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Pulse finds ongoing for-purpose pressures

November 18th, 2021

Significant downturns in volunteers, demand outpacing service provision, and an emerging perception that the benefits of any economic recovery are not reaching them are contributing to the Australian for-purpose sector feeling under sustained strain.

The Wave 2 of the national Pulse of the For-Purpose Sector & Building Back Better survey, released this week revealed that the pressures on the for-purpose sector were still prevalent for many organisations in 2021, after the profound challenges of the previous year.

But the research also identified how flexible and generous funders had been in supporting their beneficiaries through the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This time, the research for the Centre for Social Impact, found that 43 per cent of organisations in the community or social services felt that operating conditions had deteriorated yet again from between December last year and July this year. Overall, 80 per cent of service providers said they were struggling to meet requests for support.

While there is expectation about an imminent economic recovery, there is a more negative outlook in the for-purpose sector that points to a view that the benefits of any recovery may not be reaching them.

Qualitative data in the report points to service organisations in particular struggling with unmet need, as they try to respond to complex issues around housing, financial distress and the needs of women and children.

For those organisations who engage volunteers, the picture is mixed: almost a third of organisations said they had fewer volunteers than six months earlier. The report noted: “At a time when community connection is most needed, this asset to the for-purpose sector has reduced. How this changes as the country moves in and out of lockdowns will be important to watch.’’

Just under three quarters of organisations reported being financially strained during COVID-19. However, government support has been important, through programs such as JobKeeper, which helped lessen demand on organisations’ services. According to the report, through a range of government interventions, there was a drop in rough sleeping (for example, between February 2020 and February 2021, Sydney Street Count numbers went from 505 to 288); improvement in housing stability with moratoriums on evictions and social security increases, which lifted people above the poverty line.

While the report identifies how agile many organisations have been dealing with the consequences of the lockdowns, the on-going uncertainty around revenue and increased service demands will do little to diminish the stress and pressures on for-purpose organisations.

 “Philanthropic and other grant making organisations demonstrated high levels of flexibility to support their beneficiaries in response to COVID-19,’’ the report stated. “Four in five organisations reported that at least one of their funders had increased their resources in response…’’

Dr Megan Weier, Senior Research Fellow and one of the report authors, said the problems the for-purpose sector is now confronting existed before 2020 and pointed to broader systemic issues.

“Organisations across the for-purpose sector are finding that there is a huge demand for their services, but very limited capacity to adequately handle it. However, these issues existed before 2020 as a result of the prohibitive nature of short-cycle funding – the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation,” Dr Weier said.

“Due to the immense shocks of COVID-19, organisations have been required to respond reactively rather than being able to plan ahead. This means that they are currently very operations-focused, which raises concerns about how our charities will fare in the future.”

The Pulse initiative was launched in May 2020. It is an Australian-first, in measuring the attitudes and operating conditions of the for-purpose sector. The research was prompted by the need to understand the long-term impact of recent events in Australia.

Pulse of the For-Purpose Sector is supported by the Paul Ramsay Foundation, Allan & Gill Gray Philanthropies, Zurich Financial Services Australia, and the Z Zurich Foundation.

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