Pre-2020, local community organisations were already given short shrift when it came to funding and support. Now, two years later, they have dealt with a multitude of natural disasters on top of a global pandemic, and they are exhausted. But they come with solutions.

In September 2021, the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) commissioned the Heartbeat of Rural Australia study, exploring how nonprofits and community groups in remote, rural and regional Australia are faring after two years of constant disruptions. The study was undertaken through The Xfactor Collective Foundation with work carried out by research agency Survey Matters. 

The aim was to generate both qualitative and quantitative data to articulate the vital role that community organisations play in the social, economic, cultural, and environmental resilience and vitality of their communities and regions. The group also wanted to understand the cumulative impacts of natural disasters and COVID-19. 

But above all, it is hoped the research will help amplify and give greater authority and influence to nonprofits in the design of policies, investments, and solutions for their communities’ sustainability and vitality. 

The respondents at a glance  

  • 640 community organisations took part in the study 
  • 7% are remote, 44% are regional and 49% are rural 
  • 38% are registered with the ACNC 
  • 15% have DGR1 status 
  • 73% have a turnover less than $250,000 
  • 53% have a turnover less than $50,000 
  • 59% are run primarily by volunteers 

What these community organisations mean to Australia 

More than two-thirds of community organisations provide opportunities to encourage volunteering (69%) and/or social inclusion (69%). Over half provide activities to help improve the mental health and wellbeing of their communities, either directly (59%) or indirectly by combatting social isolation (57%) and supporting learning (53%). A little under half also provide activities to help maintain the physical health of their communities (46%).  

Key findings  

Grassroots organisations play a key role in their communities, with 87% contributing to the local economy and almost all providing some form of cultural and social support. 

These nonprofits are feeling the toll of ongoing natural disasters coupled with a global pandemic. In the last two years, nearly half of responding organisations have had to contend with drought; 37% faced bushfires; 26% responded to floods; and nearly 20% dealt with the mouse plague. 

COVID-19 has weakened the ability of community organisations to play their role in the community. They have lost vital income from funders and supporters and the inability to run events. 

The pandemic has highlighted a digital divide between capital cities and country areas, in particular with relation to unreliable internet. Just under a third of organisations rated their internet access extremely reliable. 

Unsurprisingly, volunteers and staff are feeling exhausted. Retaining volunteers and paid staff has become more difficult in the last two years. Approximately a third of respondents have reduced volunteer hours and staff have been required to work longer hours.  

It doesn’t help then, that community organisations fair far less favourably when it comes to funding. Very few receive ongoing government or philanthropic support. In contrast, larger organisations (more than $1 million in revenue) are generously endowed with government and philanthropic grants, with 70% receiving ongoing government funding. 

These small organisations also fall foul of the philanthropic hesitancy to fund operational costs which, when they are often volunteered-powered, make up the majority of their costs. More than half of respondents say they spend at least 75% of their income on operating expenses, yet funders often restrict ‘admin costs’ to just 10%. 

What then, did participating organisations feel would make a positive difference to their crucial work?  

Solutions  

The report highlighted small changes in funding arrangements that will make a big difference, including greater flexibility in how and when funding can be used. Community organisations want their funding partners to get to know them, and to better understand their unique situations. 

Only half of respondents agreed that they can influence decisions made about the support they receive or that funders listen to and consult them about issues affecting their communities. There was also a call for greater flexibility in how and when funding can be used, and a simpler application process with less red tape. 

Critically, groups also call for longer-term or ongoing funding, allowing them to plan more effectively and to use resources more efficiently. 

When asked what else organisations need, beyond funding, to improve their ability to provide their services, the most common response was more volunteers. Community organisations also want access to training on the operational aspects of their work and in-kind support such as access to experts in different fields. 

As the pandemic makes us all focus on life close to home, let’s hope we can give these vital organisations the acknowledgement and support they need as they navigate the ripple effect of two years of challenges, exacerbated by geographic remoteness.  

You can read the report in full or explore some of the highlights here.  

To dive into the full data set, provided by Seer Data and Analytics, and cross-reference it with other studies, click here.  

To watch the recordings of webinars exploring the results for both communities and funders, policy-makers and the NFP sector, click here.  

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