Everybody approves of community. I certainly do. Everyone agrees we need more of it. There’s a general consensus: a city or a suburb or a town is more than a scattering of houses, a supermarket, a few baristas and a postcode. It has, we want to believe, an element of soul, a sense of community.
The precautions are taxing enough to make us feel burdened, but not tough enough
Which is increasingly a problem. I have nothing against souls, myself, but I also have a body, and keeping body and soul together takes more than just kind words. The process involves time, effort, money, and, for me, a number of committee meetings. It isn’t just a matter of leaving the soul to its own devices. You have to provide it with a way to affect the world. Community can’t exist without community organisations, and that’s a problem.
The government’s praise of community isn’t generally reflected in grants to community groups (unless they’re in marginal electorates). Businesses give out the occasional novelty cheque, but they’re less willing to give not-for-profits a discount on their bills. As individuals, we’re by and large in favour of hard-working local community groups as long as we’re not asked to join one. At all levels, we count on the voluntary sector to continue in its historic role as the foundation of our civic or cultural life. We think that’s an immutable feature of society, and we turn our minds away from what needs to happen for that to be so. It’s a thankless task, but somebody has to do it – until they don’t.
The truth is that Australian not-for-profits were facing a deteriorating environment before the coronavirus crisis, and have since copped a massive king-hit. As always in a recession, the need for services goes up and the people with money to pay for them goes down, and charities lose both ways. A business that takes a hit can at least borrow against future earnings, but a not-for-profit that relies on donations is going to find that a lot more difficult. Organisations that raise funds from in-person events or rattling tins on the footpath have a hard time when limits on social gatherings are strictly enforced and people are required to stay 1.5 metres apart.
It’s one of the reasons Our Community has thrown its support behind the “Donation Dollar”, a new $1 coin with a message of giving. If every Australian could spare one each month, collectively we could add $300 million a year to the coffers of much-deserving community groups. If that’s got you thinking about who you might donate to, the coin is already doing its job.
Even in our current state of government-funded limbo, the pressure is on. Our Community recently surveyed the pandemic’s impact on not-for-profits, and we found that one third of organisations feared it represented a “significant threat” to their viability. Another survey showed that more than 40% of not-for-profit directors were worried about solvency.
For the past three parliamentary terms the government has viewed the not-for-profit sector with suspicion, if not actual hostility, seeing it as an irritating rabble of anti-business lefties standing in the way of getting things done. It hasn’t, though, turned its mind to thinking what would happen if people’s willingness to volunteer, or donate, or join up, or pitch in went the way of handshakes, hugs and unmasked smiles. The government assumes, as do most of us, that when this is all over things will go on much as before. And I’m not at all sure that that’s true.
When the evil spell is finally broken and we all emerge blinking into the post-pandemic daylight there is likely to be a cascade of collapses. The headwinds we faced before will be back as hurricanes.
What Australian not-for-profit organisations need, what they really need, is not to be taken for granted. Think seriously about what the country would lose if they weren’t there, and what it’s worth doing to keep them afloat.
Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits through the pandemic with free resources at: ourcommunity.com.au/saveoursector
This article is just one of the ways the Our Community Group is working to support not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, as part of our major campaign to help the not-for-profit sector to survive, re-invent and sustain.
This commentary also appeared as part of a monthly column that's published in 160 rural and regional titles across Australia, from daily newspapers such as the Bendigo Advertiser and the Illwawarra Mercury, to weekly publications such as the Goulburn Post, the Cootamundra Herald and the Jimboomba Times.
We're proud to take a stand on progressive issues, which we're able to do as a social enterprise that's not tied to the purse strings of any government or corporate organisation.
Here's a taste of some other recent commentaries as they've appeared in some of those publications, as well as our own.