Federal volunteer grants now by invitation only

Posted on 01 Mar 2020

By Matthew Schulz

Politicians will have increased powers to select grant applicants after changes to a Commonwealth volunteer grants scheme.

Previously the Department of Social Security’s Families and Communities Program hosted an open and competitive round for small grants of $1000 to $5000, worth a total of $10 million annually across Australia.

But since mid-December, federal MPs in each of the 151 federal electorates have been charged with selecting their preferred candidates for grants funding. The policy change means that only organisations that are invited to apply will be able to seek funds.

Each MP will be able to invite organisations to share $66,000 in their electorate.

Once submitted, grant applications will be assessed by the department in the order in which they are received.

Asked to explain the change, a department spokesperson said, “The approach addresses the principle of proportionality under the Commonwealth Grant Rules and Guidelines (CGRGs) and recognises that MPs are well placed to identify local needs and priorities in consultation with local communities.”

The department also outlined measures to ensure proper probity.

“MPs must declare any conflicts of interest and follow the assessment guidelines as outlined in the Grant Opportunity Guidelines,” the spokesperson said.

“This ensures the process is fair, open, free of political bias and demonstrates the highest level of integrity, consistent with the public interest”.

The spokesperson said that the department had recommended the changes to the grants process and funding model, with hundreds of past applicants alerted to the changes.

According to a FAQs document published by the department, the previous open and competitive selection process had been “heavily over-subscribed with around 70% of applicants unsuccessful, despite the vast majority of applicants being eligible and worthy of receiving a grant”.

The document also says, “The change will ensure grant funding addresses local priorities and reduce the cost of grants administration proportionate to grant outcomes. The change will also ensure that grant funding is distributed evenly, with $66,000 allocated to each electorate.”

About the volunteer grant

(taken from the DSS’s Grant Opportunity Guidelines)

Grants of between $1,000 and $5,000 are available to eligible not-for-profit community organisations. This funding is to be used for volunteers to:

  • purchase eligible small equipment items
  • contribute to fuel costs, and transport costs for volunteers with disability
  • assist with the costs of training courses
  • undertake background screening checks.

But Volunteering Australia has raised concerns about the new process. The organisation said it had not been consulted, with chief executive Adrienne Picone describing the revisions as “convoluted” in an ABC report last month. Ms Picone told the ABC she would be encouraging organisations to contact their MPs to improve their chances of nomination.

The shift to invitation-only grants mirrors the operation of the Stronger Communities program – also managed by the DSS – which funds small capital projects of between $2500 and $20,000 in each federal electorate. The past five rounds of the Stronger Communities program have required applicants to be invited by MPs, with $150,000 allocated for each seat.

In the wake of recent Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) probes into programs including the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program and the Regional Jobs and Investments Packages, other programs – such as the Volunteer Grants and Stronger Communities schemes – have faced greater scrutiny.

For grantmakers, particularly those in the federal sphere, familiarity with the CGRGs – including the principles of “proportionality” that drove the latest change – will become more important.

The Commonwealth guidelines explain proportionality in a lengthy section of the 41-page document, describing it as “striking an appropriate balance between the complexity, risks, outcomes, and transparency.”

The principles are aimed in part at preventing grantees from being overburdened with paperwork, especially for “low-risk grant activities”.

The guidelines instruct public officials to “… ensure that grants administration appropriately reflect the capabilities of potential grantees, grantees and accommodate the Australian Government’s need for robust and accountable processes, consistent with the risks involved.”

The guidelines also note that officials should explain in grant opportunity guidelines and operational procedures how the proportionality principle is to be applied.

Applications for the Volunteer Grants program close on April 6, but nominations by MPs needed to have been completed by late February.