COVID-19 lessons are close to home for survey prize winner

Posted on 17 Sep 2020

By Matthew Schulz, Our Community

Bannockburn Bowls Club Jan2019
The Bannockburn Bowls Club was among recipients of Golden Plains Shire’s new grants round released at the height of the COVID-19 regional lockdown. The club won $4500 in the “healthy and active living” category. Picture: Bannockburn Bowls Club/Facebook.

Improvements to your grantmaking can come from unexpected quarters, and the onset of the pandemic has forced many organisations to rethink their approach.

Recently SmartyGrants hosted the biggest cross-sector survey of grant funders in Australia and New Zealand to learn more about grantmakers’ responses to the coronavirus.

If you haven’t examined those results, you can read them here.

But one question in the survey should be a critical consideration for every grantmaker: What is the one thing that has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic that you hope we will take into the post-COVID era?

Many funders said in response that they had been challenged by the short timeframes for deploying rapid response grants, but now wanted to retain the streamlined practices they had adopted to make rapid grantmaking possible.

Just as many grantmakers said they had appreciated the slower pace of lockdown and the pared back, simplified lifestyle forced upon us by the pandemic.

Shannon Fielder from Victoria’s Golden Plains Shire Council, an experienced community partnerships officer based in the picturesque region sandwiched between Geelong and Ballarat, summed up how many people had been feeling, while pointing to ways to become a more effective grantmaker in this challenging environment.

Shannon Fielder
Shannon Fielder from Victoria’s Golden Plains Shire Council

“By slowing down you can achieve more,” she said. “Take a breath, be in your garden, play Lego with your kids and then come to work and find everything just flows instead of building up and tensing in your shoulders. It's much easier to work with someone, client or colleague, after you see their humanity. Their cat/kid/dog/spouse walking through the back of the Zoom meeting has made me realise everyone is actually in the same boat as me!”

Managing a relatively small grants pool for a local council makes Ms Fielder your typical grantmaker, with a large proportion of SmartyGrants users looking after similar programs.

Speaking with Grants Management Intelligence shortly before second-wave lockdowns were lifted in Victoria’s regions, Ms Fielder said COVID-19 had brought challenges but also unexpected benefits.

Golden Plains is a huge region, but without any major city centre. Many of its 25,000 residents travel to the bigger centres of Ballarat or Geelong or live in small townships such as Bannockburn and Smythesdale.

Bird Life Aust
Birdlife Australia – protecting birds such as the endangered Australasian Bittern was among the winners of Golden Plains Shire’s new grants round. Picture: Wayne Butterworth/Wikimedia Commons

It’s a diverse community comprising farms, former goldfields, vineyards, and the home of the renowned Meredith and Golden Plains music festivals. This year’s Meredith Music Festival – scheduled for December – was recently cancelled due to COVID-19.

The municipality’s grants program is modest, with a budget of $145,000 annually.

Ms Fielder said the council had been preparing to roll out its revamped Community Strengthening Grants program when the pandemic struck.

The new program was a big change from the council’s once-a-year community grants, which had gone to small projects such as building and maintenance projects for local cricket clubs.

Instead, the council had decided to create a new stream of “Community Strengthening Grants” in line with its strategies, to be offered twice a year in the following areas:

  • Environment and sustainability
  • Creative community
  • Healthy and active living
  • Community safety.

Following a six-month review, the new grants program had won the support of the council and was set to be released in early April.

“We were due to launch our first round when COVID-19 hit,” Ms Fielder said, referring to the statewide restrictions that hit Victoria in March.

“We went ahead with it, but we had to do a massive pivot.”

Not only was the council faced with rolling out a wholly new program in the midst of a pandemic, but it needed to cancel a string of face-to-face grants information sessions, create a replacement series of video information sessions, and support applicants with Zoom video meetings and phone assistance. This occurred during a time when the shire was finalising its conversion from partially paper-based to fully online grant applications using SmartyGrants. What’s more, council staff were asked to work from home just after the first information video was made.

Northern Access TV will make a video series about the Golden Plains district with a $7500 grant under the “creative communities” stream. Picture: istock

While it was a challenging and exhausting time, Ms Fielder said the difficulties faced by her shire paled in comparison to the health emergencies in some parts of the world, and knowing this helped her to keep things in perspective.

“It was really tricky, but let’s not get the violins out,” she quipped.

Necessity swept away many of the usual ways of doing things.

For example, applicants were no longer required to provide a signature to show they had read grant conditions; instead, they could tick a box. Timelines were shortened at the council and extended for applicants. Both of those measures helped streamline the process. Ms Fielder found herself in much more frequent contact with applicants, and she became known less often as “the council officer” and more often as “Shannon”.

That personal connection was critical, because for some in the regional community, digital access was lacking. Poor digital literacy, widespread “dodgy” internet connections, and resistance in some quarters to new technology could have hindered the process.

However, Ms Fielder spent more time than ever on the phone, helping applicants through the process, and sometimes even filling out online forms for them as they talked.

But that high-touch approach was needed for just a few of the 23 original applications, while 16 projects won approvals in the first round, for a “good, broad range of projects”.

Other changes included:

  • time extensions on evaluations and applications
  • shorter and more streamlined application forms
  • extra information and assistance to all applicants
  • increased contact with organisation to better understand and respond to the way COVID-19 had affected them

Ms Fielder said some of the processes and bureaucracy that often holds small local government back had been “blown out of the water” through necessity.

She said while accountability was still essential, the pandemic had allowed the team to be “more creative and respond to the community in the way they need us to”.

That in turn had improved relationships with grantseekers.

“With my grants officer hat on, the question I always ask is: ‘How do I make this as accessible as possible, while still ensuring that this process could meet an audit?’”

Thinking back to her responses to the SmartyGrants survey, Ms Fielder said her strongest memory of the early days of the pandemic was telling herself, “Just breathe.”

“But you know what? With the outcomes with our community grants, everything ended up okay. We’ve ended up with a really good and broad range of really worthwhile projects.

“I feel like working with community groups through this situation … and realising we’re all in this together – that there’s nothing anyone can do and we’ve just got to crack on – I think it yielded better results.”

For her response to the SmartyGrants survey’s question about the post-COVID era, Shannon Fielder won a Funding Centre subscription worth $400, giving access for up to 10 users to Australia’s best grants database.