Do we need a new approach to the social sector?

Tania with the With One Voice choirs, ANZ Diversity Week, March 2012I first met social entrepreneur Tania de Jong a few years ago through her work in bringing together the Creative Innovation festival.

Now she has set a goal of reshaping Australia’s social sector by taking a leaf out of the books of Uber and Airbnb.

De Jong is chief executive officer of Creativity Australia and founder of With One Voice, a charitable organisation that brings together disadvantaged people from across a spectrum of circumstances to sing together in weekly choir communities with people from more fortunate backgrounds.

People within the program nominate a wish they hope to see fulfilled, which can range from helping with a resume to purchasing a new appliance, with more than 500 wishes granted through 2014.

“They request from one another what they need in life, and miraculously enough people put up their hand and say they can help,” de Jong says. “Over the past five years, hundreds of people have got new skills and jobs. It is about creating meaningful outcomes so people can be contributing participants to society.”

Speaking ahead of her keynote presentation at the Ci2015 conference happening in Melbourne from March 23, de Jong says the With One Voice program represents a new model for the Australian social sector, which she says isolates problems into siloes and funds them in a very top-down manner.

She says this approach is at odds with the sharing economy now being defined by companies such as Uber and Airbnb, which excel at connecting individuals with needs to those who can service them.

“It is a model that needs to be adopted across the community sector, because there are all of these 20th century top-down institutional models, and the world is no longer in that mode,” de Jong says. “We are now in a mode where it is all about the individual, not about organisations.

“We are moving from a top-down centralised model to distributed connected communities, we are moving from consumption to collaboration, and from assets to access. But how do we achieve this for all communities?”

Executive and former Coles Myer executive Paul Kronborg admits he was sceptical when he turned up to his first choir six years ago, but now attends as many as he can.

“I now have some very deep understandings of actually what it is like to be a refugee, and what it is like to be strapped in a wheelchair, or be unemployed,” Kronborg says. “Spending time with the disabled or people who are gravely ill or bound in their beds brings a different level of understanding to the experience and the connection.”

With One Voice now convenes choirs in 11 locations around Australia, and is actively recruiting more.

De Jong says the group receives support from numerous commercial organisations, including law firms and health providers.

The deputy chief executive officer of Geelong healthcare provider Barwon Health Paul Cohen says a number of his staff attend choirs regularly,

“You see the benefit that they get out of it both from singing and the joyousness that comes from that,” Cohen says. “And there is also a benefit in working with others from different backgrounds and disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Organisations that participate in community programs through volunteerism get back a disproportionate value and benefit into their own organisations – all the research says there is absolutely a commercial benefit.”

De Jong says With One Voice has proven popular because it gives individuals a real chance to connect with the people they are helping.

“A lot of corporates donate to charity in quite a tokenistic way,” de Jong says. “If we really want to solve some of our entrenched social problems, then it is about much more than just a charity day – it is about people giving of their time and their business skills to help solve some of these problems in their community.

“So this is about enabling and empowering individuals and building communities and social cohesion. Everything is moving to the individuals and the power of collaborative communities.”