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Social sector endures another COVID-filled year, but continues to drive change – 2021 in review

21 December 2021 at 8:00 am
Luke Michael
As we enter the final stages of 2021, Luke Michael looks back at the key moments that shaped the social sector this year.

Luke Michael | 21 December 2021 at 8:00 am


Social sector endures another COVID-filled year, but continues to drive change – 2021 in review
21 December 2021 at 8:00 am

As we enter the final stages of 2021, Luke Michael looks back at the key moments that shaped the social sector this year.   

In last year’s review, we wrote that no one could have predicted how much 2020 would be shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic 

The same could be said for this year. In many ways, 2021 seemed a lot like a sequel to 2020 – a 2020-2, a year before 2022.   

COVID continued to dominate our daily lives, with extended lockdowns and pandemic-induced anxiety affecting many Australians this year. 

In 2021 though, the focus turned to getting the nation vaccinated to allow us to open up safely.

It’s fair to say this didn’t go smoothly, with the federal government facing criticism over the pace of the rollout. 

The social sector was itself deeply concerned about the plight of vulnerable groups.

Disability groups said the government was failing to protect the nation’s most clinically vulnerable people during the pandemic, and put forward an 11-point plan to urgently improve the vaccine rollout for the disability community.  

Homelessness groups also said rough sleepers were being forgotten during the rollout, with a lack of national coordination or strategy making it difficult to protect them. 

These issues led the sector to call for specific vaccination targets for high-risk groups to ensure vulnerable people were not left dangerously exposed to COVID-19 once the nation reopened.

Also in 2021, the federal government handed down a budget that provided much-welcomed, and much-needed, investment in the care economy. But advocates warned that many of those doing it tough were not included.

Despite these challenges, the sector continued to drive change and care for the vulnerable groups it works with.

Mixed bag for charities on the policy front  

While the federal government has sometimes been criticised for a lack of reform agenda, there was no shortage of policy battles affecting charities in 2021.

Charities fought all year against the government’s proposal to change the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) governance standard 3. 

This would have expanded the reasons for which a charity can be deregistered beyond indictable offences to include summary offences, such as trespassing, theft, vandalism or assault.

The sector believed the proposal could lead to charities being deregistered for something as simple as tweeting in support of a protest that accidentally ventures onto private land, or providing support to whistleblowers.

But advocates – including the Hands Off Our Charities (HOOC) alliance – led a successful campaign against the laws, which resulted in the Senate disallowing the proposal in November.

The sector also celebrated a major milestone in the long-running battle to fix fundraising rules, with states and territories committing to work with the Commonwealth to develop a national fundraising framework.   

This means that fixing fundraising – so often sidelined in the government reform agenda – is now one of the 10 projects prioritised in the national workplan to reduce the burden of overlapping regulations.

There was also a big win for charitable advocacy in September, after the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) rejected a decision by the ACNC to deny a global anti-poverty charity access to public benevolent status because its activities include advocacy. 

It wasn’t all good news for charities though.

The sector lost a battle to defeat the government’s political campaigners bill in the Senate, after Labor controversially supported it in exchange for the government agreeing to take its voter ID bill off the table.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 lowers the threshold for entities such as charities to disclose political spending and will force charities to reveal their donors with retrospective effect.

The sector believes it will place an unnecessary burden on charities that engage in issues-based advocacy at election times and make it harder for Australians to participate in national debates on important issues.

Financial impacts hit the sector

This year also saw charities deal with the ongoing financial impacts of the pandemic.

In March, more than one in 10 charities told a Pro Bono News reader poll they would need to retrench staff when JobKeeper ended, while noting the support payment had been “a lifeline” for the sector.

An Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) report in November said that while the sector had fared better than expected financially amid the pandemic, 40 per cent of organisations still believed it would take at least two years to fully recover from the crisis.

Also that month, the Centre for Social Impact’s (CSI) latest Pulse of the For-Purpose Sector survey revealed that many community service providers were still struggling to keep financially afloat and meet increased service demand. 

Advocates fight to protect the NDIS

Disability was another area that faced policy challenges in 2021. 

The sector faced a huge fight over the government’s plan to introduce independent assessments (IAs) for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  

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

Disability advocates argued the process did not adequately capture the complexity of a person’s support needs and would lead to unfair outcomes for people with disability.

After strong pushback from the sector, these plans were scrapped in July after the federal government could obtain the support of states and territories.

Another threat emerged soon after though, with recent government legislation including changes to give the National Disability Insurance Agency boss the ability to vary an NDIS plan – and potentially cut a person’s funding – on their own initiative.

This sparked a major backlash, as advocates warned these were “the most significant [changes to the scheme] since the NDIS commenced”. 

It’s understood these rules will now be redrafted to clarify there are only “limited circumstances” under which these powers can be utilised. 

In more welcome news for the sector, the government this month unveiled Australia’s new national disability strategy, which sets out a national disability policy framework to be used by all levels of government until 2031.

The sector praised the plan for being truly representative of the voices of people with disability. 

JobSeeker Payment finally raised permanently… by less than $4 a day

Before the pandemic, it had been more than 25 years since the JobSeeker payment – formerly Newstart – was raised above the rate of inflation.

When COVID hit, the payment was temporarily doubled, leaving some recipients finally able to eat three meals a day

But with the supplement steadily being cut and set to end early this year, the sector renewed persistent calls for a permanent increase.

The government finally delivered this in February, but the welfare advocates were far from impressed.

While the Australian Council of Social Service was calling for the rate to increase by $25 a day – to raise it above the national poverty line – it was instead raised by just $3.57 a day.

Anglicare Australia pointed out that the new permanent $44 a day JobSeeker rate actually represented a cut for welfare recipients, who were on $51 a day with the coronavirus supplement.  

In September, the federal government’s decision to end COVID disaster payments when vaccine milestones were reached was labelled “unconscionable” by welfare groups.

They warned it could push hundreds of thousands more people onto JobSeeker and put communities at risk.

Amid these decisions, reports emerged that rental stress was again on the rise, with analysis showing that housing affordability was worse than pre-pandemic levels in some areas of the country. 

Analysis from Homelessness Australia in August also revealed that government spending cuts to housing and homelessness over the past decade were set to exceed $1 billion

Sector leaders said this came at a time when rising house prices and rents were pushing more Australians out of housing and into homelessness. 

New blueprint for Australian philanthropy

In April, the nation’s peak philanthropy body unveiled a blueprint it believes can help double the level of structured giving in Australia over the next decade.

The blueprint aims to encourage action across the philanthropic, not-for-profit, business and government sectors, while also helping to capitalise on the $2.6 trillion intergenerational wealth transfer expected to occur over the next few decades.

Soon after its release, new analysis showed that while the total amount of money given to charity in 2018/19 jumped 5 per cent from the previous year, the percentage of taxpayers claiming a donation fell to the lowest figure in four decades.

This data showed that for the past fews years, Australia’s wealthiest have been giving more and this was backed up in this year’s Philanthropy 50 List.

The list, compiled by The Australian Financial Review Magazine and John McLeod of JBWere, revealed the top 50 philanthropists gave away $964 million last year compared to $748 million the year before – an increase of 29 per cent year on year.

Good business thrives in Australia

It was a good year for social enterprises and the for-purpose business community in Australia.

In October, Canada officially passed the baton onto Brisbane as the next host of the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF). 

Advocates believe this will be a catalytic event, offering a focal point for social enterprises in Australia and providing “an opportunity to create a legacy for the sector’s long-term development”.

Also in October, Victoria unveiled a new social enterprise strategy, setting a road map for the sector for the next four years. 

Meanwhile, as the B Corp scene continued to grow, Pro Bono News sat down with the CEO of B Lab Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand to hear about the impact the region’s new governance model will have on the movement. 

Social finance continues upward trajectory

It was also another promising year for the world of social finance.

The Responsible Investment Benchmark Report 2021 revealed that responsible investment assets were growing at 15 times the rate of the overall professionally managed investment market.

Research this year also found that sustainable investing grew by 25 per cent in Australasia between 2018 and 2020, despite industry standards tightening to address the growing threat of greenwashing. 

Investors also flocked to support socially-conscious businesses. Plastic-free home cleaning brand, Zero Co, achieved the fastest crowd-sourced funding raise in Australian history in October.

The Byron Bay start-up raised $5 million in six hours and 27 minutes, crashing equity crowdfunding platform Birchal in the process. 

Also in the world of social finance, Australia’s first social impact bond launched in South Australia this February. 

The Newpin program aims to reunite parents with children in out-of-home care, and was expanded to SA following the “resounding success” of the first Newpin program in New South Wales.

This program saw nearly 400 children in NSW returned to the care of their family and delivered a financial return of 10 per cent p.a. to investors.

Another big year for Pro Bono Australia

Pro Bono Australia was excited to crown its Impact 25 winners in March, recognising the sector’s most inspiring and influential leaders for 2021. We are already looking ahead to next year’s awards after receiving a record 400 nominations. 

Pro Bono News also launched a new six-part podcast series – How Can I Help?

This is a podcast for people who want to help, but don’t know where to start, featuring conversations with people with lived experience and experts in the field on what we can do to help in situations that we all might encounter.  

So while 2021 was filled with more COVID chaos and included some disappointing developments policy wise, the sector was still able to achieve some much-needed wins. 

And if anything, this year showed that despite the world being turned upside down by COVID, Australians still strongly support charities and social enterprises, and want to invest their money sustainably. 

If next year can return to a semblance of normality (with less COVID drama), who knows what the sector can achieve in 2022.    

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

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

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