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Craig Foster grew up in NSW’s Northern Rivers. Over the years, he has become a household name as a footballer representing Australia for the Socceroos, a sports commentator and broadcaster. Whilst this kept him busy for nearly 20 years, more recently he has become increasingly outspoken as a human rights advocate.

In 2020 Craig established the #PlayForLives campaign, connecting sporting clubs and organisations across the country to local community organisations. People hit hard by the economic consequences of COVID-19 were in need of food, and the traditional volunteer base for community organisations – older people – were forced to physically distance to stay safe. Craig’s solution? Rallying professional and amateur athletes with extra time on their hands following the shutdown of sporting competitions across the nation. Sporting associations are one of the few traditional pillars of civil society.

Across the world, people come together around common interests to play, pray, organise, educate, advocate and more. During COVID-19, civil society organisations of all shapes and sizes pitched in to try and support communities in need. Governments at all levels, unable to meet the health, economic and social challenges alone, depended on these for-purpose organisations to deliver key information, provide essential services and ensure people and communities stayed connected to each other.

As we reflect on the successes and failures of 2020, one question we need to ask is whether governments and community members appreciate the role civil society organisations play in connecting our broader social fabric. We know that the assistance that people in need received during COVID was not evenly distributed – the support people received depended on factors like where they lived, their citizenship status, who they already knew, and how much they were disadvantaged by the system in the first place.

This raises a number of urgent questions:

Do we need to pay more attention to the strength of our connections to each other – or lack thereof?

These are the kinds of questions that Strengthening Australian Civil Society is here to ask.

Through a series of workshops, dozens of interviews and workshops, as well as reviewing reports and collecting stories and resources from around the world, we’ve been trying to understand the role of advocacy and influence, community connection, systems and networks, and leadership in the way that civil society has responded to the challenges of COVID-19.

Our research team is in the process of producing a series of discussion papers and conversation kits based on what people have told us so far, to help deepen Australian civil society’s collective processes of reflection and adaptation.

For now, we wanted to share four preliminary insights that have emerged about systems and networks:

  1. Preparedness is key: Don’t wait until crisis hits to tend to your network: the more time that has been spent building and strengthening connections across a community, the better positioned that community is to absorb and respond to shocks. Strong relational and kinship systems, such as among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, were enormously important during COVID-19.
  2. Operating in crisis requires flexibility within a system: Rigid control systems and reporting requirements between funders and service providers shut down information flows and reduce the ability of people on the ground to respond directly to need as it arises. Accountability is always important, but it needs to be balanced against the need for flexibility. Trust is an essential ingredient.
  3. The role of intermediaries and connection points is under-appreciated: The strength and integrity of a network or system is determined by the nature of the connection between parts of the whole. The focus on only funding “direct service delivery” undervalues the logistical and relational resources that are essential for collaboration and capacity building.
  4. Organisations are struggling to stay true to their purpose: Public funding and the marketisation of NGO service provision has changed the orientation and focus of many organisations. Larger activist and advocacy organisations too are increasingly focussed on their funding sources and old patterns of behaviour. Without a strong, diverse and participatory civil society, do we drift apart and lose our focus on the common good?


Our team will continue exploring and sharing stories and ideas related to community connection and civil society over the coming months, so make sure you have signed up to receive updates when we release them.

At its heart, Strengthening Australian Civil Society is an ongoing conversation, a meeting place for people and organisations to share ideas, find common purpose and generate new relationships for change.

If reading this short piece has provoked thoughts and ideas on campaigning or another aspect of civil society, please get in touch and share where you’re at.

Mark Riboldi

Mark Riboldi

Mark is a researcher at the Sydney Policy Lab, with a focus on collaborative policy development and the intersections between communities, governments and civil society.