Australian not-for-profits were no exception to the rapid upswing in digital and service innovation in 2020 against all manner of challenges – fires, floods, and a pandemic. The work of our partners during this period represents progress that could broaden the scope and impact of support for at-risk children and youth.

The backdrop

In 2020, the Australian not-for-profit sector faced a myriad of interconnected issues. Approximately 80% of organisations reported an increase in demand from Australians seeking support, with the challenge of an at-home workforce and immense financial pressures – 85% of organisations reported a reduction in revenue, even with JobKeeper.

For organisations dedicated to children and youth at risk, the impact of COVID-19 remains profound. In relation to mental health alone, some studies show nearly three-quarters of youth reported their mental health has deteriorated since the onset of COVID-19, with a corresponding wave of demand for help.

Though the operating pressures are substantial and ongoing, the innovation and resilience from this sector mirrors the ingenuity we saw in the private sector during the pandemic, creating potential to permanently transform service delivery and support for young Australians in need.

Key developments in 2020

To continue providing support to young people, organisations needed to evolve how they engage with them. Some of this work was underway prior to COVID-19 and accelerated because of it, putting new strategies to the test.

1. Increasing digital and telehealth services

Digital and telehealth services have long been transforming the way support is delivered. They reduce barriers to seeking help (like geography), allow easier access to a network of referral partners, and are often more cost-effective and scalable than in-person options. Many of Future Generation Australia’s charity partners have been upscaling their digital service models on this basis, and in 2020, their thesis was proven.

One example is Act for Kids, a not-for-profit organisation that works with children who are at risk of harm or who have experienced trauma, rapidly accelerating a program of support which included phone-based sessions, video support, and digital content related to children’s mental health during COVID-19. Act for Kids connected with more clients (up to double for some services) more often, and found telehealth to be a meaningful therapeutic modality that staff can effectively manage remotely.

2. Service innovation

Organisations also recognise that, when working with young people, being in tune with how they communicate and socialise is vital to ensure relevant and appropriate services.

An example of this in action includes the Mirabel Foundation, an organisation which supports children who have been orphaned or abandoned due to parental drug use. Mirabel youth workers became skilled in online games such as Minecraft and Roblox to remain in contact with young people, who due to lockdown restrictions were otherwise isolated from their usual support people and places.

Self-initiated mentoring is another example of a service innovation that is being adopted globally and trialled in Australia.  It is an evidence-based innovation with self-sufficiency at its heart, aiming to teach young people the skills they need to identify a trusted adult from their own community or network, and approach them to become their mentor.

Raise Foundation, which supports young people experiencing challenges that impact their mental health, school engagement, and social and emotional wellbeing, launched a Youth-Initiated Mentoring pilot in 2020, based on these principles. The initial results were strong, including 76% of participants reporting an improvement in their knowledge of where to get help, and 77% reporting things were different for them because of the program.

3. Workforce and volunteer dedication

The ingenuity of the not-for-profit sector in 2020 was powered by the dedication of its workforce, with organisations reporting its employees and volunteers went above and beyond to meet accelerated demand and ensure continuity of services. Often, this was in the face of their own personal challenges, such as schooling children at home or managing extended lockdowns in Victoria.

The workforce at Lighthouse Foundation is one example. The organisation, which provides therapeutic residential care to children and young people impacted by homelessness and neglect, kept all its homes open throughout 2020. The strain on live-in carers during the year was immense, particularly as COVID-19 protocols had to be observed and their jobs expanded to include tutoring and teaching. Still, Lighthouse found that young people in their homes had a new appreciation for their carers and formed deeper relationships with others in their home.

In many cases, it was back to basics, with workers and volunteers making calls to keep struggling families connected; and providing emergency hampers, second-hand laptops and pre-paid data to enable children to learn at home.

The bigger picture

Not-for-profit organisations supporting children and families in need have defined a significant part of the national response to COVID-19. The sector dug deep to rapidly harness everything from technology platforms to volunteer muscle to increase support to Australians in their time of greatest need.  The agility, ingenuity and dedication of workers and volunteers has created an immeasurably valuable social impact.

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