Fremantle’s Not-For-Profit Sector – The Case For Strategic Review

by Tim Grey-Smith

There has been something of a community uproar recently with the dramatic closure of Deckchair Theatre, the equally dramatic closure of Kulcha, the leasing ambiguity surrounding The Fly By Night Musicians Club, not to mention the tenuous financial position of several other community organisations. Is this a deliberate attack on our not-for-profit sector by State Government, a result of a lack of community support for the organisations, or just the result of a natural state of affairs, caused by decreased relevance of the organisations in question?

It would be true to say, that most if not all of the above organisations have never gone through any major consititutional or strategic change since their inception. Whilst most commercial businesses would be willing to turn themselves inside out to make more profit, and generally do so every five years or thereabouts, we don’t seem to see the same kind of willingness to make big, necessary, relevance changes in our not-for-profit sector.

While it may be easy to try to single out an individual or organisation to “blame” for this lack of ability to change with the times, in reality it seems to be a combination of executive boards not feeling like they have the remit to embark on major change, as well as staff of the organisations who are legally in no place to do so. As a result, the executive of many organisations will pre-occupy themselves with operational aspects of their entity, rather than looking at larger strategic issues.

One key aspect that new not-for-profit organisations such as Dismantle understand in the current funding climate is that within any not-for-profit, there needs to be a core business unit that for lack of a better term, “pays the bills”. Dismantle has the Bike Dr., Kulcha had a massively under-utilised licenced venue, and Deckchair Theatre had the ability (but not the capacity or will) to licence their side bar “Hobbs”. In a more rationalised arrangement, or in other words one with a “core business unit” the organisation can exist in some form without government support. When it attracts funding, it can program workshops, events and activities, but more importantly, if it loses said funding, it doesn’t put the entire organisation at risk. In the case of both Deckchair and Kulcha, it is true that the final nail in the coffin was the removal of government sponsorship, however their pre-existing financial structure had previously hammered the rest.

Don’t take this the wrong way, readers. I have incredible respect for all those involved in any organisation that I have mentioned, and an incredible amount of dedicated paid and volunteer work has gone into them all. My problem is not with those involved, but with the structure of things. The one thing that I’m starting to realise as somebody who has been a small business owner, a politician, but now just an interested citizen, is that the structures and systems that we live in were not made by God but just made by people who were working within their own flawed system at the time, and the outcomes that we now see were just the best fit at the time, and probably a compromise. To expect perfect, perpetually relevant systems that were created by imperfect people in their own imperfect system at the time is just a bridge too far.

All this said, I have not outlined any solutions. In my past life as a policymaker, there was nothing that annoyed me more than somebody who would point out the all-too-obvious problems of the world, but would sit silent when asked for solutions. One solution of course, is to do nothing. More organisations will fold, some will gain charismatic individuals and grow (until that individual burns out), and some will flop along like they have for a very long time. I think we can do better than this, and for the sake of all those involved with said organisations, I believe we must.

Given that (in my reading of the situation) we have organisations that would see the value in a “relevance check”, or at the very least would like some help in maximising their revenue stream, I believe that as a community we could put a good case to the state government. A one-off fund to resource strategic analysis and workshopping (to those who request it of course) with broad scope but strong foundations in the core values of the organisation. It would do wonders to shore up the sector, as well as reduce further requests for “sustenance” funding. Of course this fund would need to be administered, however a new not-for-profit such as the Fremantle Foundation would be ideal as it has strong corporate governance and active, strong leadership. Ultimately we’re pitching at saving the State Government money in the long run, how could they say no?

Who’s up for it?

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