (ANZTSR) in 2021 to host a series of webinars on advocacy. These webinars created a forum for leading scholars and activists across various sectors to reflect on what it means to advocate for change and provided a space for members of the public to engage in the conversation. 

1. Growing Civil Society’s Advocacy Muscle

The first webinar, held on 31 August 2021, examined the strategies that could be utilised to maximise the impact of advocacy. The line-up of speakers on the panel included: 

  • Professor Larissa Behrendt OA, the Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney; 
  • Thomas Mayorm a Zenadth Kes man, National Indigenous Officer and Honorary Deputy NT Branch Secretary at Maritime Union of Australia, President of the NT Trades & Labour Council and elected participant in the Uluru Convention; 
  • Richard Denniss, Chief Economist, author and public policy commentator from the Australian Institute, and former Associate Professor in Public Policy at ANU. 

Read an overview of the conversation here

2. The NDIS: How did we get here and where to from here? 

Following the positive reception from the first webinar, the Sydney Policy Lab followed up with a webinar on the success of the NDIS campaign and the importance of elevating the voices of people with disability in a meaningful way. The line-up of speakers on the panel included: 

  • Kirsten Deane, the General Manager of the Melbourne Disability Institute and experienced campaigner, strategist and policy advocate instrumental to the campaign for Every Australian Counts, the grassroots campaign that fought successfully for the introduction of the NDIS. 
  • Damien Griffis, a proud descendant of the Worimi people and CEO of the First Peoples Disability Network and leading advocate for the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability 
  • Samantha Connor, President of People with Disability Australia and long-term disability and human rights activist who was instrumental in fighting for the rights of her community during the campaign for the NDIS. 

Read an overview of the conversation here


This major report of the Strengthening Australian Civil Society initiative is based on a series of reflective conversations with civil society leaders about their experiences in 2020 and 2021 attempting to support people and communities during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. 

These conversations were examined through the lenses of four capability areas that civil society leaders use to support community aspirations: leadership, community connection, networks and systems, and advocacy and influence.

The report examines barriers and enablers to working in each of these four capability areas, offers stories and insights which demonstrate these capabilities in practice, and makes six core recommendations for nurturing and strengthening 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.

Download the full report here.

For each of the four capability areas – leadership, community connection, networks and systems, and advocacy and influence – the Strengthening Australian Civil Society research team has produced separate downloadable chapters. Built on insights from civil society leaders and key areas of literature, each chapter explores factors which impede or enable civil society organisations in each capability area, and offer three key principles as focal points for those looking to strengthen civil society capability

Civil Society Capability – Leadership (pdf, 1.7MB)

Civil Society Capability – Community Connection (pdf, 1.3MB)

Civil Society Capability – Systems and Networks (pdf, 2.5MB)

Civil Society Capability – Advocacy and Influence (pdf, 1.2MB)

In addition to these summaries, the research team has also surfaced four COVID-19 stories from Australian civil society that illustrate the interconnectedness of these capability areas in action. 

Read Civil Society Capability - COVID-19 Stories here

In the wake of the federal election, the Strengthening Australian Civil Society project’s research lead, Mark Riboldi, has published an opinion piece in ABC Religion & Ethics. In the piece, Riboldi reflects on how the election has been a win for local politics, attributing this to the power of community organising and localised campaigning. 

Throughout 2022, the Sydney Policy Lab has collaborated with various partners to deliver Policy Options, a series of webinars aimed at making a valuable contribution towards public debate across specific policy areas. 

1. Women and Insecure Work 

On 31 August 2022, the Sydney Policy Lab partnered with Australia New Zealand Third Sector Research (ANZTSR) to deliver a webinar on the issue of women and insecure work. Speakers examined how the COVID-19 pandemic drew attention to systemic problems in Australia’s labour market and offered policy options aimed at improving the working lives of all women. The line-up of panellists included: 

  • Elizabeth Hill, Deputy Director of the Gender Equality in Working Life Research Initiative at the University of Sydney
  • Fiona Macdonald, Policy Director at the Centre for Future Work
  • Jane Corpuz-Brock, Former Executive Officer at the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association
  • Kristin O’Connell, Coordinator of the Antipoverty Centre

Watch the discussion here. 

2. Leadership for Changing Systems 

The Sydney Policy Lab partnered with Health Justice Australia and The Front Project in November to unearth ideas around the styles of leadership that are required for systemic social change. Key speakers shared some of the experiences and challenges of operating with(in) a systems’ change framework and provided food for thought on how best to tackled ‘wicked’ societal issues in a collaborative manner. The line-up of panellists included: 

  • Tessa Boyd-Caine, Founding CEO of Health Justice Australia
  • Jane Hunt, Founding CEO of The Front Project 
  • Geoffrey Winters, Gamilaroi man and CEO of Just Reinvest NSW
  • Belinda Drew, Deputy Director-General Communities, Department of Communities, Housing and Digital Economy

Watch the discussion here.

The Strengthening Australian Civil Society research team’s approach to examining the effectiveness of Australian civil society organisations applies the Lab’s distinct relational and collaborative research method. This is intended to create original insights for broader dissemination, as 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  

Chief investigator: Professor Marc Stears

Project and Research Lead: Mark Riboldi

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

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 (Paul Ramsay Foundation).

“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.