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Everywhere Man

4 min read

As CEO of Jobs Australia, the national peak body for not-for-profit organisations that assists unemployed people in finding and keeping jobs, David Thompson is a high profile advocate who most recently made headlines – along with ACOSS CEO Clare Martin – expressing reservations about the tender process for more than $4 billion worth of employment services.

Although he describes the outcomes of the massive tender process undertaken to select providers as “quirky”, Thompson says, “The issue is not so much the reforms themselves, many of which are quite good, but rather the consequences of a number of things that are associated with them, such as the consolidation of seven currently existing programs into one.

“We expressed concern to Minister O’Connor about the very effective non-profits with very good track records that have missed out in that process.

“What was it in the process that meant that despite their good track record they missed out? It’s still hard to work that out. The Minister [Brendan O’Connor] has agreed that there would be a review of the process chaired by his departmental secretary, Lisa Paul, and I have been asked by the Minister’s office if I would participate in that process and of course said yes. It’s also possible that there will be a Senate Inquiry into the process.

“No one is saying there has been a mistake, but there is something about the process that’s given us some results, which are probably not the best results you could get if it had been done another way.”

He has the ear of government, and not just the Australian Government.

China bound
I am speaking to David Thompson as he drives to the airport – using a hands-free phone of course. Is he heading interstate? No, overseas.

“I’m going to China to talk to the Chinese Government about their relationship with nonprofit organisations,” he excitedly explains.

“Our interest is in encouraging the Chinese Government to see non-profit organisations, or NGOs, as not just possible providers of services (as they are in other countries) but also as advocates and sources of ideas about how particular issues can be addressed and resolved.”

“We think there is a lot of benefit for national governments where they do promote effective advocacy of the NGO sector, particularly when they can be much closer to the citizens.”

The China visit is part of the global dimension to his work with the National Roundtable of Nonprofit Organisations, through which Thompson has established very fruitful dialogue with overseas counterparts including the National Council of Voluntary Organisations in the UK, the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations, and the Independent Sector Organisation in the United States.

What is the National Roundtable of Nonprofit Organisations?
Comprising the NFP sector’s peak bodies, the Roundtable was established in 2004, incorporated in 2006, and is an organisation limited by guarantee. Its structure encompasses a small governing board and a broader representative advisory council.

The board meets every four to six weeks, with member elections every year; Thompson says they will be calling for nominations shortly.

The advisory council, which is a much bigger group of people, meets three or four times yearly to provide feedback to the board on issues of common interest and concern.

“We’re very focused at the moment on helping co-ordinate and facilitate input into the productivity commission’s enquiry into the impact of nonprofit organisations.

“The structure of the roundtable was initially, and is now formally, limited to national peak organisations.” He says the board intends to propose a special general meeting for modification of that structure, aiming to enable direct and closer participation by some of the bigger non-profits such as the Red Cross.”

On the term ‘third sector’
“I am very not-keen on the adulation ‘the third sector’ because I think we’re actually the first [sector]. I think it’s very important that we promote a much deeper and better understanding of the fact that there are many millions of Australians involved in various forms of nonprofit endeavour and activity.

“In a discussion I had with the CEO of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations in the UK a couple of weeks ago, we both agreed that ‘civil society organisations’ is probably a better way to put it.

“However a grand old dame of the nonprofit world in the US, she says, ‘David it’s an important debate to be had, but it will be going on for years, I wouldn’t waste my time.'”

The National Compact – Is the roundtable involved in that as well?
The Roundtable has been involved in numerous discussions with Senator Stephens about the process of getting to a compact, which Thompson says is almost as important as the ultimate document. Arriving at a final compact is an immense and complex undertaking, since the government must broadly engage with a wide cross-section of a sector that is so big and diverse.

Despite the sector’s diversity, however, Thompson says he is “surprised and delighted” at how often groups within the sector share similar views, which is recognised at a high level.

Though the Roundtable seeks to promote and encourage people to become engaged on issues, Thompson says he has been “reliably informed that it took the Business Council of Australia something like five years to get its show on the road.

“We’re very patient, we want to make sure we do what’s right rather than what might be done opportunistically and quickly.”

As he recently celebrated 20 years with Jobs Australia, I ask Thompson if he’s seen a lot of change in the sector over this time. “As they say in the classics Zelda, more than you could poke a stick at.”

Did you know…
David is a gardening nut and tree peonies are his favourites.

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