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Financial lifeline may not save Australian charities

Australian charities and not-for-profits are feeling the strain of coronavirus through a combination of dwindling funds, ineligibility for government aid and a suspension on non-emergency fieldwork.

The Fred Hollows Foundation and the Queensland Eye Institute (QEI) Foundation, which feature among more than 7,300 health-related charities in Australia, have spoken of the challenges they face as the crisis tightens its grip on the economy.

Ian Wishart, Fred Hollows Foundation.

Fred Hollows CEO Mr Ian Wishart said complex funding structures and sources of income meant many international non-government organisations (NGOs) would likely remain ineligible for the Federal Government’s $130 billion JobKeeper program.

That’s despite a lowering of the income threshold for charities to access the scheme to 15%. Comparatively, businesses with an annual turnover of less than $1 billion are eligible if they estimate their turnover to fall by 30% or more.

Wishart said the foundation, along with others in the sector, requested the JobKeeper program be amended to allow registered charities access to the program their turnover is reduced by more than 15%, excluding government grants and specific purpose grants and philanthropic funds.

The foundation also proposed that charities should be eligible if the reduced turnover is expected to occur for the 2020 calendar year relative to that reported in their previous annual information statement or financial report.

“Australian charities are being hard-hit by the economic downturn and may struggle to survive without support,” Wishart said.

“It is critical that the new legislation excludes government grants and is based on a projected deadline in revenue over the next 12 months.

“We expect our fall in donations to continue for many months as the after-effect of the COVID-19 downturn is felt.”

Following the summer bushfires that contributed to ‘donation fatigue’, Professor Mark Radford, QEI Foundation CEO, estimates that the sector is down at least 35% during the past six months. As the virus complicates staffing arrangements, research and funding, he predicts a greater downturn during the next 12 months.

The QEI Foundation has written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to seek an urgent stimulus package to protect not-for-profits throughout the downturn.

Fieldworkers redeployed

Meanwhile, Fred Hollows deputy CEO Mr Nick Martin has reported that the charity’s standard eyecare prevention and treatment work is on hold with eyecare providers now contributing to the coronavirus response, whether in hospitals or through community engagement.

The redistribution ranges from primary health care workers who would normally do eye health promotion, to doctors who perform eye surgeries in health clinics.

The foundation trains health care workers in more than 25 countries across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Australia, and the Pacific islands. In 2018, it trained nearly 60,000 people – including surgeons, community health workers, and teachers – and supported 929,106 eye operations and treatments.

“All efforts are being redirected into the response to COVID-19. And we’re seeing our own efforts and our partners also being redirected in that way,” Martin told devex.com.

“What we’re seeing is the mobilisation of an entire health system in the country. And it’s really drawing on the best expertise that they can find. Sometimes that is even in eye health.”

Martin hopes the pandemic encourages the global community to better prioritise health.

“Hopefully emerging from all of this, we will see that health becomes a priority once again for funders and donors. And eye health is an integral part of that,” Martin said.

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