The cumulative effect of natural disasters and the Covid-19 pandemic has increased fatigue and stress among volunteers in the Australian region, preventing them from providing essential support within the community, according to a study.
The Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) says the resulting burnout among community groups could lead to greater isolation and loss of essential services in regional areas, if more flexible funding options and a better support is not offered.
Natalie Egleton, Executive Director of FRRR, said these groups are “the backbone and fabric of these communities” and are responsible for everything from recreational and arts institutions to emergency services, as well as support to homeless and victims of domestic violence.
“You walk into any regional, rural or remote town, pretty much everything you look at from art, upkeep of venues and buildings, whatever event you go to, local community groups are behind it.” , Egleton said.
The report showed that the social and cultural role played by community organizations is essential, despite the limits of their resources. More than half of the approximately 640 community organizations that responded employ no paid staff, are run by volunteers and have sales of less than $ 50,000.
In its first study on the rural nonprofit sector, the FRRR engaged an independent investigative expert who conducted an open and anonymous survey targeting members, volunteers and employees of grassroots nonprofit organizations. excluding those in large cities.
More than half of the groups offered activities to help improve the mental health and well-being of their communities, either directly (59%) or indirectly by addressing social isolation (57%), while just under half (46%) also offered activities to help maintain the physical health of their community.
The report found that these organizations struggled to stay operational due to the impact of constant disruptions over a long period of time, including droughts, fires, floods, mouse plague and the pandemic, which acted as the “final drop” for many.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, about a third of community organizations have either reduced volunteer hours, lost volunteers due to illness, isolation, relocation or family responsibilities, or lost them in because of a lack of need.
The report found that at the same time, more than a fifth of those polled said their volunteers are working harder to keep up with increased demand.
Egleton said that as “the number of volunteers decreases, a smaller number of people end up with a greater amount of work and often they are not paid for it”.
Sara Jenkins, coordinator of the Corryong Neighborhood Center in northeast Victoria, said the center was “absolutely hammered” since the pandemic, which came after the community was devastated by the black summer bushfires .
âThey used to come in and say, ‘Someone told me you could help with x or y.’ Now they just come and say, âI need help,â Jenkins said.
Before the bushfires, the center focused on more traditional neighborhood housing activities focused on social inclusion, education and social assistance.
But now he must focus on providing the community with essential services related to unemployment, bushfire recovery projects and disaster payments, digital literacy and a “huge” number of issues. mental health, Jenkins said.
Funding and Internet issues
The center is one of many community groups that, according to FRRR research, had increased demand for their services during the pandemic, at the same time as Covid-19 hampered their normal fundraising income.
Before the bushfires, the Corryong neighborhood center was growing 15-20% annually thanks to its social enterprise bakery, which was able to supply 85% of its turnover.
But revenues from the bakery and workshop have “fallen off a cliff” without tourists and with closures in the area, Jenkins said.
Research found that community organizations were frustrated that they could only access project-specific funding when there was never any help to cover basic operating costs.
“There is a clear call to action from this report for the organizations themselves to be funded, not just the project,” Egleton said.
One of the basic operating costs that became more urgent in the midst of the pandemic was basic digital connectivity, with around a third of all respondents reporting either no internet access or unreliable coverage.
Before the pandemic, groups could meet and talk face to face, but Covid restrictions and unreliable internet coverage prevented many community groups in countries from continuing to operate.
âAn organization or facility in town may have decent internet access, but its volunteer base or community members are unlikely to have that access,â Egleton said.
Penny Judge, a volunteer at Craigie Community Hall and the Delegate School of Arts in New South Wales, also believes that addressing structural issues is crucial.
âCommunity groups are increasingly called upon to fill in the holes left by government, but simply don’t have the resources to do so,â Judge said.
“Finding a deep commitment in the community is increasingly difficult when the family unit is constantly under pressure due to the lack of basic services, the precariousness of employment, the stagnation of wages, the aging of the population. and the exodus of young people to the cities. “
The FRRR study recommended that funders allow communities more flexibility in how and when to use funds. He also recommended that the grant process be streamlined and simplified, and that the assurance of long-term funding be provided.
Community groups also want access to training and more external support to help them function.
âThe study tells us that if organizations are better equipped with equipment and staff training, they will do much more and much more efficiently,â Egleton said.
The Narromine Aviation Museum in NSW, which is run entirely by volunteers, is the county’s top tourist attraction, according to museum chairman Peter Kierath, who is trying to encourage volunteers to join after numbers dwindle during the lockdown in western NSW.
The museum brings strong economic benefits to the city, Kierath said. âPeople who come to Narromine specifically to see the museum will go down to the local cafe for coffee and a meal. They could also stay overnight.
FRRR research stated that without community groups, “in some cases the community just wouldn’t exist.”