From bushfires to COVID-19: NFPs on the disaster front line

Tuesday, 01 September 2020


    Sam Hardjono, advisory board chair of Australian Red Cross NSW Division, outlines how the organisation has responded to recent challenges in the NFP sector.

    Australian Red Cross NSW Divisional Advisory Board chair Sam Hardjono MAICD cannot say for sure that the organisation is facing its toughest year ever. After all, since its inception 106 years ago, the organisation has rendered assistance through two world wars. However, 2020 has got to be “up there”.

    “It has been full-on, to say the least,” says Hardjono, who is also on the board of the national organisation. “It has been a challenging time on all fronts. We started with the bushfires and ended up with COVID-19. At the same time, donations in the giving environment are falling and we seem to be going from one big event to another.”

    Hardjono believes conditions will continue to deteriorate for charities over the next couple of years as the recession gathers force and demand for services increases. Around 1800 Red Cross volunteers and staff have provided relief and assistance to more than 27,500 people affected by the summer bushfires. The organisation has also helped more than 65,000 people through isolation and quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering psychological first aid as well as delivering food and hygiene packs. Meanwhile, it has continued its support for refugees and their families, those in prison and young people at risk.

    The government-funded Red Cross blood collection service, Lifeblood, is collecting plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to assist clinical trials. The blood bank’s board reports to the Australian Red Cross board.

    Money problems

    More than half the organisation’s funding for its humanitarian services comes from the public, but regular giving fell by around $5m to $36.8m in the 2018-19 financial year. Government grants have also declined. However, Belinda Dimovski MAICD, Australian Red Cross director of engagement and support, remains upbeat.

    “Our public fundraising has been very strong this financial year,” she says. “In fact, we’ve had some of our most successful fundraising campaigns ever. Our end-of-year tax appeal broke all records and rose 14 per cent on the previous campaign, attracting thousands of new donors to Australian Red Cross. The 2019 festive campaign exceeded all expectations, too.”

    Fundraising Institute Australia CEO Katherine Raskob GAICD, says it remains to be seen how quickly donations to critical causes will bounce back. “Despite challenging periods in recent history, which have impacted fundraising efforts – including the 2004 South East Asian tsunami, the 2009 Victoria bushfires and more recently floods and fires on the east coast of Australia — the current pandemic is likely one that will be felt for a number of years,” she says.

    A recent JBWere report predicts public donations will be down by about 20 per cent (7.1 per cent this year; 11.9 per cent in 2021).

    The inability to raise funds via face-to-face events and other channels affected by distancing requirements mean it might be a challenge to even survive, says Raskob. “I’m hopeful that the enterprising nature of Australian charities and new innovative approaches to fundraising may help the sector to emerge strongly to continue its mission.”

    Hardjono says there will have to be some “compacting” of operations, allowing the Red Cross to narrow its focus to areas of greatest importance. During this difficult period, the board has lent its collective expertise to encourage staff and executives to find innovative solutions to problems.

    Offices will become more of a collaboration space and employees will be doing their deep work at home. The workplace will change to become a much more collaborative, project-style environment.

    Sam Hardjono MAICD

    Red Cross is now using a co-designing process to create new services with the input of users. For example, the Red Cross mental health app, My Team, was designed with the input of 250 mental health consumers, support workers, local service providers, family and friends.

    The board also asked for the establishment of a panel to handle the $216m in bushfire-related donations collected in the six months to mid-June. Grants include support for people who are injured or bereaved, or as funds for rebuilding. Faced with criticism it was too slow to distribute funds, the Red Cross flagged the problem of dealing with numerous fraudulent applications for relief grants. Speaking at the Bushfires Royal Commission on 27 May. Red Cross programs director Noel Clement said the charity had received 900 “electronically generated” bot applications to access its relief fund. He noted the Red Cross had handed out $83m so far.

    A woman picked up a damaged toy in a burnt-out building

    In the blood

    With a background in accounting and an MBA in international business, Hardjono’s executive career includes senior roles in property services, not-for-profits and NGOs. On the Australian Red Cross board, he is a member of the national property subcommittee and the national awards and finance committee.

    His property experience has proved beneficial in reimagining what workplaces will look like when the country finally gets past COVID-19.

    “Offices will become more of a collaboration space and employees will be doing their deep work at home. The workplace will change to become a much more collaborative, project-style environment,” he says.

    His first foray into the NFP sector was as general manager and CEO of Trustees Sisters of Saint Joseph/Mary MacKillop Foundation in 2004. He also joined the boards of St Joseph Aged Care in Sydney, the Sisters of Charity Foundation, and chaired the board of Waverley College in Sydney.

    His career move out of the corporate sector was unplanned, says Hardjono, but delighted his Australian-born mother, Joan, who had been involved in charity work in Indonesia. Hardjono was mostly raised in Australia and is a non-executive director and national vice-president of the Australia Indonesia Business Council. His sister, Ratih Hardjono, a journalist and author, is a former Indonesian presidential secretary and UN Development Program information coordinator.

    Hardjono says the NFP sector is not for everyone. “You really need to combine a deep love for humanity with your corporate experience,” he says. “Sometimes, there is a perception that anybody with corporate experience can join a NFP board and it will be OK”.

    He says the “machinery” of running a NFP — its content, drivers and culture — are different and directors need to be able to discern those differences and make the appropriate adjustments.

    “The NFP area is incredibly challenging and I like the challenge,” says Hardjono. “Resources are minimal and you have to make do with what you have, but the need continues to grow. It is a mental shift, but it is incredibly rewarding.”

    Red Cross bushfire funds allocation

    • $5m On-the-ground disaster services (FY2019-20)
    • $56m Emergency grants for people whose homes were destroyed
    • $20m Homeowner urgent repairs
    • $1.5m Bereavement payments
    • $8.5m Grants for people injured
    • $2m Other financial hardship
    • $79m Re-establishment grants for people whose homes were destroyed
    • $18m Community recovery for three-plus years
    • $26m Ongoing support as needs become evident
    • Administrative support costs (for paying grants, preventing fraud, legal compliance) are less thanfour cents for every dollar donated.

    Total funds raised: $216m

    Allocation correct at 10 June 2020

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