Embattled social sector identifies its immediate priorities

Funding, advocacy to government and public relations support have been identified as the most valuable strategic and operational priorities for COVID-effected social sector organisations, according to a new study of the sector.

The RESET 2020 National Impact + Need Research Study of 380 organisations shows that the key priority for many organisations is - not surprising given the extensive impact the pandemic has had on fundraising and resourcing – funding, in all its forms.

The study, which was undertaken in April and May by The XFactor Collective with the support of Equity Trustees Sector Capacity Building Fund, identifies the twin pressures many organisations are facing in trying to reconcile declining financial reserves with an increased demand for their services.

But a deeper analysis of what kind of funding organisations were seeking was not clear from the 30 per cent of respondents who identified financial support as their priority.

“Equally, assistance to access or find grants, philanthropic funding or sponsorships (28%) were commonly cited as the best support that could be provided right now,’’ the report states.

More than one in three respondents (37 per cent) nominated advocacy to government for continued support of the organisation’s activities as one of their top priorities, while a further 33 per cent said strategies for engaging with their partners was also important.

The report states: “Continued advocacy to governments about the benefits of the services they provide to the community would also be of value. Many [respondents] mentioned that lobbying of government for assistance to continue their operations is an important component of ongoing support.

“Support to keep a public focus on the issues and needs of their beneficiaries is also required. With so much attention on the effects of COVID-19 on health and the economy, many are concerned that the particular needs of their community of interest are being forgotten.’’

While uncertainty and change emerged as the biggest issue impacting organisations’ staff (53 per cent), the on-going effect of lockdowns and social distancing on an organisation’s ability to deliver support services was a problem for almost half of respondents (46 per cent.)

The impact on staff well being and mental health has emerged as an important marker of the pandemic: 28 per cent of organisations are concerned about the mental health and well being of staff and volunteers.

While paid staffing levels have remained reasonably constant throughout the pandemic – 28 per cent of respondents stood staff down or reduced their hours – the biggest impact has been on volunteers. The study found 70 per cent organisations had let their volunteers go or cut back their hours. Only 15 per cent of respondents recorded no change to their volunteering.

For smaller organisations, developing a work from home model with its digital requirements was also a burden that 28 per cent of respondents identified. The need to undertake the kind of digital transformation that will enable organisations to provide programs that can be developed online and to manage staff working from home was identified as a top-three priority for one in five (22 per cent) respondents.

‘’With most funding being directed at specific or discrete projects, there is often little available for investment or capacity building,’ the study says. “With reports suggesting that the sector is slow to adopt digital technologies, the current situation may force them to make investments to improve efficiencies and expand their services.’’

The study reveals an overall picture of a sector battling to deal with the financial consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic: nearly two-thirds of respondents reported lost revenue since March while a third (35 per cent) noted an increase in demand for their services.

Just how vulnerable the sector is to the pandemic’s shock is illustrated by the revelation that 45 per cent of the survey’s respondents had operating reserves of six months or less. A further 18 per cent said they were struggling to deliver their services or required immediate financial support to keep operating.

Some organisations have, however, found the pandemic has provided them with the opportunity to innovate, by developing new programs and initiatives.

“Some report that, in being forced to adapt to virtual events and meetings, they found they reached a wider audience that face to face gatherings had previously inhibited,’’ the report says. “Others found that collaborating with other organisations provided opportunities to strengthen their services and broaden their reach.’’

One organisation with a revenue of less than $250,000 a year detailed how the pandemic had forced it into new collaborations: “Yes, we are proactively partnering with other more established NFPs to complement their services; establishing global connections so that we can share learnings; and looking for alternative sources of income.”

Julia Keady, Founder/CEO, The Xfactor Collective said the organisation would continue to monitor the pandemic’s evolving impacts through further research, while continuing to support the sector, especially the wellbeing and mental health of organisational leaders.

 “With the COVID virus clearly being here for some time, we believe it’s critical to stay on top of the evolving needs of the sector. That’s why the RESET 2020 survey will be run again in September, and a full data set will be made available and free to the sector on the SEER Data Platform,” she said.

The Full Report is available for free to all sector organisations and can be downloaded here.

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The effect of the key issues identified in the RESET2020 study

Leanne Raven, Crohn’s and Colitis Australia’s CEO, has experienced many of the key issues identified in the RESET2020 study, from the hit to the organisation’s revenues and national volunteer numbers, to the valuable help from the Federal government’s JobKeeper package.

Read on to find out about the unique problems that affected the Crohn’s and Colitis Australia (CCA) members and how the organisation was forced to adapt to overcome these issues while capitalising on some of the opportunities that presented as a result of the pandemic. Story here.

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