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Building back better beyond COVID-19: Lessons from the NFP frontline

Not-for-profit organisations and charities have been at the frontline of helping communities cope with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governance Institute spoke to mental health group Beyond Blue’s CEO Georgie Harman about the major challenges during this period – and how the group has evolved and faced

Ms Harman will open the Virtual Not-for-Profit Governance Forum on 9 December.

What are the most challenging impacts to community mental health and wellbeing brought on by the pandemic and the consequent uncertainty, disconnection, and isolation?

One of the hardest things to cope with during this time of great upheaval has been the ongoing uncertainty. As humans we’re hardwired to crave certainty. Our brains don’t like not knowing what’s coming next. The rolling disruption and uncertainty has exacerbated anxiety and stress, with people feeling like they’ve lost control over their own lives, which is a difficult space to sit in for an indefinite period.

The usual supports and routines that help anchor us – connection to work, friends, family, community, sport, hobbies, recreation, and other social outlets – have been largely unavailable during lockdowns, which has added to that sense of instability, isolation, and disconnection.

And of course, many people have lost jobs or income during shutdowns or have had the additional stress of juggling the competing pressures of working from home with remote learning or caring duties.

Everyone has shouldered their own unique challenges – from people living alone to those in share houses or managing family tensions – but the silver lining is we are having much more honest and open conversations about mental health.

What have been the biggest challenges for organisations like Beyond Blue in meeting the sudden rise in the need for your services by the community?

Before COVID, Beyond Blue had committed to an ambitious transformation process to ensure we had the capabilities, ways of working and governance to set us up for the future.

When the pandemic hit, we had to fast-track that transformation, embracing agile approaches, adopting a “try, test and learn culture” and implementing a governance model which balanced stability and agility so we could be more responsive to community needs.

The urgency of the COVID crisis presented an opportunity to rapidly apply these new ways of working in real time. With Commonwealth funding we stood up a new Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service from conception to launch in just eight days.

Another challenge has been supporting the community while at the same time balancing the mental health and capacity of our own team, the majority of whom are based in Victoria and have been subject to the longest cumulative lockdown in the world.

Our team, like the rest of the community, has been juggling working from home, online schooling and loss of social connection while responding to record levels of demand for our services. It’s forced us to make tough decisions on which projects we prioritise, and which work we have to put on the back burner.

We have tried to support our staff by putting in place regular check-ins, providing more leave, and ensuring everyone has the most flexible working conditions for their own unique circumstances.

Throughout it all I have been constantly in awe of the commitment and passion our people have shown in the most trying circumstances and I couldn’t be prouder of the tireless work they have done to support the community through this most challenging period in history.

What are three key strategies you think will help the NFPs and charities who are on the frontlines not only of the response but also of the rebound to deliver effective services for community wellbeing and health?

The pandemic has exposed and amplified the fault lines in our society and underscored how important it is to address the underlying social issues that impact on a person’s quality of life, their physical and mental health, and their opportunity to thrive.

Some groups have been impacted more than others – young people, women, people from CALD communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the unemployed, those with insecure work or housing, and people who live in rural and remote areas. We must look beyond the pandemic, and as emergency economic and social support is wound back, targeted interventions will be required to support these groups.

Targeting the social determinants would ensure NFPs and charities are helping to address the root cause of disadvantage and ill-health, rather than just the addressing the symptoms. It’s putting a guard rail at the top of the cliff, rather than an ambulance at the bottom.

Another key strategy is sector collaboration and partnerships, which has been one of the silver linings of the COVID crisis. We need to build on and deepen this sector collaboration through shared platforms and insights, promoting open learning and innovation, and identifying ways to better respond to the community together. Governments can support this by funding partnerships, rather than funding in silos.

And we must also ensure continuous data, insights and lived experience shape everything we do. The people who use our services are the ones with valuable first-hand knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, and we must harness their unique insights and ensure they have a seat at the table when designing system change.

In the mental health sector specifically, some of these goals would be supported through a National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Agreement that goes beyond health.

NFPs and charities have a role to look up and out in their advocacy – to go beyond our respective services and funding patches and advocate for holistic reforms which will support wellbeing. There hasn’t been a more important time to do this, to make sure we build back better and fairer beyond the COVID era.

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