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Navigating sector challenges and the disruption of the pandemic

13 August 2020 at 7:00 am
Micah Projects CEO Karyn Walsh shares some thoughts on how COVID-19 has impacted the not-for-profit sector, and what the sector’s leaders need to be thinking about.

Contributor | 13 August 2020 at 7:00 am


Navigating sector challenges and the disruption of the pandemic
13 August 2020 at 7:00 am

Micah Projects CEO Karyn Walsh shares some thoughts on how COVID-19 has impacted the not-for-profit sector, and what the sector’s leaders need to be thinking about.

When talking about the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the not-for-profit sector, Karyn Walsh, chief executive officer of Micah Projects, said the sector has 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,” Walsh said.  

“In our case at Micah Projects it is homelessness. 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.”

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.

She said that we 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 – housing is foundational to that,” she said.

Walsh said it was important that we understand this as a nation and have a sense of urgency around this.

She said the sector has also had to work hard to support volunteers during the pandemic.

“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,” she said. 

The 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 the 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,” Walsh said.

“No matter what size the organisation is, everyone would have faced either an increase of volunteers or a decrease in their numbers. On the one hand there were people who were 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.”

Walsh said a strategy for a sustained and sustainable recovery for the sector as the pandemic continues to play out will be critical. 

“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,” she said. 

“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.”

What the pandemic has shown in Australia is that some of our safety nets are pretty weak.

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?”

Healthcare has been badly disrupted and has affected people’s access to their normal health services. 

Walsh pointed out that for healthcare systems to reset and for people to navigate it will take some time. In the meantime they will need continued assistance and support. 

“Because the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health and well-being, and their optimism and their ability to think positively about the future has been hugely impacted. Everybody is living with uncertainty,” she said.

The challenge for our governments then is to drive policy that will have parallel focus on the economy and the community. 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 as a consequence of the pandemic. Walsh said 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,” she said.

“I think that all not-for-profit leaders need to really 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.”

Don’t miss your opportunity to hear more from Karyn Walsh at the Governance Institute of Australia’s Not-for-Profit Governance Forum on 13 October in Brisbane. Secure your place at one of our state forums and gain practical advice on how to integrate governance and risk management within your NFP organisation. Each forum is available online.

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