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Social sector withstands a year like no other, with a few wins along the way – 2020 in review

21 December 2020 at 6:41 pm
Luke Michael
As a turbulent-filled year comes to a close, Luke Michael reflects on the sector-defining moments of 2020.   

Luke Michael | 21 December 2020 at 6:41 pm


Social sector withstands a year like no other, with a few wins along the way – 2020 in review
21 December 2020 at 6:41 pm

As a turbulent-filled year comes to a close, Luke Michael reflects on the sector-defining moments of 2020.   

What a year 2020 has been. No one could have predicted how much the year would be shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has fundamentally shifted almost every aspect of society and caused a myriad of health, economic and social challenges.

Last year we wrote that 2019 was “the year of the status quo”, with the year marked more by what didn’t change then by what did.  

The same certainly couldn’t be said of 2020, which has flipped the status quo on its head and forced major policy interventions as governments scrambled to mitigate the impacts of the COVID crisis.

Millions of vulnerable people benefitted from a (temporary) doubling of the JobSeeker payment, while many rough sleepers were taken from the streets and given crisis accommodation. 

It was a tough 2020 for charities, with the difficulties of the pandemic preceded by the devastating bushfire season at the start of the year.

As the sector lurched from one crisis to another, many organisations found themselves struggling to deliver services – because of operational difficulties and funding issues – at a time when demand was surging.

With charities also facing an expected downturn in giving, advocates fought hard to secure targeted support for the sector.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Remarkably, the sector was able to achieve some major advocacy wins late in the year around social housing and fundraising. 

Sector rallies to help bushfire-affected communities

While it seems like a lifetime ago now, it hasn’t been that long since the nation was battling horrific bushfires that affected more than six million hectares of land and half a billion animals.      

Charities did their bit to help through fundraising campaigns, wildlife rescues and food delivery.

These fires also elicited a groundswell of generosity amongst Australians, who donated millions of dollars to aid community organisations in their relief efforts. 

This did lead to some controversy though around the speed with which donations were reaching bushfire affected communities.

The New South Wales transport minister, Andrew Constance, said in January he was “furious” charities were not passing along the tens of millions of dollars in donations fast enough to bushfire victims.

Despite this, an Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) review subsequently found that frontline charities acted legally and responsibly during the crisis, appropriately allocating funds to bushfire response programs and protecting donations from fraud.   

There was drama over comedian Celeste Barber’s record $51 million Facebook fundraiser for NSW Rural Fire Service, after it emerged that donations could not legally be passed on to fire services in other states or to other charities. 

Pro Bono Australia also launched a Guide to Giving of Bushfire Appeals – a list of bushfire appeals and charities people can donate to.        

Charities struggle to keep afloat 

The charity sector is one of many industries that has suffered immensely during the pandemic.

Many organisations have faced funding cuts, job losses and fundraising shortages, as big fundraising events were curtailed in the era of social distancing and lockdowns.

A JBWere report in April also predicted that the coronavirus pandemic could see giving in Australia fall by almost 20 per cent by the end of next year.

The government has put in place several measures to help charities, including a tax-free payment of up to $100,000 for some charities in March, and a $100 million funding boost for community groups in April.

The government also announced in April changes to the JobKeeper payment, opening up the support payment to more struggling organisations.

Despite this, research has painted a dire picture of the sector’s future viability.

Research in May found that while 44 per cent of charities experienced increased demand for services during the coronavirus crisis, just 4 per cent had been able to increase revenue.

And a report in June said that more than 200,000 charity workers could lose their jobs if COVID-19 financial supports for the sector were not extended.

This has left a significant mental health toll on workers in the sector.

More than a quarter (28 per cent) of respondents to a sector survey said the financial pressures placed on charities was having an impact on staff and volunteer mental health and wellbeing.

Welfare shake-up helps millions… but leaves some in the lurch

If there has been one benefit to come from the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been an acknowledgement from government that people on welfare need greater financial security in times of crisis.

In March, the Morrison government decided to temporarily double the JobSeeker Payment, which hadn’t been raised above the rate of inflation for 26 years. 

This had a major impact on recipients, some of whom reported they were finally able to eat three meals a day. 

But with the supplement steadily being cut and set to end early next year, the sector has been calling for a permanent increase.

And while around 2.3 million Australians received the supplement – including those on Youth Allowance, Parenting Payment, Farm Household Allowance and Special Benefit – people on the Disability Support Pension (DSP) missed out. 

Subsequently, many people with disability struggled during the pandemic, with a survey finding that nine in 10 people with disability experienced increased expenses due to the crisis.

Challenges abound for National Disability Insurance Scheme participants

It was another year of challenges for the NDIS.

The Morrison government vowed in January to cut wait times and red tape for NDIS participants, after an independent review found people were confused and frustrated by delays plaguing the program.

This report by senior public servant David Tune said issues with the scheme meant “many of the benefits the NDIS seeks to achieve are yet to be consistently realised”.

In June, disability advocates celebrated after a landmark federal court decision proclaimed that people with disability could use their NDIS funding for specialised sex work services.

But when the pandemic hit, it became clear that people receiving disability services were especially vulnerable.

Research in May found there was an urgent lack of personal protective equipment available for disability workers and the people they support.

The disability workforce also expressed that it felt “dangerously overlooked” in the pandemic response, with many workers fearful about the future of their work and their inability to effectively self-isolate.   

A shake up to the scheme also caused controversy in September, with the announcement that independent assessments will be rolled out from 2021.

While people currently need to get reports from multiple health providers of their choosing to assess their NDIS eligibility, these new assessments would be conducted by NDIS-appointed healthcare professionals using standardised tools. 

The government said independent assessments will “deliver a simpler, faster and fairer approach for determining a person’s eligibility”.

But disability advocates fear it is a cost cutting measure to reduce the number of people in the program.

The disability royal commission has also been underway throughout 2020.

The commission’s interim report was handed down in November, detailing how people with disability were experiencing violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation across all aspects of their lives.

Federal budget disappointment

The social sector expressed its disappointment over the federal budget that was delivered in October, arguing that it left too many people behind.

Some of the big asks for the sector going into the budget were a permanent raise to JobSeeker and increased investment in social housing.

But while these demands were backed by some of the country’s leading economists as a way to generate the economic stimulus needed to rebuild out of recession, they were ignored in the budget.

Homelessness services also received a $41.3 million cut, something Homelessness Australia chair Jenny Smith said was “devastating”.

A $305 million boost to help Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste deal with the impacts of COVID-19 was welcomed by foreign aid groups, but they said it should not come at the cost of helping other countries. 

And while the federal government pledged to spend an unprecedented $5.7 billion on mental health over the course of 2020-21, advocates said the government missed the mark by not delivering the recommendations from the Productivity Commission’s mental health inquiry.

Overall, the overriding message from the social sector was that it was a missed opportunity to build back better post-COVID.

Not all doom and gloom

Despite the obvious challenges affecting the sector, there were some major advocacy wins to celebrate.

Victoria – which has long been criticised for recording the lowest proportion of social housing of any state or territory –  announced in November it will deliver more than 12,000 new social and affordable homes over the next four years.

This record-breaking $5.3 billion investment has been welcomed by the social sector, which has long fought for an increased social housing investment in the state.

Another long fought victory was in the area of charitable fundraising. 

The Morrison government announced a deal has been signed to harmonise charitable fundraising laws across Australia. 

It represents a major victory for the charity sector, which has constantly bemoaned how Australia’s inconsistent and outdated fundraising regulations are costing the sector an estimated $13.3 million a year.

Meanwhile other parts of the social economy have continued to thrive this year.

A study in June found that the Australian impact investing market has more than tripled over the past two years, from $5.7 billion at the end of 2017 to $19.9 billion at the end of last year.

Also that month, social enterprise networks in each state and territory united to form a new national voice for the social enterprise sector, hoping to drive collaboration and build a common vision for the future.

The sector celebrated in March when the winners of Pro Bono Australia’s Impact 25 were revealed.

More than 28,300 people voted for the winners, which included the co-founder of an organisation supporting farmers, a former NSW fire chief, the youngest ever director of St John Ambulance QLD, Australia’s Local Hero 2020, and Ms Charity Australia 2019.

Pro Bono Australia itself celebrated a significant milestone this year – its 20th birthday.

To recognise its role as a voice for the sector, Pro Bono News wrote a series of articles – which you can check out here – to showcase how far the sector has come in the last two decades.

So despite 2020 being perhaps the most difficult year the social sector has ever faced, it has continued to endure through the challenges and push for major policy change.                                                            

With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing and likely to seep well into next year, it remains to be seen how different next year will be.

But the social sector will be hoping that 2021 is the year that the world recovers from COVID-19 and builds back better to create a fairer society for all.     

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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