When the COVID-19 pandemic first arrived in Victoria in autumn last year, the Inner North Community Foundation that covers three local council areas in Melbourne responded by tapping into its experience, network, and profile to deliver rapid response grants.
To help, the Foundation applied – and received within two days from the ATO – a temporary Disaster Relief Fund DGR1 status that meant it could receive contributions from PAFs while broadening its capacity to support local groups.
The three councils – Darebin, Moreland and Yarra, covering nearly 400,000 residents of Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs – pledged their support. Darebin also provided personnel – a theatre lighting mechanic – who no longer had work in the lockdown. He became part of the rapid response team, helping to build capacity at a critical time. And borrowing from some other community foundations’ experience through the 2019 bushfire crisis, the Inner North Community Foundation adopted a voucher system to provide emergency relief through local traders. That would amount to more than $60,000 spent at local businesses to provide food vouchers. And more than 2,500 families received food relief.
The granting process was swift and decisive. Community need overrode some existing protocols. Urgency demanded an agile and dynamic response.
Sylvia Admans, Grants Assessment Panel Chair at the Foundation, explains it: “We learned we had to adapt the way we worked in terms of delegation systems. We’d modify guidelines. We learned that we couldn’t just work with small organisations, and that we had to work with the full spectrum of organisations to create full benefit across the community.’’
Every two weeks, grants of $1500 each were made. Funds could be out the door in 24 hours. In the six months from March 2020, 164 grants were disbursed, more than double the usual number. “There was no hesitation,’’ Sylvia says. “We know how to do it. You have to learn by doing and the thing is with making very small grants is that they’re quite low risk but that they very rarely disappoint.’’
The range of grants showed the diversity of need and the power of responding quickly, whether it was grants for the hay that fed horses at the Riding for the Disabled, providing lap tops and printers to community organisations, supporting food relief, funding Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to enable appropriate care and support for young homeless mothers, buying Zoom memberships to help support organisations keep in contact with members and clients, IT upgrades, and translation services. One organisation, The Social Studio, was making medical scrubs for frontline healthcare workers. Its need was urgent and vital.
“Thank you for your 'rapid' support of this project. This grant provided an immediate injection of funds that enables us to purchase fabric within days of submitting the application (and having it approved),’’ The Social Studio told the Foundation. “Really appreciate your responsiveness. The INCF was the first foundation to support this initiative. TSS continues to make scrubs to this day - so it has been a very successful project. "-
The pandemic sharpened the opportunity for community foundations across the country to help locals at a critical time. For some organisations within the Inner North Community Foundation’s footprint, the rapid response grants were critical to their survival. For others, it meant they were able to extend their support to an increasing number of vulnerable locals.
As Sylvia explains it, the Foundation’s ability to tap into its extensive network was based on its granting history. “We’ve only ever had the capacity to do quite small grants which means you meet lots of people, lots of organisations and so the knowledge was already there,’’ she says.
Council support was important, because it also gave those who needed help another way of being directed to the Foundation’s rapid response grants.
“The great thing was that all three councils gave us financial contributions, so we had local government say: “Talk to these guys,’’, and they were doing their own things as well,’’ Sylvia says. “You automatically had referral points through that – we had existing granting relationships with the majority of charities in the inner north already, and then it’s a matter of using your email lists, your social media to say, “This is there’.’’
The power of the place-based model was underlined throughout the process, but it also emphasized the value of community foundations, especially at a time of crisis, when trust is vital.
“I think community foundations are trusted because you can’t behave badly in your own ‘hood because everyone will know,’’ Sylvia says. “You’ve got that touch point already. That’s your main currency in a way with a community foundation - you have to be trusted by your community, otherwise who’s going to give you money to lock away forever and a day and know that you’re going to responsibly manage and then use the income to do good works?’’
And even the grants allocation has its own affirmative power, especially when organisations are facing an uncertain future. “It’s a high energy situation. It’s a whole belief system - that there’s someone there who believes in you, who wants you to weather this storm and come out better,’’ Sylvia says. “And the thing I always think about with small organisation is that your effort, your resource, has to count because you don’t have the luxury of wasting it.’’
One of the most reassuring pieces of evidence about how well the rapid response grants worked – from the community and Foundation’s perspectives – was that the program was reactivated during Melbourne’s long winter lockdown this year.
“We still had a small balance of funds – when we were locked down again, we knew we should be out there, so initially our focus was on emergency relief, and we’ve done that and some rapid response grants off the back of that,’’ Sylvia says.
But perhaps the most uncelebrated aspect of the rapid response grants was how it empowered many in the community to feel that they were doing something – donating resources, time, food, and money - in the face of a lethal virus and their locked front door.
“It was a wonderful weaving of things together that existed within the community,’’ Sylvia says. “It was deeply satisfying to do it I have to say….’’
“With the depth and diversity of the nominations that we receive, it was really difficult to select a winner. We thank all those who nominated for this important award,” says Georgie McKay, Director, Australian Community Philanthropy at the 2021 Australian Philanthropy Awards.