Insights: 1 April 2021
By Natalie Egleton, CEO
Over the past month, I’ve had dozens of conversations with community leaders, local, state and commonwealth governments, philanthropic foundations, and corporate partners, that have all circled around the question of disaster resilience and best practice giving. I’m encouraged by the growing sentiment that recognises the increasing frequency and severity of disasters, yet also see a pressing need to shift our approaches to funding disasters as one-off events.
The floods that have devastated so many areas across NSW and parts of Queensland this month are yet another in a series of disasters that rural communities have had to face in the past year. Many of those communities have experienced prolonged drought, bushfires, minor flooding, and now catastrophic flooding. For these communities, the rebuild, recovery, and long-term renewal will call on yet more reserves of social capital. Support will be needed that doesn’t compartmentalise their various disaster impacts and which acknowledges the deeply fatiguing and depleting effects of successive disasters on people, communities, and local service systems.
At FRRR, we view disasters as environmental shocks that remote, rural, regional communities regularly experience. We know they are inevitable and increasing in frequency and severity; what makes them complex is not knowing when they will occur, where, or the severity and nature of their impact.
Recovery and preparedness are only as strong as the social ties, quality of community infrastructure, depth and breadth of skills and networks, cultural knowledge, and the health of local service systems, non-profits, and community groups.
That’s why investing in social capital – preparing for future disasters and adapting to changing conditions after a disaster – underpin our ongoing work outside of disasters. Mitigation and making advances through technology is vital, but only effective when people within communities – those who will act first and drive recovery and preparedness – are invested in.
Our approach is to provide support where there are gaps or quick responses are needed in the short term, however we focus the majority of funds on the medium-to-long term recovery and future preparedness efforts of rural communities. Funding medium to long-term recovery ensures that resources are available to help communities when they are ready, beyond their immediate needs that arise during the emergency.
Adapting and evolving
In operational terms, FRRR has a standing disaster philanthropy model that we scale when a major disaster occurs. Each year, with support from hundreds of donor partners, we provide grants and capacity support to around 500 hundred remote, rural and regional communities across the country via almost 800 grants. This reach gives us a good footprint and connection points that we can naturally tap into when disasters occur.
Right now, we have almost 1,500 active grants in place for diverse projects in remote, rural, regional communities nationally; around 40% of these are supporting community-led recovery and resilience initiatives.
When the 2019-20 bushfires hit FRRR had to scale our processes very quickly. We expanded existing grants programs that have a national footprint, as well as brokered funds management for corporate partners to support short-term recovery.
In the space of a month, FRRR went from having about 700 donors to 30,000 donors. We had to ensure our systems could cope and we needed to scale up our communications and finance management resourcing. At the same time, we were engaging in working groups and forums with Governments, philanthropy, and connecting with fire-affected communities where we had active grants and relationships.
When COVID-19 hit, our biggest challenge, aside from looking after our people, was adjusting our community engagement approaches.
While regional Australia is great at working remotely, working on recovery, trying to engage with largely volunteer-led community groups and not-for-profits is really done best in person.
Understanding the local context can be done remotely but it’s not ideal. We also found that as restrictions came into place, a lot of community groups went to ground.
We knew there would be significant impacts from COVID-19 on recovery from the 2019-20 bushfires because the lockdowns would essentially stall social recovery processes, which are most effective when people come together physically, to process and heal.
One of our big, but unsurprising observations during COVID was the gaping hole in digital inclusion – equitable access to stable telecommunications, low levels of digital connectivity in households, and low digital literacy in what are largely ageing populations. In the Snowy Valleys for example, we learnt that 24% of people didn’t have an internet connection at home. In Tasmania, connectivity is inconsistent and communities very isolated.
At the same time, we were seeing independent news publications falling over and rural communities were becoming even more isolated.
The shocks and disruptions just kept coming and the readiness wasn’t there. And then, large parts of NSW were impacted by once-in-a-century floods.
We hear a lot about needing to increase resilience and I am of the firm view that that is coming from the wrong angle. There is an abundance of resilience, but only so much that any strong community can absorb and bounce forward from.
Embedding disasters in regional development practice
The past year has proven the repeated warnings of many. The frequency and severity of natural disasters will cost society, economies, biodiversity, and liveability. We need to do things differently.
In our work partnering with a community in NSW focussing on their non-profit sector capacity building before the 2019/20 bushfires, it was clear that those organisations and community leaders were more ready to respond to the recovery process and opportunities it presented. These same communities are now facing an unimaginable clean up and recovery from flooding. Our role is to be there, offer patience, continuity, flexibility, and agility to move how and when the community is ready with fit-for-purpose funding and resourcing support. The critical piece here is that when we do this work between disasters, reserves of social capital can be replenished and expanded. Communities are more able to engage with mitigation and do essential future-focussed work to strengthen their response to risk and climate change.
Innovation and renewal – applying learnings to support flood-impacted communities
Since the bushfires, we have reviewed and adjusted our approach to funding the core operating costs of the community groups that are so essential to the fabric and vitality of remote, rural and regional communities.
With the funding model of our national small grants programs being relatively unpredictable and dependent on donations from our partners, it is difficult for FRRR to commit to resourcing beyond one-off grants that seed and strengthen locally led projects.
However, throughout the pandemic, the FRRR Board recognised that the depletion of fundraising revenue, volunteer capacity, and local sponsorships, coupled with increased vulnerability and successive disasters, presents a serious threat to the survival of community groups and local not-for-profits. We recognise this as being critical at this point in time, so we will support core overhead costs until the picture changes. It will still be one-off funding but will help to keep the lights on and people working on key issues, while communities and organisations adapt and evolve through the recovery.
This approach translates to better practice for disaster philanthropy overall.
Given what is unfolding in NSW and Queensland at the moment, it is time that we stop looking at disasters as one-off events and view disasters as a constant. This means that we need to invest in underlying capacity and capability at the community level.
The new National Resilience, Relief & Recovery Agency, along with several State Agencies, are now modelled through an all-hazards lens and hopefully the policy and funding settings will follow. Philanthropy can then play a meaningful role beyond responding to successive crises.
It’s certainly where we are focussing more and more of our efforts, and we welcome more conversation on this.