Charities dwarf mining and agriculture in our economy, but many face ruin - Op Ed, The Sydney Morning Herald


The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September 2020

The charity sector is 8 percent of the economy, 10 percent of the workforce, and mobilises 3 million volunteers. It dwarfs agriculture, mining or manufacturing.

Saturday is International Day of Charity, a day chosen because it marks the passing of Mother Teresa, whose life was dedicated to serving the poor and homeless. It’s a chance to honour Australia’s more than 50,000 charities – but also to recognise that many are doing it tough.

Since COVID hit, two-thirds of volunteers have cut back their hours. Donations are expected to fall 7 percent this year, and a whopping 12 percent next year.

Yet while the supply of resources has plummeted, the demand for help has skyrocketed.

In normal times, the Wayside Chapel sees about 10 new people a week who are requesting help. During COVID, that has increased to 70 requests a week.

Earlier this year, Foodbank reported that demand was up 78 percent, yet their supplies of donated food had shrunk by 27 percent.

Cystic Fibrosis Australia reports that, since March, their workload has increased by 79 per cent and their revenue has dropped by a similar percentage.

The Salvation Army has seen increased demand, but its Red Shield Appeal has raised less than half of its $8 million target.

Financially, many charities live from month-to-month. The Ramsey Foundation estimates that the typical charity has so few assets that they could cover less than three weeks of operations.

Some charities might not recover from COVID. A report from Social Ventures Australia and the Centre of Social Impact estimates that one in seven charities risk becoming unviable by September 2021 under existing JobKeeper requirements. Almost 200,000 jobs are on the line. As Wayside Chapel Pastor Jon Owen puts it, ‘COVID-19 was kind of life or death [for clients] but also life or death for Wayside’. Australia was already becoming disconnected before coronavirus, but the pandemic has piled extra pressure on charities.

What should be done to save the charity sector? Philanthropy Australia would like to see better structures for bequests, including by making it simpler to donate leftover money from superannuation to a charity.

Australia’s peak philanthropic body also reckon it’s time for a national giving campaign, doing for donations what the ‘Slip Slop Slap’ campaign did for cancer prevention. And they support a simpler system for charities who want to register for tax-deductible donations.

For its part, Social Ventures Australia is pushing the Australian Government to permanently raise the JobSeeker payment, so that those who are unemployed are no longer so desperately reliant on charities. Social Ventures Australia also warn against a premature end to the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme. If JobKeeper was more carefully tested, targeted and tapered, it could produce better economic outcomes at less cost to the taxpayer.

Across the board, charities believe that it’s time to fix outdated fundraising laws, which currently require anyone raising money online to register in seven different jurisdictions. As Senator Catryna Bilyk’s bipartisan report points out, this means that charities either waste a week of staff time complying with the rules, or cross their fingers and break the law. In effect, archaic fundraising laws are turning would-be Mother Teresas into Ned Kellys. That must change.

While there’s plenty that government can do to help charities, there’s also an opportunity for all of us to step up. If you can spare a few dollars, charities have never needed your help more. As Georgina Byron of the Snow Foundation puts it, ‘Now is the time to double down’. Her foundation has relaxed restrictions on how much it can donate, and begun to tap its reserves – recognising that a dollar donated now can do a power of good.

If you’re able to volunteer, there’s plenty of organisations who’d love to hear from you. The best place to start is one of the terrific matching websites: GoVolunteer, Vollie, or Communiteer. You don’t even need to leave your home to help, with plenty of online volunteering opportunities available. If you’re involved in a local sports club, you might want to link up with Play for Lives, an organisation that is mobilising under the banner ‘Australia's volunteers are being sidelined. It's time for our sportspeople to sub in.’

So on International Day of Charity, let’s take a moment to say thanks to our fabulous Australian charities and the people who keep them running. Together, government, donors and volunteers can help build a reconnected Australia.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities, and author (with Nick Terrell) of Reconnected: A Community Builder’s Handbook. 


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.