The furphy of human services sustainability

21 May 2015 | Posted In: #125 Winter 2015, Community Sector, Human Services, Planning for People and Social Issues, | Author: Michael Shreenan

ecobulbApplications for human ser vice funding increasingly ask projects to show they are sustainable. Michael Shreenan asks if sustainability is achievable in human services or is it just an erroneous improbable story heard around water coolers which is now believed as fact.

Many in the NGO community sector battle funding uncertainty and are pushed by funders to keep doing more for less. There is an expectation placed on us by politicians, government departments and funders alike that because we access volunteers we can deliver services for free or close to it.

Sustainability is the current cliché phrase. It has become the Holy Grail for those making decisions about grant funding. Often the phrase is regurgitated without real definition, understanding of context and usually by someone who has no idea how NGOs or communities work.

I was recently amused when a grant officer advised us that the applica­tion for a specialist Alcohol and Drug outreach worker position could be funded if I could just find a way to make the position ‘sustainable’. They were of the view that somehow the project could become self-funded or that at the end of the funding cycle we would guarantee that volunteers would continue the project beyond the pilot.

Whilst I would be first to cham­pion social enterprise innovation, partnership sharing of resources and utilisation of volunteers, it is rare that any project with a particular human service intervention, requiring paid staff, can somehow miraculously become self-funded. To suggest other­wise is an absolute furphy.

Yes, it would be nice to work so well that we do ourselves out of a job – the ultimate goal of community develop­ment. However we all know there is always more to be done.

The problem is the assumption that volunteers can do the work of paid specialist staff and do it at no cost. Volunteers are fantastic and with­out them my organisation would be at its wits end. At times they have proved themselves better than paid staff. However volunteers need to be recruited, resourced, managed, trained and insured, and that just for starters.

When it comes to pursuing funding for a project, saying that a project will not be sustainable beyond the one year grant it is likely to lead to automatic rejection. So NGOs end up inventing a convincing pontificated statement with no semblance of reality.

Sustainability in terms of a project’s financial longevity is only relevant for some projects, not all projects. Often grant officers fail to explore this. NGOs should be able to say: sustainability is not relevant to this project and grant officers should be able to understand and appreciate this. One off projects with no ongoing costs could be classed as sustainable during the life time of that project. Projects that are given seed funding for social enterprises that can then generate income have the potential to be sustainable.

Sustainability, I would argue, can come by diverting the investment into strat­egies that we know work rather than strategies that are politically popular, short-term in nature, extremely expen­sive and turn out to be ineffectual.

The costs of addressing anti-social behaviour through enforcement for example is often costly, constantly re-invented, short term in nature, politically popular and very rarely based on good practice evidence. Nor does it have any long lasting effect. Investment in harm reduction and community development and early intervention on the other hand has a proven track record in reducing crime, reducing harm and reducing the longer term fiscal burden on the tax payer.

For example locking up car thieves was not what brought down the number of cars being stolen. What worked was encouraging manufac­turers to enhance security systems in cars (alarms, immobilisers, GPs track­ing etc.)

In terms of community work, lock­ing up high risk behaviour consumers of illegal and legal substances does not reduce consumption or harm. What reduces consumption and harm is education, counselling, diversionary activities, access to non-judgmental support and the building / facilitation of community resilience.

All of these will cost money and there will always be a need for reve­nue investment. The difference is they cost far less than continually failed enforcement strategies and have greater longevity in terms of impact. Enforcement has its place, but you cannot arrest your way out of commu­nity challenges any more than you can make a human service project cost no money.

We have to fight together for what we know is right, not allow compet­itive tendering and grand mother­hood sentiments such as “is your project sustainable?” to lead to our services being undervalued and under resourced. The community sector is not free. It is about time Government of all political persuasions invested in what works rather than the endless cycle of feasibility studies, meetings about meetings, reviews, evalSERV]CES repetitive tendering processes and reforms that are more costly than the services that could make a lasting impact if they were properly funded.

Michael Shreenan is the Executive officer of Counterpoint Community Services and the Chair of ISRCSD.