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Interview with David Crosbie: Invest in changing the public discourse about charities in Australia

David Crosbie says a less passive, more disruptive approach to the sector mission is needed

‘Yes — I have been around a while, but I do not claim any particular insight. What being around a while has taught me is that knowing what needs to be done falls a long way short of getting it done.’ says David Crosbie, chief executive officer of the Community Council for Australia when asked about his insights into the Australian charities and not-for-profit sector.

A sector stalwart who has spent 20 years in leadership roles, the last eight in his current role with the Community Council for Australia (CCA), Mr Crosbie has been an outspoken advocate for the charities sector. He believes that many national policies are just phrases that people can agree upon. They encourage the sector to think it is changing but instead just serve to maintain the status quo.

‘In a post-truth, low-trust era, where governments are actively demonstrating they cannot deal with complex problems (except by holding inquiries and commissions), I think the charities sector needs to rethink its role.’ What is needed Mr Crosbie says is a less passive, more disruptive approach to the sector mission. And he believes that will be challenging because competition between charities has never been higher, income is stalling, and many charities are in the starvation cycle — eating into their own organisations to maintain their programs and activities.


Unlike other industries which serve such a large number of Australians, the charities and not-for-profit sector still does not have a proper place at the policy table. And, under Mr Crosbie’s leadership, this has been an area of work CCA has been thinking about and discussing with leaders in the sector for some time now. ‘In many ways charities act as in-between agencies, facilitating public benefit. Their purpose is not about themselves but about the communities they serve. This means that when a charity — like CCA — goes to meet with politicians or policymakers, our focus is on what will be good for the community we serve (all our charity members and the broader charities sector), not CCA itself. This is one of the reasons the sector often does not invest in itself or actively seek to promote itself. Most charities prefer to see the communities they serve receive greater priority.’ Mr Crosbie also thinks that sector organisations have failed to adequately promote their value or their values in a way that legitimises the sector’s place at the policy table.

Interestingly, most government officials view their relationship with the charities sector as being a positive partnership, but most charities see their relationship as much less than a partnership.

A glaring fact in this discussion about the sector’s place at the policy table is that the relationship between governments — federal and state — and the charities and not-for-profit sector has never been one of equals. Mr Crosbie talks about how since the time from the Fitzgerald Report in 2010 this dynamic between sector and governments seems to have deteriorated rather than recalibrated in the way the review had recommended. Given the dependency of states and local government organisations on the sector to deliver many community services, one would expect the governments to engage, collaborate and support more robustly and with more intent than they do. What is wrong in this picture? Why this continuing tension?

‘Interestingly, most government officials view their relationship with the charities sector as being a positive partnership, but most charities see their relationship as much less than a partnership. Robert Fitzgerald has repeatedly emphasised that the perception gap between charities and government officials about their relationship is the largest he has seen in any area of his work. What this tells us is that charities have learned to accept the unacceptable from government, to take the money even though it is inadequate, to accept the terms of the contract even though it is one sided, and to be told by government what they need to do rather than being able to offer their knowledge and expertise to inform what happens.’

Funding for charities has been a fraught discussion between the sector and government for some time now. Mr Crosbie has long argued that underfunding of charities has exponentially increased the risks and affected productivity; it also continues to limit the effectiveness and sustainability of the sector. While on the one hand governments fund charities to specifically deliver services to communities, they then fail to pay fully for what is being delivered, Mr Crosbie says. ‘To be honest I have almost given up hope. Decades of recommendations have been ignored and now we are back on the same old merry-go-round about states harmonising legislation. There is a simple solution, using the Australian Consumer Law, which is really what happens in practice anyway. But no, we keep going around and around. Many of us are dizzy and just want to get off. We will keep pushing, but with increasing levels of frustration and disappointment that we continue to waste millions of dollars in dysfunctional “administrivia” while politicians and senior officials offer us a curious mixture of indifference, obfuscation and indecision’.

Focusing on the purpose is not always easy, so some boards fall back on to proxy measures about income and expenditure, inputs and outputs, and growth.

When it comes to governance, Mr Crosbie feels the main struggle in charities is to ensure governance is focused on organisational purpose and the achievement of that purpose. This is not the same as commercial boards where profitability and return on investment is what matters. ‘Focusing on the purpose is not always easy, so some boards fall back on to proxy measures about income and expenditure, inputs and outputs, and growth. Sometimes the best way to achieve a charitable purpose is to close, or merge, or drop some of the more profitable areas of activities to focus on what really makes a difference.’ The critical factor for the success of sector boards he says is that the actions of a board need to be informed by the charitable purpose, not the needs of their staff, their own egos, or the drive to grow the organisation, all of which can be at odds with the charitable purpose. ‘Commercial skills can add value to the range of discussion at a Board, but commercial priorities should never over-ride charitable purpose.’

Mr Crosbie sees the sector as a unifier; every Australian accesses services provided by the sector at some point of the day in a way that is more inclusive and unifying than most other sectors. Yet this is not something that is broadly projected by the sector. Does the sector then undervalue itself? In a competitive world, are they understandably so focused on the commodifying of their services that they forget to consider the value they deliver? ‘Yes. We have commodified way too much and lost sight of values, relationships, and authenticity.’ Mr Crosbie says. ‘This is partly because we are operating in a much more commercial and competitive environment. Charities need to not only focus on their values but actively promote their value if they are to build trust and support their communities.’

Given that a very small number of organisations in the sector command the lion share of funding and resources, charities should co-operate more, collaborate more, merge more, support each other more says Mr Crosbie. However, he feels that this is very hard to do for three main reasons: there is increasing competition for income across all charities; building relationships requires investment but there are precious few resources allocated to these activities; there are egos at play and protecting egos sometimes means not considering activities that might diminish the power or standing of individuals and the organisations they lead. ‘ I do not think bigger charities are better — sometimes small responsive and dynamic charities make more of a difference — but I do think we need to become more effective in fulfilling our purpose — and often that means looking beyond our own organisations’

We need to be able to show our value and our values with stories about relationships, how we build hope and opportunity, how we create change, how we contribute to creating flourishing communities.

At the recent Not-for-profit Governance Forum organised by Governance Institute of Australia Mr Crosbie talked about how the issues for charities and NFPs are most compelling when told through the stories of people; both those who work within the sector and those who are supported by the services they provide. Are we adept in telling those stories? Or does the sector fail to anchor their policy and advocacy effectively in storytelling? ‘When you ask Australian charities about who they are and why they exist, the most common response will be a description of their programs and services. While this may be useful, most charities are much more than their programs. We need to be able to show our value and our values with stories about relationships, how we build hope and opportunity, how we create change, how we contribute to creating flourishing communities. The best way of doing this is through stories. We can all do this better, and if we did, the sector would be much stronger.’

At a time when trust in organisations is at a low, charities may be trusted more than some other organisations but are still seen as the ‘not-for-profit’ sector or the ‘third sector’ — behind business and government says Mr Crosbie. But he believes that they are the sector that enables our communities to function, to be productive and to support all Australians in realising their potential.

‘We are an incredibly innovative and vibrant sector making a massive economic and social contribution to the kind of Australia we live in, but are we valued, do we have a legitimate place in the major policy discussions in our country?’ It is here that Mr Crosbie feels peak bodies play a critical role. ‘I may be a little biased, but the sector needs to invest a great deal more in its peak bodies so they can more strongly challenge government, policymakers, business and community perceptions about charities.’ Mr Crosbie’s hope is that every charity will not only become better at talking about its value but will also become a part of the national campaign peak bodies like CCA are undertaking to ensure charities are valued and sustainable into the future.

‘I worry that too many charities choose not to engage in or support these bigger discussions, and in the longer run, this may cost us all. If we are going to create the kind of Australia we want to live in and reverse the decline in trust, we will need to invest in changing the public discourse about charities in Australia.’

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