Rural towns to 'wither and die' if local charities not supported by govt

Jamieson Murphy
By Jamieson Murphy
Updated December 20 2021 - 10:58pm, first published 5:00am
Rural towns to 'wither and die' if local charities not supported by govt

RURAL communities could "wither and die" if their local community and non-for-profit groups are not better supported by governments, a new report says.

Commissioned by the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR), the study found the cumulative effect of natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic have left volunteers in regional Australia fatigued and stressed, making it increasingly difficult for organisations to serve their communities.

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FRRR chief executive Natalie Egleton said the research quantified the critical role the often unseen and unheard grassroots groups played in remote, rural and regional communities.

"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," Ms Egleton said.

"At the very least, there would be significant gaps in services, the burden for which would move to government and the private sector."

The Kinglake Ranges Neighbourhood House serves the rural community surrounding Victoria's Kinglake Ranges and has been helping the region get back on its feet after it was devastated by the Black Summer Bushfires, including providing basic needs such as food and housing.

KRNH coordinator Kicky Mann said community fatigue and volunteer retention was the biggest issue her organisation faces.

"Since the Black Summer Bushfires, we've had a 60 per cent turn over in the community, so it's quite a huge shift in the community," Ms Mann said.

She urged governments to ditch the top-down approach and work with grassroots groups to build up their local capacity .

"Quite often the government will fund a larger agency from Melbourne or Shepperton to support our community, but when they exit, that leaves a hole in the community," Ms Mann said.

"Often these programs are shut down overnight with little thought given to an exit strategy, which leaves the community floundering."

The FRRR study found the onset of the pandemic weakened the ability of community organisations to play their critical roles in community, at a time when, for many, demand for their services increased.

Many organisations, particularly those with revenue of less than $50,000, saw significant falls in income from not being able to run fundraising events and income-generating activities and, in some instances, funders redirecting their support.

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The study also 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," Ms 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."

FRRR wants rural communities to come together to better target support for rural, regional and remote not-for-profits and community groups.

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"[The study] 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," Ms Egleton said.

"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.

"At present, the broader funding mechanisms and policies don't value these organisations in line with the contributions that they make."

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Jamieson Murphy

Jamieson Murphy

National Rural Affairs reporter

National Rural Affairs reporter, focusing on rural politics and issues. Whisper g'day mate to me at jamieson.murphy@austcommunitymedia.com.au

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