Rural community groups struggling under weight of keeping towns alive
9 December 2021 at 8:21 am
“Without these services, their towns would simply wither and die.”
Despite community organisations in rural and regional areas serving as the lifeblood of their communities, many are being left without sufficient funding and resources, and are struggling to stay afloat following two years of near constant disruptions, a new study shows.
The research from the Foundation for Rural Regional Renewal (FRRR) explores how NFPs and community groups in remote, rural and regional Australia are faring amid the pandemic and a rolling series of natural disasters.
In the past two years, nearly half of the responding organisations had to contend with drought; 37 per cent faced bushfires; 26 per cent faced floods; and nearly 20 per cent dealt with the mouse plague.
And while many larger, metro-based organisations were able to pivot and deliver services online, the lack of digital connectivity in more remote regions meant that the people dealing with these immense issues felt isolated and stressed.
“Access to digital technology in rural Australia really hasn’t improved in decades. Even where there is connectivity, it is expensive,” the CEO of FRRR, Natalie Egleton, said.
“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.”
Funding constraints continue to be an issue
Access to sufficient funding was found to be by far the largest constraint facing community groups. Very few receive ongoing government or philanthropic funding, and rely heavily on donations raised via events, which during COVID, came to a grinding halt.
Egleton also told Pro Bono News that it was important to acknowledge that these groups were often locked out of funding opportunities because they weren’t registered charities, or did not have the resources to apply for grant funding.
“They’re small NFPs and charities that are working across so many different types of activities… the role they play is really dynamic and complex which means that some of those traditional funding structures actually don’t work,” she said.
“So the first thing I think is just appreciating that and understanding that reaching them is harder.”
These concerns were echoed in the report, with only half of respondents agreeing that they were able to influence decisions made about their area or that funders listened to and consulted them about issues affecting their communities.
Respondents also called for greater flexibility in how and when funding can be used, a simpler application process, with less red tape, and for longer-term or ongoing funding to allow them to plan more effectively and to use resources more efficiently.
More than just social cohesion
Out of all the organisations interviewed, 87 per cent of them contributed to the local economy, and all provided some form of cultural and social support.
Egleton said that if these organisations were to collapse, the consequences would be immense.
“These types of organisations are often viewed as positive for social cohesion and community connectedness, which they absolutely are, but what the survey also found is that without those organisations, a lot of the core services within rural communities would cease to exist,” Egleton said.
She said this was because in many regional and rural areas, services such as community transport, aged care facilities, local emergency services, or even local community events were all run by small NFPs and armies of volunteers, which were now at risk of collapsing.
“If people start leaving town to access these services, there’s no longer a community,” she said.
“We’ve heard people say that without these services, their towns would simply wither and die.”
Explore the full report here.