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Often its smaller investments in communities that can make a huge difference

Wherever you look these days, not matter the developed country, whole population groups and peoples struggle with the daily grind of life. From children in state care to mental health, from affordable housing to the primary health system and from education to employment. Incarceration rates amongst Indigenous populations are high as are suicide rates. Not one issue is untouched by the daily struggle life. Over the last twenty years whole industries have been built off the back of these struggles and often, these industries are not just supporting the not-for-profit sector, many included for profit business and the growing world of social enterprise. In the UK alone more than $400 billion pounds has been spent on social housing, in Australia billions is spent on mental health alone while in New Zealand we spend more than $30 billion in welfare and $15 billion in health.

And yet this overhyped sector of nationally based organisations getting increasingly larger shares of the pie doesn’t always translate into results. In fact, some would argue that what is happening is more and more money is being spent unnecessarily on duplication of back end infrastructure or unnecessary layers of administration. No analysis has ever been done in New Zealand around the actual breakdown of a dollar from the time it leaves the hands of the Crown or the Government Agency and moves its way through the plethora of hands before finally reaching the individual in need. In the world of foreign aid there has been some analysis that shows less then 20% will reach the intended recipient on the front line to then deliver a program or service or for an outcome to have been achieved.

In addition to the problem of investing to heavily in single or replicated national approaches is the dilemma of what you are perceiving as an outcome. Traditionally outcomes have been measured around whether the money received was spent on the intended purpose as opposed to the purpose having had an outcome. For many organisations there is usually no doubt as to whether the funds were spent for the intended purpose but how can you justify whether an outcome had been achieved that changed someone’s life or had an impact on social indicator? Some would argue that the only way of fairly measuring success is through the lowering or increase in something. For example, if you are investing in suicide prevention programs then the outcome surely should be a reduction in the suicide rate. If the investment is in a domestic or family violence, then surely the result should be a reduction. The sad reality is that often we see investments being made but no sure fire results being achieved – in many cases we spend too much on programs with no evidence behind them while missing the very real opportunity of how small investments in local communities and programs and the benefits that can flow when it comes to making a real difference.

Take for example the more than thirty life networks across South Australia or the investment in training peer support volunteers in the Northern Territory in rural New South Wales – the investment per location is relatively small, requires low or no infrastructure, trains a workforce that is able to meet a clear demand and more importantly community driven and owned. In that model the middleman is cut from the equation thereby providing more capital to help scale the program locally and providing more funding to expand the concept into other locations. In Scotland Community groups and projects can now apply to the new £11.5 million Investing in Communities Fund to tackle disadvantage, poverty and inequality. The fund encourages community-led development, design and delivery of sustainable local solutions addressing local issues, circumstances and aspirations – such as supporting out-of-school provision, providing activities and workshops, creating a community café and improving job opportunities. Grants of up to £250,000 are available over three years providing stability and recognising the need for longer term planning in some projects. The amount may seem small but the impact can be very high. Another example is in aged care where consolidated packages owned by elders where they direct the funding to services to support them in their own homes has proven successful in places such as Kempsey.

The challenge is finding the happy medium between what is a national approach and how small impact investments at the local community level can cohabitate. In New Zealand we call the commissioning agencies, in Australia and the UK they are known as primary funders but, at the end of the day, what those most in need simply want is someone to provide them with support when they need it the most. Our responsibility has to be to ensure that as much of the funding as possible reaches those very people in need and sometimes that means we need to brave and bold, to not be afraid to sometimes say less can be more when in the hands of a community who know exactly what the need is and how to go about reaching their goals. That is why communities matter when it comes to social change and its also recognition that there are no cookie cutter communities and therefore should not be cookie cutter approaches.

About the Author: Matthew Tukaki is the former Chair of Suicide Prevention Australia, Australian Representative to the United Nations Global Compact and a member of the Board of the UNGC and Chair of the National Maori Authority

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