Shifts in our society and sector: The times they are a-changin’

With the end of the year fast approaching, we decided to take a step back and reflect on the year that’s been. What we have observed is that Australia continues to experience marked change. This presents opportunities and challenges for both its people and its for-purpose sector. Irrespective of whether individuals and organisations are proactively preparing or reactively responding, understanding the key trends impacting our society and sector is critical to achieving positive social change. In support of this, we’re sharing a summary of the developments and disruptions that we believe hold broad relevance to for-purpose organisations.

This blog is by no means exhaustive; our communities and the social challenges we face are far too changeable and complex to be comprehensively covered in a single post. We also recognise the need for for-purpose organisations to have a deep knowledge of particular demographic groups, local communities and circumstances, industry developments and impact areas. These items aren’t covered here. What we have included is a compilation of contextual considerations that, in our desk-based research and conversations with sector experts and leaders, we have come across again and again. We hope you find this helpful!

Australia is …

… growing rapidly.

The Australian population is approaching 25 million people as a result of significant and swift growth in recent decades. For example, Victoria and Western Australia each grew a whopping 11% from 2011 to 2016.1 This trend is projected to continue. Over the coming 30 years, our population is forecast to increase by 12 million people.2

… ageing.

It will come as no surprise that, as well as growing, our population is ageing. The nation’s median age has doubled in the last century, moving from 23 years in 1911 to 38 years today.3 Both the proportion and absolute number of Australians aged 65 years and older is on the up, estimated to reach 8.7 million by 2056.4

… increasing culturally diverse.

We are a multicultural nation. Half of Australians were either born overseas or at least one of their parents was.5 Many Australians appreciate this – 84% of us believe that multiculturalism has been good for the country.6 However, it’s not all positive news; one in five Australians have experienced discrimination due to the colour of their skin, ethnic origin or religious beliefs.6

… experiencing rising inequality.

Although Australia’s income inequality has plateaued since the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis, wealth inequality continues to increase. Research published earlier this year by the Australian Council of Social Services and the University of New South Wales reveals striking economic disparities; the top 20% of households own 62% of all wealth, the lowest 50% own just 18%.7

… changing in a myriad of other ways.

There are other movements and trends underway for the Australian community. We are simultaneously becoming increasingly secular and more religious; there is a growing number of people identifying as having no religion alongside a rise in those declaring they are religious.8 We have the highest greenhouse gas production per person of any affluent country.9 Seven in 10 people currently live in capital cities,10 and urbanisation and urban sprawl are forecast to increase. A quarter of Australian households are now occupied by a person living alone.11

The for-purpose sector has …

… to balance collaboration and competition.

There are around 600,000 charities and not-for-profits operating in Australia, of which 50,000 or so are registered with our regulator. That’s a hell of a lot of entities with bucketloads of expertise, commitment and community connections. Depending on your perspective, it’s either a highly competitive environment or one with ample partnership opportunities or a mix of the two. In addition, a number of our interviewees talk passionately about the need to rationalise and consolidate the sector. Research released earlier this year found mergers, amalgamations and acquisitions to be common and “an effective strategy for organisational growth, gaining scale efficiencies and enhancing service choice and quality”.12

… a growing focus on outcomes and impact.

Funders, partners and the public are increasingly demanding transparency and taking a results-based approach. Although it is often easiest to measure your activities and outputs, this data is not enough on its own. Reporting needs to go beyond what you do by linking measured outputs to meaningful outcomes and impact. We believe that the days of data-driven impact measurement are over and that quantitative information should be supplemented with qualitative examples (e.g. case studies) and expert opinion. 

… to respond to digitisation and digital disruption.

We’ve come across a handful of exceptions but, in general, the not-for-profit sector is characterised by low digital capability and confidence. It may help to remember that dealing with technological advances is a challenge across sectors, be that government, not-for-profit or for-profit. Investing in digital strategy, systems and training requires significant resourcing and generates new risks, including issues relating to privacy and cyber security. Even so, it’s a non-negotiable if organisations are to survive and thrive. Without technology infrastructure and capability, for-purpose entities are unable to meet customer needs and expectations. With it, they are able to be nimble, increase their effectiveness and capitalise on opportunities relating to fundraising, supply chain management, service delivery etc.

… trust and reputational considerations.

Charities and not-for-profits have to contend with entrenched perceptions that they operate inefficiently and ineffectively.13  Irrespective of these views, the Australian Institute of Company Directors cite relatively high levels of trust and confidence in not-for-profits, noting that this is an “invaluable asset”.14 So, although our reputation as a sector remains stronger than that of the media, business and government, it is a source of major concern that trust in Australian charitable and not-for-profit organisations has dropped to below 50%.15

…to navigate depth and breadth.

Increasingly, we witness our clients and other contacts prioritising one, two or three tightly defined impact areas to realise significant positive change. Taking this approach can enable organisations to increase the quality of their services and products as well as clarifying their purpose and position in a crowded playing field. We also repeatedly hear the need for holistic approaches, which recognise the dependencies and correlations between our wicked social problems. We consider collaboration to be key here; if organisations have a defined remit, then strong and authentic partnerships are essential in the provision of seamless, comprehensive service provision.

So what?

What does this mean for organisations tackling the social issues we are facing? The rapidly changing profile of our communities means their needs and challenges are evolving. It is essential that entities continue to engage with and understand their beneficiaries, and adapt their purpose and programs based on what they hear. In engaging the public and other stakeholders, a clear value proposition and point of difference must be accompanied by a genuinely collaborative approach. These are vital ways that organisations can continue adapting and honing their work to maximise positive outcomes for their clients and the community. This has been true throughout 2018 and we strongly believe these principles will continue to hold relevance into the new year and beyond.

If you’d like to chat about anything we’ve written in this article, please drop us a line to We’d love to hear from you!

  2. Infrastructure Australia, Future Cities: Summary Report (2018)
  7. ACOSS and UNSW, Inequality in Australia (2018)
  12. RMIT University and CPA Australia, Mergers, Amalgamations and Acquisitions in the Australian Not-for-profit Human Services Sector (2018)
  13. AICD, 2016 NFP Governance and Performance Study (2016)
  14. AICD, 2017 NFP Governance and Performance Study (2017)
  15. Edelman, 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer: Global Report (2018)


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