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Richard Spencer reflects on leading social change

3 min read

Despite unprecedented economic growth over the past few decades, Australia faces serious concerns about a decline in the wellbeing of our communities. More people have complex problems and don’t necessarily have the social support structures to help them get through tough times.

We expect governments to set underlying policies that underpin our national wellbeing. However, it can be difficult for such large institutions to respond to the complex and changing needs of local communities.

In many ways, our sector is better placed to respond to these community needs.

Community legitimacy

Non-government organisations (NGOs) that operate in the human services area, such as The Benevolent Society, engage, work and live within their communities.

NGOs are well-trusted by the communities in which they work and can find ways to engage with those who really need a hand. They can promote the interests of individuals and communities experiencing disadvantage, and can identify new areas of need, articulate ideas and solutions, and lobby for policy change.

In fact, our legitimacy comes from the communities in which we work, and from our capacity to hear from and represent those who might not otherwise be heard.

Ethical leadership

Good governance and effective leadership are essential to ensuring that the NGO sector continues to use its power effectively and in keeping with its values.

Our legitimacy also comes from demonstrating leadership through ethical and accountable behaviours in the organisation’s internal operations – focussing not just on what we do, but on how we do it.

Reflecting on my 16 years in the corporate world, followed by 20 years in the NGO sector, I think there are common elements that all leaders face, regardless of the sector in which they are working. But there are some differences.

One of the essential differences facing a leader of an NGO, is that you are working with an enormous range of interested supporters. People are engaged, they’re passionate, and they really want to make a difference. One of the great challenges I enjoy in this role is looking at how to bring them together in a way that effectively marshals the best of everyone’s intentions and talent.

The Benevolent Society

The Benevolent Society has been working in Australian communities for nearly 200 years. We have gained a wealth of experience from this, learning what helps clients and communities, and what makes a difference.

A significant part of The Benevolent Society’s legacy of positive social change is the fact that the organisation has always asked itself, “What are going to be the major social issues for the next 20 or 30 years, and what do we need to be doing today to find the right answers and solutions to that?”

Older Australians

Ensuring that Australians age well has always been a key goal of The Benevolent Society.

In the early days, The Benevolent Society began lobbying for the introduction of a pension for older people, which led to the establishment of the first old age pension in Australia, and the world, in 1901.

Today, our Apartments for Life project aims to address what is becoming one of the nation’s most pressing social challenges: how to better care for and house the growing number of older Australians.

Research shows that most Australians want to remain in their own home and be supported by community care as they age. Apartments for Life is a new style of ‘accommodation and care’ complex that will enable people to remain as independent as possible, stay in their own home, and be able to access care and support as and when they need it.

Women and children

Since its inception, the Benevolent Society has also had a strong focus on the wellbeing of women and children. It was the first organisation to support single mothers, and later pioneered free legal aid for them. The Society built and ran Australia’s first Women’s Hospital and maternity wing, and established the nation’s first baby health clinic.

Today, we continue to support women, children and families, but in different ways, through early childhood services, early intervention programs, child protection work, parenting support and foster care services.

Inspiration from social change

While the way we do our work has changed, our mission to ensure disadvantaged and vulnerable people get the help they need remains the same, and the spirit of innovation and striving for positive social change still guides the work of The Benevolent Society.

I know that change is a slow process, but I also know from the history of The Benevolent Society, that from little things, big things grow.

The Benevolent Society’s history of pioneering social change inspires me to keep looking at society and thinking about where the needs are. It challenges me to recognise and have the courage to seize opportunities to make lasting change.

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