Best Grant Program Award 2021

Small grants but big wins

It’s a simple observation that a crisis creates opportunities – for change and reform. The status quo is upended. Needs become greater, and solutions more urgent. For advocates working in community-led grassroots organisations, the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 instantly posed challenges but also gave them opportunities to work in the cracks the pandemic had created, to shift policy and drive outcomes.

In March 2020, Australian Progress joined with the Australian Council of Social Service and Australian Communities Foundation to establish a Rapid Advocacy Fund that would help support some of those grassroots advocacy campaigns that could make a difference. 

What distinguished the partnership was not just how swiftly it came together – Australian Progress and ACOSS are partners and have worked together on projects for some years and ACF CEO Maree Sidey is on Australian Progress’s board – but how effective it all was.

Australian Progress Executive Director Kirsty Albion understood the process, from granting to disbursing had to be swift. There was no mucking around – the pandemic was shaking things up so profoundly that opportunities to achieve reform were suddenly appearing.

“The main thing we knew was that it needed to be quick…a pooled funding model so that funders could put into the fund, and they could be as involved or as little involved as they like, but regardless we could get resources out the door within days of getting the application,’’ Kirsty explains.

The Fund created a donor pool that was the source of $150,000 in grants to 25 organisations in eight months. Grant applications were relatively straightforward – 15-20 minutes to fill out – and every Tuesday lunchtime, the three partner organisation came together to assess the applications. But it was an open session – those who contributed to the funding pool were welcome to join the discussion. Some did and they added another dimension to the discussion.

“We have the advocacy knowledge, but we don’t have the funding knowledge,’’ Kirsty says. “And the philanthropists in the room, they were incredible with what were essentially the strategic questions about how to get the most out of your money. It made it an amazing collaboration.’’

“This was our first granting process – we’re a capacity building organization so we run application processes for training and capacity support, but not really for funding…and the philanthropists I think changed our recommendations almost every time,’’ Kirsty says. The contribution didn’t stop with the application of granting experience – the philanthropists leveraged some of their own networks to add another element to the funding pool. “Sometimes they’d say: ‘I reckon I’ve got a donor outside I can get to fund this’,’’ Kirsty recalls. It proved to be another vital ingredient.

Although a speedy response was vital, there was still some requirements to be met.

“We had some fundamental principles – it was for advocacy with a clear theory of change that could win a clear policy change,’’ Kirsty says. “It had to be an urgent response to COVID-19 – we were looking for organisations that had bold changes and advocacy that they were prosecuting and that were also grassroots in nature - so small organisations, community-led organisations…and prioritised those with lived experience and were innovative, with best practice tools and tactics.’’ The underlying belief was that a small grant to a community-connected organization with the right advocacy approach could lead to a big win – a change in policy or a major reform.

 And that’s how it turned out.

Just weeks after the Fund was launched, it disbursed $4,500 to the First Peoples Disability Network to enable them to launch an advocacy campaign calling on the National Cabinet to fast-track 100 respiratory clinics across remote and rural regional Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander communities as part of COVID-19 preparation. The Network is an experienced advocacy organisation and within weeks had gained significant media traction across the country, with personal stories from First Nations’ people with a disability, direct engagement with key decisionmakers, a coalition of disability peak organisations brought together to launch an open letter with 10 key advocacy asks for disability communities. Within a month of receiving the grant, the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced: “The Australian Government has committed to establishing up to 100 GP-led respiratory clinics around the country to assess patients with mild to moderate COVID-19-like symptoms.’’

In some ways, Kirsty wasn’t surprised at the success. “You were hearing reports how much First Nation’s communities were leading the charge to keep their communities safe,’’ Kirsty says. “And we’ve worked with the First Nations Disability Network for years – we know their resourceful, highly connected into their community, just incredible campaigners, so we knew a gift to them would go a very long way. And that was right…they won their campaign.’’

Other pieces of advocacy came out of the blue. One of them was the Australian Association of Psychologists Inc campaign to increase the number of subsidized visits individuals can have on their mental health care plan. The AAP understood that demand for such services in the pandemic was going up and there needed to be additional support for those seeking help.

“They have so much policy expertise, they had doors in to decisionmakers and they were talking to the politicians, and they had people who were supporting it, but they were hearing over and over again “There’s too many issues going on, if you don’t get yours on the front page of the media, it’s not going to happen’’, Kirsty explains. “So, they came to us and asked: can you help us hire a PR agency to help us to get this policy issue into the front pages?’’

The grant was made, and stories duly appeared in the nation’s main news outlets. Then in August, Minister Hunt announced:” The Australian Government will provide 10 additional Medicare subsidised psychological therapy sessions for people subjected to further restrictions in areas impacted by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.’’

It was another win, underlining yet again the power of the right campaign at the right time.

 “There are moments in time when the value of a dollar goes up because the issue is on the front page of the paper or decisionmakers are reconsidering their policies,’’ Kirsty says.

 “And we knew when COVID hit there were so many policy questions on the table that if we could get resources to those innovative grassroots community-led groups that we could really see huge impact and the hypotheses paid off.’’

“Like its name suggests, it [Rapid Advocacy Fund] was pulled together very quickly when the pandemic took hold, in recognition of the importance of advocacy to achieve systemic change,” Kirsty says during the Australian Philanthropy Awards 2021.

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