Community organisations are facing increasing demand for their services among rising levels of poverty and disadvantage during the pandemic. These services are also struggling to keep up with growing demand as community needs become more complex, according to a national survey of sector workers.

The report, Meeting demand in the shadow of the Delta outbreak: Community Sector experiences, examines how community sector organisations dealt with the demand for their services in 2021, changes in population and community needs, and the capacity of the sector to meet these needs. It draws from the Australian Community Sector Survey conducted in September 2021 by Associate Professor Natasha Cortis and Dr Megan Blaxland from UNSW Sydney’s Social Policy Research Centre in collaboration with the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) and the network of Councils of Social Service of Australia (COSS Network), supported by Bendigo Bank.

The survey was completed by 1828 community sector staff, including 513 organisational leaders (CEOs and senior managers), in September 2021 during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Respondents worked in a range of services, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services, homelessness, youth, migrant, disability, ageing, legal, financial counselling, health and education services.

Overworked and underfunded

While the community sector rose to the task of supporting communities throughout Australia in the face of the enormous challenges posed by COVID-19, the report uncovers the extent of the challenges overworked community organisations are enduring.

“During a chaotic year, the community sector went above and beyond to ensure as few people as possible were left behind. Yet, not only have services struggled to meet increasing demand through 2021, but they also observed a worrying increase in the complexity of need within their communities,” said A/Prof. Cortis.

Services reported housing affordability and homelessness, social isolation, lack of access to mental health supports and cost of living pressures as the main challenges people faced this year. In particular, the demand for services spiked for housing and homelessness services and support for children, young people, and families.

“People experiencing poverty and disadvantage are trying to survive on low incomes despite inadequate income support, the rising cost of living pressures, housing insecurity and insufficient funding of essential services. This means the sector continues to face growing demand without sufficient resources and supports to meet it,” the researchers said.

Edwina MacDonald, Acting CEO of ACOSS, the community sector’s peak body, said the report shows just how difficult it has been for community service organisations to keep up with demand for their services during a tumultuous and exhausting year.

“Not only have services seen a sharp rise in demand, but they’ve also seen people’s needs become more complex and harder to meet,” Ms MacDonald said. “This shows the deep and sustained toll the pandemic has had on those living on low incomes across the country.”

“In 2020, we saw improvements in the experiences of people on low incomes with the initial introduction of the Coronavirus Supplement. However, in 2021, with the emergence of the Delta variant and the withdrawal of income supplements, we saw people everywhere struggling to survive and needing to access more essential services to cope.”

Ms MacDonald said community organisations showed tremendous resilience and creativity to continue to deliver services to people experiencing poverty and disadvantage despite prolonged lockdowns, strict public health measures and short-term, uncertain funding arrangements.

“Even with this hard work, we’re concerned that only six per cent of services said they could always meet demand. This shows a worrying increase in people’s need for help, plus highlights how challenging it is for community organisations to adequately meet that need.”

New funding approach needed

The report recommends that a national COVID-19 recovery plan includes a new strategic partnership between the Federal Government and the community sector to strengthen the working relationship and ensure the expertise and importance of the sector are embedded in government administration and policy development. This should include a new approach to funding community services based on need, the delivery of services based on genuine collaboration and co-design principle and longer funding cycles, more holistic resourcing for organisations, and an end to precarious funding arrangements.

“With the shadow of COVID likely to be long, community services must be recognised and resourced as part of our national COVID-19 recovery plan. Stronger services mean more resilient communities,” Ms MacDonald said.

Key findings from the report: 

  • 80 per cent of respondents reported that demand levels for their main service increased.
  • 58 per cent of respondents reported an increase in the number of clients their service could not support.
  • Only 6 per cent of services were always able to meet demand, down from 19 per cent in 2020.
  • 73 per cent of respondents reported increased levels of poverty and disadvantage in the communities they support.
  • 81 per cent of respondents reported growing complexity of need among service users.

Read the Meeting demand in the shadow of the Delta outbreak: Community Sector experiences report.