Helping hands: Navigating not-for-profit sector challenges amid the disruption of the pandemic
Talking about the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the not-for-profit sector, Chief Executive Officer of Micah Projects Karyn Walsh said the industry had to adapt quickly to a very challenging environment.
‘We have had a dual role in having to protect and keep our staff safe while also looking after the most urgent needs of the vulnerable people and the community we serve,’ Ms Walsh said.
Ms Walsh identified homelessness as a key challenge.
‘Where people are homeless, during this pandemic they haven’t had somewhere to go. So we’ve had to not only adapt to the COVID-19 conditions and the public health environment but also provide an emergency response, which government has funded.’
Ms Walsh who is also Chair of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness said the experience of being without a home during this pandemic has intensified the sense of hopelessness and despair.
‘I think that we have never before on this scale realised how important affordable housing is. To have a home, to be personally safe and for the community to be safe. And housing is foundational to that.’
The sector has also had to work hard to support volunteers during the pandemic, Ms Walsh said.
‘We’ve had to make sure that people who were at risk could work from home and that those who are working on the frontlines have all the necessary information, training and equipment they need to do the job safely.
‘The very fact that hospitals did not want people there for non-emergencies and that business as usual in the healthcare system was radically changed, meant that not-for-profits have picked up a lot of the task of supporting community to navigate the system as it is now.
‘We had to look at how we can get someone the services they really need if they can’t go to a hospital. We were lucky enough to get some funding to employ more nurses. That really helped.’
Ms Walsh said that all not–for–profit organisations will have faced either an increase of volunteers or a decrease in their numbers
‘On the one hand there were people who really were just more available to help because of COVID, since they couldn’t go to work or do their work and had a bit of extra time. On the other hand those who did outreach work on the street like the food vans and other services did close down because of the risk management in relation to people congregating and being in public. The age of volunteers was a factor as well.’
A strategy for a sustained and sustainable recovery for the sector as the pandemic continues to play out will be critical Ms Walsh said.
“The challenge for us is that it will be a tight economic environment as we move into the future. There have been economic stimulus packages and funding to use right now, to respond to the pandemic itself. But that isn’t long term. We don’t know what that is going to look like as time goes on. And with so much of the economy being impacted, not-for-profits will also be impacted. It is the ‘unknown’ that could mean reduced funding alongside high demand. Certainly for us, we are working in an area where the demand is incredible compared to the resources.’
The pandemic has uncovered a weakness in some of Australia’s safety nets, Ms Walsh said.
‘We’ve always prided ourselves on being a country that had a safety net. And whilst we got a safety net for the pandemic itself and people are being treated if they got the COVID virus, I don’t think the other safety nets for the continuing disruption, as a consequence of the pandemic, are set for the long term.
‘Income support certainly has been a safety net but when that starts to decrease what is that going to mean?’
The challenge for our governments is to drive policy that will have parallel focus on the economy and the community, Ms Walsh said.
‘Meanwhile not-for-profit sector leaders will need to focus on strategies for long term sector sustainability while not ignoring the very real economic and community challenges that loom in the short and midterm because of the pandemic. They will need to find the cracks in the system and ensure that people do not fall through.
‘It is like a cliff. When you think about a cliff you are either looking out or looking down at the rough terrain. I think that all not-for-profits leaders need to really to look towards the future of the sector. They must also consider their own roles in helping navigate the current challenges and the difficulties that we know the community is grappling with.
Ms Walsh will be a speaker at Governance Institute of Australia’s Not-for-Profit Forum in Brisbane on 13 October 2020.