Doing Pro Bono work? Let’s call it what it is: Volunteer Work.

 

As a support coordinator, you may have faced situations where your funding gets low or becomes exhausted, but the participant still needs your support. You may have also encountered a NDIS representative who expects you to continue working for free, once the plan has run out of funding. This is not only unfair, but also unethical and unsustainable. In this blog post, I am going to help you understand why support coordinators should never work for free, and what you can do to assert your rights and push back.

The NDIS has responsibilities to the participants and providers.

The NDIS has a set of principles and rules that govern how it operates, and these apply to both the participants and the providers.

One of the key principles of the NDIS is that it is participant-driven. This means that participants have the right to choose their own goals, supports, and providers, and to have control and choice over their plans. The NDIS also has a responsibility to ensure that participants receive reasonable and necessary supports that are aligned with their goals and needs, and that their plans are regularly reviewed and updated as their circumstances change.

Another key principle of the NDIS is that it is market-based. This means that the providers have rights around their terms, and conditions, and to compete in a fair and transparent market. The NDIS also has a responsibility to ensure that the providers receive timely and accurate payments for the services they deliver, and that they are supported and regulated by the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.

I think at this stage we all understand neither of these principles are being fully upheld and it regularly feels like that the NDIS is just "making things up as it goes". With rumours that there are over 60 thousand unread emails sitting in the enquiries inbox, and that NDIS staff are unable to keep up with requests for plan reviews, changes of situations and simple updates, it is no surprise that support coordinators and participants are exhausted, angry, and over it. 

I am personally working with multiple participants who are receiving no support, because their funding has attempts to get the NDIS to rectify these serious issues,  are like shouting into a void. 

For every unanswered email, and complaint put in, we put further pressure on an already broken system. So, who is to blame? It is 100% not Support Coordinators, I can tell you that.

So, what do you do when you are asked to work for free by a LAC or Planner?

Do you feel guilty if you do not continue to support a participant in need, but go unpaid? Does it drive you to keep working to the point of burnout? You need to take a breath and understand, that working for free undermines you, the participants, and the NDIS.

When support coordinators work for free, they are not only doing themselves a disservice, but also helping to ensure that the NDIA does not truly understand the extent of the issues that are occurring out here in the real world. At times it feels to me like the NDIS is reliant on that voluteer work, that is so prevalanet across our roles, and there is an expectation it will continue. Can you imagine if every single one of us had refused to continue working, the first time we realised that fuding had run out and the participant was in danger of having no supports? Do you think we would be in a different spot today? 



Working for free means that:

  • You are not being paid for the valuable work you do, and you are losing income and opportunities. Working for free, and being expected to work for free, means you are being told, and accepting, that what you do is not worth compensation, and that if you don’t work for free, you are not a good person and have no empathy for people with disability. You can be a good, emapathetic and moralistic person, without being gaslit into reducing your worth. The guilt that is placed on Support Coordinators by LACs and Planners is an abuse of their position.
  • You are not being recognised or respected as a professional service provider, and you are being exploited and taken advantage of. Please feel free to comment on any other role where a person is expected to work for free, and is directed to do so by a government employee? I would hazard a guess that emotional manipulation by NDIS staff, towards any person is against the APS code of conduct. If we are meant to work for free, then so should Services Australia employees, Ambulance officers and many other roles where people deal with vulnerable people's wellbeing and safety. 

 

  • You are not being accountable or transparent to the participant, the NDIS, or the public, and you are creating conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas. When you work for free, you stop the agency being able to see that there is a serious problem within the sector and that the continuing underfunding of Support Coordination in plans has been seriously detrimental to both Support Coordinators and participants. The data cannot possibly show this massive gap in service, if we simply keep providing our services for free and do not stop work when the funding runs out. The publications that show the NDIS is doing a great job, the data that says they get things done on time. Do you think that might be incorrect data if they don’t have a true and complete picture of what is happening on the ground?   It is interesting to note that the NDIA have not delivered the most recent particiapnt service guarantee data, due to "the changeover to the new system". What? Are they admitting that that new system, firstly, is impacting heavily on their ability to meet their own service guarantee, and secondly are they also admitting that the new system is not capable of extracting the data they need to provide this information. I call shennanigans! 

 

  • You are not being sustainable or efficient, and you are risking burnout and quality of service. The only way to show the NDIS the true scope of the work we do is to document and bill every single hour of support we provide. All these “guilt” hours and desire to help hours you give away for free? I hate to bring this to your attention, but those free hours you give, are part of the reason that we are in a Support Coordination predicament that we are in today. We have systematically undervalued and undermined ourselves, and now everyone else is using that against us. 
  • You are not being participant-driven or market-based, and you are undermining the choice and control of the participant and the competition and innovation of the market. For every hour you do for free, you create an expectation at every level that this is normal practice. When other providers demand to be paid for all the support they provide, they are faced with accusations of “money grabbing”. Some Support Coordinators even actively push this narrative themselves, and we particularly see it with some new to the sector Support Coordinators. Those coordinators who want to get a foot in the door, or those who want to be seen as, “not like the rest of them”. The ones that gladly charge less, or do volunteer work as a way to get participants to use their services. This creates an unbalanced view of our cohort, and we all suffer the consequences.

What you can do to stop working for free and stand your ground.

If you are in a situation where your funding is exhausted, but the participant still needs your support, and the LAC/Planner is not responsive or cooperative, here are some steps you can take to stop working for free:

  • Communicate clearly and firmly with the LAC and the participant. Explain why you cannot continue to support them without funding, and what the consequences are for them and for you. Provide evidence of the work you have done, the funds you have spent, and the outcomes you have achieved. Alternatively, provide evidence of why you have been unable to achieve any more than you have done, due to the funding that was given in the plan.
  • Request a plan review or an escalation as soon as possible and follow up regularly until you get a response. (Unless you have no funding to do so!) Remember: Where for example, 12 hours of support coordination funding has been funded, you should be clear with the participant that this amount of funding is simply enough for you to do a first meeting with them, potentially set up one or two supports, then they will need to be handed back to the LAC or planner. Email the LAC or Planner immediately and let them know what you will do with those 12 hours after meeting with the participant (and I would do this meeting by phone only, because with travel included, you may be down to 9 hours straight away) and that they will be handed back almost immediately. 
  • Do not enter into any arguments with the planner or LAC and remind them that you are billing every conversation you have with them, and they are wasting more funding by continuing to push their narrative.
  • Document everything that happens. Keep a record of all the communications, actions, and decisions that take place. This will help you to protect yourself from any disputes, complaints, or audits that may arise in the future.
  • Refer the participant to other sources of support. If the participant still needs support, you can direct them to other providers, agencies, or organisations that may be able to help them. For example, you can refer them to the NDIS Contact Centre, the NDIS Commission, the NDIA Complaints Resolution and Review Team, the NDIS Appeals, or the Disability Advocacy Network Australia. You can also encourage them to reach out to their family, friends, or community for support. Prepare them for the fact that they may be without you, or a planner, or an LAC to support them and use an hour of that funding to give them as many “self-service” options that you can.
  • Stand your ground and don’t give in. You may face pressure, guilt, or manipulation from the LAC, Planner, the participant, or your employer to keep working for free. Don’t let them make you feel bad or obligated to do something that is not right or fair. Remember that you have rights and responsibilities as a provider, and that you deserve to be paid for your work.
  • Just a cheeky reminder, if you are feeling a bit sassy, and you are being told by an LAC or Planner that you should work for free, ask them how much they are getting paid to be at work today. They will no doubt tell you it is none of your business. You can say to them: “That’s ok, the rate does not matter, what matters is that you are being paid, and you would not come to work if they told you to come in for free, and we definitely have that in common, because I to, do not work for free”.
 
  • Quick note: If you are new to your role, are not sure what you are doing, or generally, not an efficient and experienced Support Coordinator yet, please don’t use participants’ funding to learn the role. Get a mentor, (We can do that!) Go and do our course, find a quality and ethical provider to train you, without unleashing you onto participants straight out of the gate. Learn the fundamentals of the role before you start, have some background and experience in the general sector  https://mindgrown.com.au/course/achieving-support-coordination-excellence
And last, but not least, let us consider the following point, when considering why you should not do any free work for the NDIS:

 - We ring the 1800 number (usually billable) and the staff are not trained, do not understand the guidelines, give us different information every time (Am I the only one who hangs up and rings back if one person tells me the wrong thing, only to keep doing that until i find a person who knows what they are doing?) How much do you think this costs the NDIS and participants funding?

- How much time do you spend dealing with the call centre, planners who have not read reports and do not know what is going on, and just general sheer incompetence when dealing with the systems of the NDIS? It is A LOT. 

- With the introduction of PACE, how much time have you wasted trying to work that broke system out? How many call centre staff have been unable to help you (which is THEIR JOB) How many times have you been assured you will be made a preferred provider, only to find it has not happened (we even had one NDIS staff member tell us he didn't know it was his job to do make the SC a preferred provider) Who is training these people? Why are so many of them clueless in what to do, and how to help? I am not blaming the staff, this is clearly a system issue, but those staff are the only ones we are allowed to talk to. So why aren't they better at their jobs? 

For the sake of brevity, I will leave it at that but I could go on and on and every time I have to communicate with the NDIS i am left incredulous at how idiotic the whole process seems right now. There is no other word to describe it, in my opinion. 

 


Me asking the NDIS some hard hitting questions....................

Support coordinators play a vital role in the NDIS, and they should be valued and respected for their work. Working for free is not only detrimental to support coordinators, but also to the participants, the NDIS, and the perception the public and participants have about Support Coordinators in general. By refusing to work for free, support coordinators can help to shape the NDIS and contribute to a better and more sustainable system for everyone.

Stand up for yourself, and your colleagues. Do not allow the NDIS to guilt trip us all into burnout. Remember, you are not a lawyer with a compassionate side, you are a well-trained, highly skilled (hopefully) professional.

So, if you choose to work for free, you are not doing PRO BONO work my friend, you are a VOLUNTEER. A very noble profession, when done by choice, but not one that pays your bills. Volunteer work is also not meant to create harm and unbalance a whole system either. It is meant to be helpful. That is not what is happening here.