Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal

By Alli Mudford, People Portfolio Lead

The past few years, and especially 2021, have seen Australia’s remote, rural and regional communities hit by multiple disruptions, with successive events overlayed with relentless lockdowns. To quantify the impact of these disruptions on rural Australia, FRRR undertook a survey to see how these events had affected the local organisations, the ‘Heartbeat’ of rural communities.

Alli Mudford

Not surprisingly – at least not to us – the Heartbeat of Rural Australia study found that these locally-led community groups – more than half of which are entirely volunteer run – play a critical role in the vitality of these communities. Nearly 90% play an economic role and virtually all play a crucial role in the social and cultural life of the town.

So, when 30 percent of the 640 respondents report that they are deeply fatigued and others report exhaustion, or at worst, are simply burnt out, it is sobering.

The Heartbeat study revealed an overall decrease in volunteering in communities, at a time when it’s 75 percent harder to attract and maintain people in volunteer-based organisations, leaving the bulk of the work to the ‘stalwarts’ – the ‘stayers’ – to keep these critical local organisations ticking.

The report also found that since the beginning of 2020, the biggest change for volunteer-led organisations is less capacity, with nearly one third reporting reduced volunteer hours. A decrease in ‘incidental’ volunteering was also apparent – most likely attributable to a decrease in volunteer-run events such as the local ag show, music festivals and performances, many of which have struggled to proceed due to COVID-19 restrictions. The report also found that many community groups are now pondering if the events themselves will survive, and whether the people that are usually involved and volunteer their time to make them happen will still be around, if and when they get back up and running.

As one respondent in Rural Tasmania said, “All organisations we talk with are finding that modern life leaves many people too time poor to contemplate volunteering.

So, are there any silver lining for Australia’s rural regions?

Well, we are seeing more rural migration, with city folk making the move to greener pastures – for a tree change, sea change, farm change. These big life moves in this disruptive period are possible with the support of flexible work conditions – the ability to work from home, work part-time hours, and in some areas, be supported by strengthened digital connectivity (although that is not the case everywhere!).

The Heartbeat of Rural Australia Report found that 38 percent of new volunteers are people who have migrated from larger town/cities. So, that has me wondering if this is in fact a ‘volunteering revolution’ and not the ‘great resignation’?

The ‘great resignation’ is certainly having a moment. However, I’m curious about how it is manifesting in Australia and what impact it will have on our rural communities, as we see people reflect, evaluate, and respond to their core values and their work life, as part of this cultural shift.

Is this the catalyst that rural communities need to be able to reflect and process these hard times and to move forward with a new ‘normal’?

For rural not-for-profits, is the emerging trend of regional migration going to open the door to a new and skilled workforce, with people choosing to work for a more values-aligned, impact-driven, community organisation? And therefore, perhaps, more local volunteers?

Interestingly, despite these willing volunteers and the well-documented challenges of recruiting paid staff, we are seeing an increasing number of not-for-profit organisations navigating their new ‘normal’ and seeking funds to invest in paid resources. The aim is to alleviate the burden on volunteers throughout this difficult period, while continuing to build organisational capacity. These paid positions are generally part-time, flexible roles that employ local people from either within the organisation itself or, in some cases, local skilled contractors. The latter could well be those same people new to town and are also willing to volunteer.

If we are seeing a change in the types of people who are volunteering, it begs the question of how volunteer-based organisations should respond and envelope this new workforce into their communities with welcoming and supporting arms. Because the study found that isn’t always the case.

Locally-based organisations may need to recognise that while these new volunteers don’t necessarily come with the local knowledge or content, they bring different skill sets, time, energy and a deep desire to belong to their new place of their choosing.

Some groups are doing it well. For example, in Leeton, the Rotary Club, in partnership with the Roxy Theatre, has seized the moment and invested funds from FRRR to build a Volunteer Bank that seeks to harness the skills of locals – from parking attendants, to caterers, and costume makers and all those in between. It is envisioned that the Volunteer Bank will have the capacity and human resources that can be called on for local events, productions, and fundraising.

So, perhaps the ‘great resignation’ is actually less about dissatisfaction, and more about keeping things simple; spending time doing what you love with who you love; investing in yourself; perhaps growing a side hustle; but, above all else, spending time wisely and consciously.

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.

Heartbeat of Rural Australia Report Out Now

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.

Grants available for services supporting communities impacted by Black Summer bushfires

A generous private donation of $1 million will fund FRRR‘s new Volunteer Emergency Services Fund Grant Program. The Program will fund volunteer emergency services to support their recovery needs from the 2019/20 bushfires and help them prepare for future challenges.

Volunteer Emergency Services Fund Grant Program
Murgon SES volunteers

The Volunteer Emergency Services Fund will offer grants to local volunteer emergency services and first responder organisations in 2019/20 fire-affected regions across rural, regional, and remote Australia. Funds will help them to respond to local disaster recovery needs and address preparedness priorities ahead of the 2021/22 bushfire season.

Grants of up to $25,000 are available for projects including practical improvements and upgrades to facilities and equipment so that these services are better able to respond to future disasters. Initiatives that support the mental health and wellbeing of first responder volunteers, as well as projects that provide training and build the capacity of these services can also be funded.

Natalie Egleton, CEO of FRRR, said that an integral part of the recovery process is preparing for future disasters and adapting to changing conditions after a disaster.

“We know that disasters, like bushfires, are not isolated events. They are increasing in frequency and severity; and it is vital for our volunteer-led emergency services groups to be equipped,” Ms Egleton said.

“Throughout the 2019/20 summer bushfires, volunteer emergency and first responder services worked tirelessly to protect and save their communities. They literally saved lives.

“These grants will support those who support the community by funding projects that will help these volunteers process and heal from the trauma of the bushfires, as well as build resilience and preparedness for future disasters.

“We look forward to assisting these vital members of impacted communities and helping to build and strengthen the emergency services they so generously give their time to be a part of,” Ms Egleton said.

The Volunteer Emergency Services Fund Grant Program is now open. Applications close 5pm AEST 7 July 2021 with grants to be announced August 2021. For more information, visit FRRR’s website – https://frrr.org.au/funding/disaster-resilience-and-climate-solutions/volunteer-emergency-services-fund-grant-program/

Networks to Build Drought Resilience and Drought Resilience Leaders

FRRR will soon be providing increased support into remote, rural and regional communities to prepare for the impacts of drought, after being selected by the Australian Government to deliver its Networks to Build Drought Resilience program. FRRR is also part of a consortium delivering the Drought Resilience Leaders program.

Funded through the Australian Government’s $5 billion Future Drought Fund, both programs will help remote, rural and regional people access the tools, skills and support to build and foster leader networks, and to develop and roll out drought resilience initiatives in their communities.

The Networks to Build Drought Resilience (NBDR) program will help people in agricultural communities to develop skills, participate in risk management planning, and foster projects that encourage connectedness and improve wellbeing. It will also support small-scale infrastructure projects to make community facilities drought resilient to increase overall wellbeing and reduce social isolation.

Natalie Egleton, CEO of FRRR, said that the Networks to Build Drought Resilience program will support future-focussed initiatives led by local community groups and network organisations that play such a vital role in local and regional resilience

“Networks and community leadership are the backbone of strong, vibrant communities and are essential to ensuring future preparedness for drought and the associated social, economic, environmental impacts that can be so devastating for remote, rural, and regional communities.

“This is an exciting opportunity for building drought resilience from the ground up and we look forward to supporting the fantastic ideas and solutions that we know are ready to go across the country,” Ms Egleton said.

Through the Drought Resilience Leaders (DRL) program rural leaders will be able to access training and support that will help them to develop and undertake a project to build drought resilience in their communities. Partnering with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation (ARLF) and the Rural Economies Centre of Excellence (RECoE), FRRR will manage a grants stream that will allow leadership program participants and their communities to activate their community-strengthening ideas.

Ms Egleton said that this program means more opportunities for local people to take the lead in finding meaningful and tailored solutions for their community’s increased climate resilience.

“Local leaders know how to get things done. They know how to bring people together, to motivate and to problem-solve. Backing these leaders is key to ensuring the long-term vitality of Australia’s remote, rural and regional communities, particularly those battling drought.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with the ARLF and RECoE to provide these local leaders with access to such invaluable training and help them to bring their drought resilience projects to life,” Ms Egleton said.

For more information visit
The Hon David Littleproud MP – https://minister.awe.gov.au/littleproud/media-releases/drought-leaders-networks-programs
Australian Rural Leadership Foundation – https://rural-leaders.org.au/arlf-to-lead-consortia-to-deliver-drought-program/ 

In 1979, an idea was formed between a bunch of country music loving mates over a few drinks around a campfire in the south west of WA. It became the Country Music Club of Boyup Brook (CMCBB), and before long, they were putting on a show on a regular basis.

Since 1986, the Boyup Brook Country Music Festival has been a major drawcard for this small farming community, attracting more than 10,000 visitors. The CMCBB does a lot more than put musicians on a stage though – there is a strong commitment to upskilling and training it’s volunteers and trainees in all aspects of event planning, including administration, bookkeeping, budgeting, grant writing, event management and office procedures, supporting them to gain financial literacy and job readiness skills. This benefits a core group of 20 volunteers that contribute to pre-planning throughout the year, and 150 during the Festival weekend. The Festival also provides the main fundraising event for more than 36 local community groups that participate during the weekend.

A couple of bad years recently set the club back: in 2017, flooding required the festival to be relocated; and in 2018 the club was hit by a sophisticated ticket scamming operation. On top of all this, the IT equipment available to the group was ageing and unreliable, often freezing unpredictably. Two of the computers were classed as ‘vintage’ by Apple, and the club said they could take a “very long time before they decide to boot up and one makes a noise like crickets are in the building.” This hurdle was adversely affecting the efficiencies and upskilling of the core group volunteers, not to mention the security of ticket sales and smooth running of the festival. But the tough luck the Club had run into had affected their capacity to invest in new equipment.

Daly and Sharon Winter, CMCBB’s President and Music Director, say the Festival helps a small rural community build a vibrant and sustainable community.

“It has wider audience appeal with a multiplier effect for injecting new capital into the local economy, and improves financial well-being within our community. The Festival is a celebration of our country lifestyles and community spirit. The event encourages hundreds of visitors to our state, providing a great boost to our tourism.”

Through the ANZ Seeds of Renewal program, the Club was successful in gaining new equipment. Via the Lenovo stream of the program, the Club was delivered three new Lenovo Thinkpads to support the events future operations, productivity and skill development of the group and volunteers.

The Club also plans to train staff and volunteers to scan, edit, and save photographs and documents to preserve its history as one of the oldest Incorporated Country Music Clubs in Australia and Western Australia.

Some of the volunteers use the equipment throughout the year, and under the guidance of the committee a young employee of the club recently completed her Certificate II and III in Business, plus Event Management modules. In their report, the Club wrote: “Learning new skills through the Club has led past volunteers to new employment options and keeps people living within our rural town and region.”

Nicki Jones, a volunteer, was ecstatic when the new laptops arrived, and with them, she says she achieved much more than she anticipated. 

“Not only were they efficient, user friendly and supported current applications, they had a webcam and sound!  This might initially sound silly, but in the big picture, this allowed me to join webinars and learn new software packages and how to use the computer to better capacity. I found one of the new software packages extremely useful and have now produced several documents with it for the Club. These documents are up to date, professional and easy to read.”

The experience and access to technology, she said, has built her self-esteem and confidence, and she has since been successful in seeking full-time employment, bringing her new skills to her position.

“I cannot thank FRRR and ANZ enough for making life so much easier.”

One local organisation that is very active around Lake Eacham, 100 km west of Cairns in Queensland, is Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands (TREAT), a community-based tree planting organisation of some 600 volunteer members. Members work together to revegetate degraded lands and create corridors for wildlife on the Atherton Tablelands.

Volunteers key to success of organisation

TREAT has a wonderful working relationships with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (Restoration Services), as well as with landholders and local landcare and community groups. Up to 60 or so members (come along each week to prepare seeds, pot or re-pot seedlings, and perform other necessary jobs before enjoying morning tea together. Their efforts peak each wet season, up to 240 volunteer hours a week tree planting at various private or public revegetation sites.

Grant enhances safety of operations

TREAT received a $3,000 grant, funded by the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation, via FRRR’s Small Grants for Rural Communities program to retrofit purpose-built rack stands to the existing hardening off bays at their rainforest tree seedling nursery. The new racks have made the working height more comfortable, so older volunteers can work safely without bending down.

TREAT President, Angela McCaffrey, said that these ergonomically designed pipe racks that support the bays of seedling trays have made such a difference to the use, comfort and safety of the volunteers. 

Photo courtesy of TREAT website.

Ever heard of Wunghnu? It is a rural Victoria town, 215kms north of Melbourne and has a population of 270 residents. Situated in the farming region of the Goulburn Valley, many locals have a strong passion for vintage machinery – so much so that the Goulburn Valley Vintage Tractor and Farm Machinery Club has been running for around 30 years and has 75 members.

All Club members have a common interest in vintage machinery, whether is be tractors, engines or old farm machinery and they meet once a month to discuss any issues and hold regular working bees to keep the facilities and sheds in good working order.

A grant from FRRR’s Small Grants for Rural Communities program, along with some keen negotiation skills and Club funds, helped to purchase a lathe and a sand blasting cabinet for the Clubs most recent vintage restoration project.

Every Wednesday, Club members come together to socialise and work on restoring a 800 Hp Crossley Engine.  This engine is a significant part of the region’s history, servicing Radio Australia as a backup power supply generator many years ago. 

The Club saved the 800 Hp Crossley Engine from scrap and had the huge task of restoring the mighty engine – the members had the skills but didn’t have the equipment they needed.

The lathe allowed Club members to fabricate and make new machinery parts, and after a lot of hard work and toil, the volunteers were very proud to see the engine running for the first time in 20 years. It can be viewed at the Club’s annual Vintage Rally.

The William Buckland Foundation in Victoria is proud to support this project through FRRR’s Small Grants for Rural Communities program and see a piece of the Goulburn Valley history restored and enjoyed by local residents.