There are many different kinds of umbrella organisations. I’m involved in several myself and I’ve often wondered about the effectiveness of them. Therefore, I’m writing a piece about umbrella organisations to start a conversation about the topic.
There is no question in my mind that umbrella organisations can be an effective vehicle for bringing together people or organisations with common interests. They often deliver significant economies of scale and can achieve a significant amount by focussing resources and energy in a specific direction.
Equally, we see umbrella organisations pop up from time to time to address short term needs, such as the everybodycounts campaign aimed at getting the Australian government to establish a national disability insurance scheme. Umbrella organisations can achieve great things.
However, there’s a spectrum. At one end, there’s umbrella organisations where the members have strong common interests and objectives. I’d put organisations like Diabetes Australia in this box where the interests of state organisations and the national body are closely aligned – addressing the burden of diabetes.
At the other end are loosely coupled organisations who’s interests only align enough to formalise some form of alliance. However, somewhere along that spectrum is a point at which the alignment of interest is ‘at risk’. Often governments will promote the need for a “single voice” all the time knowing that consensus on anything significant from a large, fragmented group is rare. Governments can easily divide and conquer groups where a simplistic view would suggest that their interests may be common but the complexity of the arguments means a common view is difficult to achieve.
To put it in context, it’s a little like asking parents to from an alliance to select the favourite child. Seems simple but the underlying problem is that there are often competing views on resource allocation and there comes a point where competing views can’t be easily reconciled.
So I find myself pondering how to decide to engage umbrella organisations (UO) effectively and have come up with an inconclusive list of questions to ask myself:
1. Are the collective interest well enough aligned to be part of the UO?
2. On each piece of work, are the collective interests well served by deferring to the UO?
3. Can the UO more efficiently and effectively make an argument or do work on my behalf?
4. Does the collective interest undermine my capacity to advocate for my own constituents?
5. Does deferring to the UO advance or damage my brand equity?
While this list is merely a start, it opens a debate on the grey area of umbrella organisations and challenges the notion that all UO’s are by definition “effective”.