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Opportunity for flexible funders to help stressed rural and regional communities

November 29th, 2021

The nation’s remote, rural and regional communities have been subjected to the cumulative impact of natural disasters, combined with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic that have left many Australians isolated and stressed, a new report has found.

But the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal’s Heartbeat of Rural Australia’s Research Study also identified opportunities for funders who take a more flexible approach to supporting those communities.

The Research Study engaged almost 640 community organisations from around the country, more than half of whom have a turnover of less than $50,000, have no paid staff and are run by volunteers.

The picture that emerged from the research is just how important community organisations are in contributing to the local economy and providing a range of support services that have been severely tested by a succession of natural disasters – drought, fires and floods – and then the pandemic. In many cases, the organisations have lost funding and have been unable to hold the events that underpin their income, while having to deal with an increasing demand on their services.

The consequence of these disasters on local volunteering has been significant – about a third of community organisations have lost volunteers or reduced their hours, often because of illness, and isolation through the COVID-19 restrictions. Other organisations noted that demands for their services through the series of crises had increased volunteer hours and some organisations were recruiting.

The report identified opportunities for funders to help communities to recover by taking a more flexible approach to funding with less red tape attached to the granting process.

Report responses spoke of the need for simpler application paperwork and process. “They [communities] also need funding providers ‘to allow us to be more flexible in how we achieve the aim of the funding’ and to ‘trust us to use it effectively’,’’ the report stated. “Currently, only 45 per cent agree that funding providers are open to conversations about how funds could best be used in their community.’’

The report also noted that longer funding cycles and on-going funding, along with funders who work consultatively in collaboration with communities, were needed, rather than transactional relationships.

One of the key insights from the research is the pronounced digital divide that is epitomised by half of the respondents in remote, rural and regional Australia reporting either no internet access or extremely or somewhat unreliable coverage. This issue leaves many communities feeling left behind and the pandemic restrictions have only exacerbated the situation, with organisations having to try to maintain connections and deliver support through what are often costly technology-driven communication solutions.

“By far the most detrimental effect [of the cumulative disasters] has been the inability to meet with one another, resulting in isolation, reduced well-being, and increased stress,’’ the report said. “Lockdowns due to COVID-19 forced isolation in communities, which ‘no longer have the social interaction that is vitally important for the good physical and mental health. There are a lot of people feeling isolated, frightened and/or angry.’’’

FRRR CEO Natalie Egleton said the research confirmed what the organisation had heard anecdotally.

“Volunteers are feeling overwhelmed and community groups are finding it tough to keep going and supporting their communities,’’ she said. “However, as ever, they are still optimistic.’’

Indeed, the research shows that many organisations had a sense of hope about the future and more than a third of respondents found the circumstances had led to more efficient ways of operating and to have more focus on their community. Many had also developed new relationships within their community and diversified their activities.

Natalie said the report highlighted the significant structural barriers that influence the relative ability of rural Australia to respond or carve a positive path forward were not shifting.

“For example, access to digital technology in rural Australia really hasn’t improved in decades,’’ she said. “There are also key issues around workforce attraction, mobilisation and infrastructure, which are not being addressed.’’

“We are still working through the findings in detail, but it certainly points to an opportunity to come together – philanthropy, government, corporations and individuals – and explore how we can better support these groups for the long-term. We need to take a coordinated approach to removing many structural barriers that are evident in this research if we want rural Australia to prosper,” Natalie said.

FRRR commissioned the research through The XFactor Collective Foundation in September this year to explore how not-for-profits and community groups in remote, rural and regional Australia were coping with the consecutive challenges of natural disasters and the pandemic.

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