Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR)
By Nina O’Brien, Disaster Resilience and Recovery Lead
If agriculture-dependent communities are to be sustainable in the long-term, we must also ensure local people are ready to withstand the pressures that come with extended dry periods. At the core, this requires strong social connections and community networks.
Often when drought preparedness is discussed, the narrative centres around caring for the land and the kinds of infrastructure that needs to be in place in areas to mitigate risks related to extended periods of drought or unseasonably dry conditions. While these are crucial factors to consider when preparing for drought, investing in initiatives that bring local people and strengthen these networks is vital for disaster preparedness and the long-term vitality of remote, rural and regional Australia.
In 2021, the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) was awarded $3.75 million to deliver the Australian Government’s Future Drought Fund Networks to Build Drought Resilience program. The aim of the program was to build community capacity by strengthening social and community networking, support, engagement and wellbeing. With additional funding from several donor partners, a total of $4,199,157 in grants was awarded. In total, the 87 community groups that completed their projects undertook 791 activities and reached 37,841 participants.
The final reports from grant recipients clearly demonstrate the positive impact that this dedicated focus on providing agriculture-dependent communities with opportunities and resources to strengthen social and community networking, engagement and wellbeing has had. Through the funded projects, communities report increased resilience and preparedness for the impacts of climate change, including drought. They have also seen a significant increase in community members’ knowledge and understanding of drought, increased skill development, and an increased understanding of technology and how it can support drought preparedness. This investment in the Networks to Build Drought Resilience program provided opportunities for communities to come together and put the conversation about ‘managing and mitigating future droughts’ squarely on the table. There is also now strong evidence showing the practical benefits of investing in local people and facilitating environments where they can learn to adapt to a drying, and unpredictable climatic future.
Social networks promote a sense of belonging
The final reports make evident the program’s effectiveness in increasing social capital in these communities and providing both formal and informal avenues for community organisations and grassroots groups to expand social networks.
As a result of these efforts by community groups in providing opportunities for people to connect, there was increased diversity in participation in community networking events and conferences, which has, vitally, led to locals feeling a greater sense of belonging.
Preparedness includes proactive mental health support
A particularly strong theme that emerged, was recognition of the importance of proactive mental health and wellbeing strategies, both for both individuals and communities as a whole.
One group, Active Farmers, located in the Riverina region of NSW, reflected on the long-term positive impact that their project, 100 Mental Health Champions, will have, writing: “Upskilling people across our network in mental health first aid will only have a positive flow on effect into the future – no matter what our communities are faced with. Becoming skilled in mental health first aid will help us on our mission of building more resilient and stronger rural communities.”
One size doesn’t fit all
The program saw a hugely diverse range of applicants, projects and participants. This highlighted the variety of ways in which drought-impacted communities are capable of, and can, benefit from strengthening their networks. One grant recipient, Outback Academy Australia, used their grant to run four in-person events and a national online event that saw community members connect with Aboriginal farming communities to learn local Aboriginal methods and techniques best used in a changing climate. Not only did participants increase their technical knowledge, but they were also able to build a shared sense of community and purpose.
The group reflected on the experience, saying: “Workshops addressed the perception that agriculture is separate from cultural and natural resource management, and that First Nations people are not engaged in farming or have an interest in agriculture to the same level as cultural heritage, and cultural and natural resource management. Another achievement was the respectful exchange between Western scientific-based knowledge and systems and Aboriginal knowledge, also referred to as traditional ecological knowledge, to improve farming systems and address the impacts of drought, extreme weather events and climate change.”
This the Networks to Build Drought Resilience program also proved that strong networks don’t always have to built in the traditional way. Mallee Sustainable Farming in Mildura VIC, was awarded a grant to build an online learning community that helps educate farmers on how to protect, manage and repair soils before, during and after drought. Their program is built around a schedule that provides information to farmers at the time of year when it’s most relevant.
They said, “The approach has been so successful that Mallee Sustainable Farming will continue to manage the group and use it as a way of both disseminating information and understanding audience needs concerning soil management for the foreseeable future.”
Success in the face of future drought
The success of the Networks to Build Drought Resilience program demonstrates the value in funding diverse approaches that allow communities to come together and put the conversation about ‘managing and mitigating future droughts’ squarely on the table.
The program also provides strong evidence showing the practical benefits of investing in local people and facilitating environments to strengthen community capacity to both increase drought preparedness efforts, and to support one another through future droughts and an ever-changing climate.
Read more about the impact of the Networks to Build Drought Resilience program in the Program Implementation and Learnings Report.
The Networks to Build Drought Resilience program was a precursor for the Future Drought Fund’s Helping Regional Communities Prepare for Drought Initiative. FRRR is proud to be delivering this Initiative, alongside Australian Rural Leadership Foundation (ARLF), through a community-driven, multi-pronged approach. Through this initiative, with the Australian Government’s support, we’re continuing to invest in the future, enabling agriculture-dependent communities to identify and act on their drought preparedness priorities at a grassroots level.
Cumulative disasters have taken a heavy toll and left local leaders in remote, rural and regional communities feeling “uncertain”, “frustrated”, and “tired/fatigued”, although hopeful, according to a study released today.
Commissioned by the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR), a charity dedicated to supporting grassroots community groups and not-for-profits in remote, rural and regional Australia, the Heartbeat of Rural Australia survey sheds a light on these often unseen and unheard organisations and shares their firsthand experience of how non-metro communities are faring.
FRRR CEO Natalie Egleton, says that the study is among the first to attempt to quantify the critical role these groups play in remote, rural and regional communities, as well as what needs to change if they are to continue to deliver services that sustain rural communities.
“These organisations are vital to the health, wellbeing and prosperity of these communities. In particular, they provide vital social connections; manage and maintain critical community infrastructure; deliver essential services to community members; and a range of other supports.
“These small groups, most of which are not normally eligible for either government funding or philanthropic support, are the backbone of their communities, with nearly 90 percent of respondents saying they play some kind of economic role. Many are responsible for more than one aspect of life in their community and almost all play a critical cultural or social role.
“What this study really highlighted was that if they were to fold – which some told us could occur without additional support – the communities they serve may well ‘‘wither and die”. At the very least, there would be significant gaps in services, the burden for which would move to government and the private sector,” Ms Egleton explains.
The study highlighted a lack of digital connectivity is significantly hampering rural Australia’s ability to thrive, and to maintain critical social connections.
“Access to digital technology in rural Australia really hasn’t improved in decades. Even where there is connectivity, it is expensive. While external funding often covers the hardware, there is insufficient income to cover the ongoing operational costs such as WIFI access, managing cyber security and training volunteers.”
There were also key issues raised around workforce attraction (including housing availability), mobilisation and infrastructure, which smaller and more remote communities require tailored solutions to, according to Ms Egleton.
While more than half of respondents reported that uncertainty is of greatest concern to them, resulting in “increased general stress / mental health”, by far the most detrimental effect of the pandemic has been the inability to meet with one-another, resulting in isolation, reduced wellbeing, and increased stress – especially for those also recovering from disasters.
The onset of the pandemic weakened the ability of community organisations to play their various roles in the community, at a time when, for many, demand for their services increased. Many – especially organisations with revenue of less than $50,000 – saw significant reductions in income from not being able to run fundraising events and income-generating activities and, in some instances, funders redirecting their support.
“At a community group level, the disruption has been constant, with the effects of cumulative disasters topped off by the pandemic. This has left local communities in a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty.
“It’s also meant that community groups – more than half of whom are made up entirely of volunteers – are being called on to do more, for longer. The reality is that they are not resourced to endure this level of disruption. Yet, in many smaller communities, they simply have had to do it as there is no one else. That is fatiguing; that’s the pure exhaustion that we heard – the effort to keep focusing on your town, your small business community; keeping people connected and supported – especially when there are so few volunteers bearing the load,” notes Ms Egleton.
FRRR is calling for those that are concerned about rural communities to come together to better target support for rural, regional and remote not-for-profits and community groups.
“This report gives us a great opportunity to step back and consider how we can better support and resource these organisations to do what is critical work – and work that only they are really able to do effectively because they are in and of these places. At present, the broader funding mechanisms and policies don’t value these organisations in line with the contributions that they make.
“We are still working through the findings in detail, but it certainly points to an opportunity to come together – philanthropy, government, corporations and individuals – and explore how we can better support these groups for the long-term. We need to take a coordinated approach to removing many structural barriers that are evident in this research if we want rural Australia to prosper,” Ms Egleton explains.
To explore the full report, head to www.frrr.org.au/heartbeat. FRRR has also partnered with Seer Data and Analytics to make the full dataset available online. The data can be cross-referenced with other publicly available data, enabling community groups in particular to better advocate for the support that they need to survive.
FRRR will host two webinars to explore the findings in more detail. The first, focused more on community groups, will be held on Tuesday 30 November, and a session tailored to funders, policy-makers and the broader sector will be held on Wednesday 1 December. Both sessions will begin at 12.30pm AEDT and be held online. Register at www.frrr.org.au/heartbeat.