Opportunities, costs and sustainability

There is an opportunity for charities to be more involved in addressing challenges across our communities, but we need to acknowledge that taking on new challenges is not a cost-free exercise, and our staff need support, writes CCA CEO, David Crosbie.

Opportunities, costs and sustainability, Pro Bono News, 26 August 2021

The Charities Crisis Cabinet (CCC) letter to all government leaders last week began with the lines: 

With the ongoing pandemic, Australia is not in a great place. Many people are locked down, some are suffering hardship and mental health problems, and there is increased anxiety about our future. Times are tough, and this makes the work of charities even more important to many Australians.

Charities know this is a crisis. We are seeing people we have never seen before seeking emergency relief, food, shelter. We are seeing frustration, anger, concern, particularly in our more exposed communities where many are not buffeted by comfortable houses and work or study from home options. People who have lost jobs, closed businesses, been unable to provide for their families or been isolated, are in danger of being left behind. 

The open letter used examples to make the case to governments that charities are part of the solution to the many challenges Australia is facing, including getting enough people vaccinated to ensure we do not have to rely so heavily on lockdowns and other interventions. 

It is charities that can take vaccinations into their communities if empowered to do so – like Life Without Barriers who were given the opportunity to set up very successful vaccination hubs for people living with disabilities and their families.

It is charities like Settlement Services International working with their local communities that not only break down fear and boost vaccination rates, but also connect people to the support they need.

It is charities that can deliver vital emergency relief – like OzHarvest working with many local councils and charities to ensure there are enough food hampers available to every family that needs one.

It is the work of the Smith Family and others helping bridge the digital divide, ensuring students have a workable internet connection, a device available, and on-line tutors for home schooling.

Charities can also provide invaluable data to inform practical solutions, like the Infoxchange Ask Izzy service which has clearly identified an 800 per cent increase in the need for emergency relief support in locked down communities.

The list of charities already making a difference is endless, from mental health to domestic violence services, the local church or an arts and recreation group virtually connecting people, or even the countless volunteers helping out in so many ways at borders and vaccination hubs.

We ask governments around Australia to engage with us, enable us to do our work, serve our communities. We should not be ignored, dismissed, or seen as an afterthought. Include us in the planning and delivery of what is needed. We are already part of the solution, part of building hope back into our communities. We stand ready right now to work with philanthropists, governments, businesses and local groups to increase the vital services needed for Australians. Collectively, we can all make Australia a better place.

In making the case for charities to be more involved in addressing challenges across our communities, the Charities Crisis Cabinet argued there is an opportunity for charities to do more, to make more of a difference. And there is, but that is only part of the story.

Almost 12 months ago in October 2020, over 12,000 charities were receiving JobKeeper, a payment supporting over 300,000 charity workers. This time around in our various lockdowns, there are only limited support packages and very few charities qualify. Resources and targeted support programs are not readily accessible, and the number of volunteers charities can draw upon remains at record lows. 

While many charities have adapted and developed clever ways of working during lockdowns and continue to serve their communities, there is not the same level of support for charity involvement in responding to the pandemic now as there was 12 months ago.

The CCA CEO forums with over 30 charity CEOs from across the sector have all highlighted concerns about growing levels of staff burnout, frustration and fatigue within charities. These concerns have direct implications for staff recruitment, retention and wellbeing, all of which are critical to charity effectiveness.

In January this year, the UK Ecclesiastical Insurance company annual charity survey found that staff burnout posed a very significant risk to charities: The research found that two thirds of charities have experienced an increase in staff stress levels, and most are offering some form of support, including flexible working arrangements (75 per cent), a wellbeing policy (52 per cent) and counselling services (46 per cent). Seven out of 10 (71 per cent) charities cited COVID-19 as a reason for their increased concern for their futures.

And an Imagine Canada survey in February this year found that 50 per cent of charities are reporting that their staff’s ability to maintain an appropriate work/life balance and avoid burnout has decreased.

Many Australian charities have developed effective staff wellbeing policies and practices, but there are charities where staff support processes are limited. CCA has found it useful for CEOs to discuss and share their approaches to this issue with each other. CEOs themselves have suggested there is significant scope to expand the resources and services available to charities concerned about staff wellbeing. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of staff wellbeing is to acknowledge that the opportunity to do more brings both rewards and pressures. 

As noted in the Charities Crisis Cabinet letter, Australia has been well served by many charities that have been over-achieving during the pandemic, quickly transforming, adapting, adopting, raising their organisations and their work to new levels of innovation and responsiveness. For the staff involved, there is an excitement and a reward in successfully meeting new challenges, making a difference. But there is also a question to be asked about sustainability, for staff, and for the charity. 

Putting in a greater effort to rise to a challenge during a crisis is undoubtedly a good thing, something to be encouraged, but it can also create unsustainable work pressures. Do the changes mean increased workloads, more effort, more time? Is there scope for down time, consolidation, recovery? What additional support is needed?

The Charities Crisis Cabinet argued charities are part of the solution and want the opportunity to contribute their knowledge, skills and community engagement. Charities also need to acknowledge that taking on new challenges is not a cost-free exercise. Expecting staff to carry some of the costs may be feasible as a short-term crisis measure, but it is not the way to ensure future viability.

As the pandemic continues, staff recruitment, retention and wellbeing are becoming even more critical to the future sustainability of charities.

Read on Pro Bono News: opportunities-costs-and-sustainability