It’s 2019, and where did the last six months go? I’ve been busy with our drought appeal, and trying to get $11.5million of people’s generosity into the hands of people that need it. While I have essentially moved out of a program management role in recent years, and particularly response/recovery type role, this has been a welcome return to the tools. Its allowed me to get stuck into one thing, and one thing only. It’s even forced me to look at budget spreadsheets.
Managing appeals are very, very challenging. We have spent decades moving the idea of helping away from giving people “stuff” to giving people cash so that they can spend it in the way that they determine. This gives them agency, and reduces the stigma of secondhand goods (I am still to write a donated good post). Administratively, it is much easier for agencies as well.
When I taught on disaster recovery, we often used to say that the success of the appeal has a direct inverse relationship to the distance from Sydney or Melbourne, and the nearest Channel 9 presenter’s rural property. While we joke about this, there is an element of truth in terms of access for stories and imagery. These are the things that spark people’s emotions. Emotions drive appeals, as people want to help. The closer you are to news rooms, the more successful they will be. Particularly in today’s era of vacuum shrunk newsrooms.
But then, we announce appeals, and the pressure is on. You are walking a very high tightrope. You balance needs of the recipients, the needs of donors, the needs of executive, the needs of the media, the needs of politicians. We can’t distribute to everyone, so we need to make some reasonable assessment based on reasonable criteria. We shouldn’t make too many demands on the recipients (the Farm Household Allowance has a number of pages on farmer’s sleeping arrangements) but enough that we are satisfied that the claim is genuine. We need to accept that some people will “try it on”, but it’s a tiny minority (people are always trying it on…anyone claimed stuff on their tax that was, er, borderline?). We need to manage the expectation of the donor that the funds will get out there quickly, but be administered in a rigorous way. Quick and rigorous are not two words you can easily use in the same sentence. Finding a middle ground is important. There will be those that believe that we are flying first class and staying in five star hotels. Or getting paid exorbitant wages (or getting paid at all!). And we need to second guess what the media are going to do. Are there journalists who simply hate us for who we are? Are there ones that are looking for their Walkley winning expose? Are there bored or lazy journalists who will just accept one disgruntled claim and make it out as systemic issues, in doing so whip up internal frenzies, and destroy trust in a system. Are there journos that want to get inside the story and understand what is happening, and help communicate the complexity of the situation?
Those that donate want to see their dollar in the hands of those that need it, which is a reasonable expectation. And they want to see it quickly. And responsibly. What they then don’t see is that money has to be collected, banked, and transferred, someone has to work out how the funds will be allocated in a fair, equitable, transparent and defensible way (you need to pass both audit and pub tests), somebody needs to tell people that the funds are available and they are available for them, and this is through a mixture of media, advertising, and word of mouth. Some of it is goodwill, some of it has to be paid for, so you can be certain that you have let everyone know the funds are available (of course, if they don’t see it, that’s another matter). Somebody has the challenging task of taking the applications, reading through them, following up for more information, dealing with the joy and the disappointment, and making recommendations for payment. Then someone has to make the payments. And someone needs to solve the problems, make the calls on the tricky ones, know where all the balls are in the air, and stop them from dropping. This all costs money. We had a generous donation from Comm Bank to help us with some of these costs. But there was way more that we as an organisation have to absorb. The 100% of donations going to those in need is a very challenging mantra.
We’ve chosen a partnership model to distribute the funds. This was based on a report from the millennium drought that indicated that farming communities were frustrated with agencies riding in on their white chargers, saying we’re here to fix it, then riding away. By working through our partners, they are already working in these communities, so it is a kinda business as usual approach. We’ve also partnered with established organisations that have good governance in place, but understand the needs of the recipients. Some organisations are based around personalities, and while doing good work and may capture the public imagination, sometimes personal agendas can get mixed up in organisational priorities, and there are few checks and balances.
Using our mapping volunteers to map where grants are being paid has been really helpful in identifying areas of need, or understand why there are some areas that don’t apparently have need, or aren’t accessing assistance. Our new relationship with the Bureau of Meteorology has also meant we have been able to overlay rainfall and soil moisture deficits (ah my Geomorphology A03 and Climatology C03 are all coming back to me). This data helps build a richer picture.
It has been a fascinating and rewarding process. But the people I pay most tribute to in this is our admin officer, and our finance people. Like the almost cliché now story of John F Kennedy asking the cleaner at Cape Canaveral what do you do round here, “I’m helping putting a man on the moon,sir”. Our finance and admin people have moved heaven and earth to get the money out the door to where its needed. They are our person on the moon people.