COVID-19 Community Sector Impact Survey

About the survey

As the COVID-19 pandemic started bearing down on the Australian community sector in early 2020, a thirst for data emerged. Thousands of words were being written about the impact of the pandemic on the business sector but what of those organisations that provide the social scaffolding for the nation?

Our Community set out to find out what was happening within the not-for-profit sector through a quick-response survey that was open for just two days in April 2020. Our Community is a social enterprise that has for the past two decades been at the forefront of providing practical support for the 600,000 community groups, not-for-profits and charities that serve as the engine room for Australia’s social economy. We needed information quickly so we could respond quickly. A total of 366 individuals completed the 2020 survey.

Just over a year later, we set out to find out how the sector has weathered the COVID-19 storm, this time in partnership with the one of the world’s biggest suppliers of cloud computing services, Salesforce.

With the peak of the pandemic now safely in the rear-vision mirror, the survey was conducted over 14 days from May 7 to 20. A total of 907 individuals completed the 2021 survey, which was primarily promoted through the Our Community database.

A parallel consumer sentiment survey was conducted by YouGov from May 3 to 5. This survey comprised a nationally representative sample of 1027 Australians aged 18 and older. Following completion of interviews, the data was weighted by age, gender and region to reflect the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics population estimates.

About the not-for-profit sector

There are more than 600,000 not-for-profit organisations in Australia, together employing more than 1 million people (almost 10% of the Australian workforce).

While the sector is well recognised for its enormous social contribution to Australia, what’s less well appreciated is the fact that it makes a massive economic contribution as well. The 2017 Australian Charities Report found the sector had total revenue of $146.1 billion – more than the mining and agriculture sectors combined.

The economic contribution of the sector is eclipsed by its contribution to building and maintaining the social fabric of the nation. The sector covers many activities and services, spanning health and wellbeing, housing and homelessness, disaster relief, animal welfare, sports, religion, the environment, education and social justice.

Around 59,000 not-for-profits are considered “economically significant”. The majority of Australian not-for-profits operate “underneath the radar” at the local level. The direct impact of these local community groups on the national economy is small, but these groups play many crucial roles in our society:

  • They give voice to communities of place and of interest and contribute to a more vibrant and participatory Australian democracy
  • They improve the quality of life through groups, events and celebrations
  • They provide a place for people to participate and engage with each other in community life
  • They break down isolation and enable people from a diversity of backgrounds to join up and join in
  • They provide the opportunity for people to share responsibility for changing our communities for the better
  • They provide services that are responsive, relevant, and accountable to their communities.

About Our Community

Our Community is a social enterprise that services the organisations working in and supporting the Australian not-for-profit sector.

Our Community’s mission is to build stronger communities through stronger community organisations. We work towards that goal by providing advice, connections, training and easy-to-use tech for the people and organisations sharing the same motivation.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Our Community launched the Save Our Sector (SOS) campaign, providing news updates, instructional help sheets, policy templates and webinars designed to help not-for-profit organisations navigate the many challenges thrown up by the pandemic.

At the time of writing (May 2021), the peak of the pandemic has passed (at least for now) in Australia, but Our Community remains focused on the shifting needs of Australia’s 600,000 not-for-profits.

About Salesforce is a social impact center of Salesforce. We build powerful technology for, and with, our community of not-for-profit, educational and philanthropic organisations to help them operate effectively, raise funds and connect.

In a world where digital-first is no longer a choice, our Not-for-profit, Education and Philanthropy Clouds enable organisations to increase digital engagement, create a single source of truth, and generate actionable insights. Technology helps build resilience, maximise social impact, and build a better world. Together, we can close the gap between the impact created today, and the potential for impact in the future.

Survey Sample

A total of 907 individuals completed the 2021 Our Community not-for-profit sector survey, compared with 366 last year.

Despite the fact that the 2021 survey attracted more than twice as many respondents as the 2020 survey, the distribution of respondents according to state was very similar. The sample was dominated by people from organisations from the eastern states, but all states and territories were represented.

A postcode analysis revealed that 55% of our sample were headquartered in a city, with 45% in rural and regional areas of Australia.

Most respondents were representing small to medium not-for-profit organisations: 44% of respondents were from small organisations (with annual revenue of less than $250,000); 18% were from medium organisations ($250,000–$1 million) and 27% were from large organisations ($1 million+).

This was a similar distribution to last year, though large organisations were more significantly represented this year (27%) than last (21%).

A majority of respondents came from the disability/human services, community development, health and education sectors. Together these sectors comprised 56% of the sample. Sector distribution was similar this year to last.

Demand for services

Our 2021 survey unearthed a sector that’s split between organisations that have experienced a surge in demand for their services, and those experiencing a downturn in demand, with not many organisations in between.

Few organisations have been left unaffected by the pandemic; just 12% say they’ve experienced no impact on the demand for their services (compared with 7% in the 2020 survey).

A total of 52% of respondents say they have experienced increased demand (with 28% saying demand has increased significantly). At the other end of the ledger, 32% have seen a downturn in demand for their services (including 15% who say they have experienced a significant downturn).

It’s interesting to compare the 2021 results with those from the 2020 survey, which was conducted in the immediate aftershock of the COVID-19 disruption. In the 12 months since the initial survey, we’ve seen a reversing of the situation relating to demand for services, with more organisations now in the “demand is up” camp (52% in 2021 compared with 33% in 2020) than in the “demand is down” camp (31% in 2021 versus 49% in 2020).

2021 Service Demand

The takeaway: Demand for services provided by not-for-profits contracted in the immediate wake of the pandemic emergency, but that situation has reversed as the pandemic has ground on, with a majority of not-for-profits now contending with an increase in demand. Organisations providing family violence, homelessness, food relief and childcare services have been particularly hard hit by increased demand. Many organisations have experienced a mixed situation internally: an upsurge in demand in one area, and a downturn in others.

Shifting to digital

In our 2020 report we posited the observation that one legacy of the pandemic would likely be the acceleration of the shift to digital technology for the not-for-profit sector. That prediction, not surprisingly, has been borne out in our latest survey results.

A total of 43% of respondents said they’d significantly increased their use of digital technology over the past 12 months (though it’s interesting to note that 24% recorded no increase in their use of digital tech).

The not-for-profit sector is not done with tech yet: 64% of respondents say they plan further investment in or adoption of digital technology in the next 12 months.

2021 Digital

The takeaway: The pandemic has accelerated the not-for-profit sector’s shift to digital technology, with most organisations significantly increasing their use of digital tech in the past 12 months, and most also planning a further adoption or investment over the year ahead.


Optimism in the air

In April 2020 more than a third of the not-for-profits we surveyed (35%) had already reduced staff numbers, and a further 8% planned to do so, though many were hoping they may avoid large losses if they could qualify for JobKeeper. JobKeeper was a Federal Government scheme designed to help employees maintain a connection to their workplace during the pandemic by delivering a flat payment of $1500 per fortnight via organisations that could demonstrate significant financial losses. The scheme was announced on March 30, about a month before our 2020 survey, but payments did not commence until May. There was some confusion in the early days of the scheme about which organisations would be eligible for JobKeeper support.

This year’s survey sample included an almost identical percentage of organisations with paid employees (71% this year compared with 72% in 2020). We asked again whether organisations had reduced staff numbers; 23% said COVID-19 had caused them to reduce staff, compared with 35% the year before. Again, many cited JobSeeker (which ended on March 28, 2021) as the key to keeping their staff numbers intact.

2021 Staff

Staff losses appear to have been more pronounced in Tasmania and the Northern Territory, with 22% of the organisations in these states recording a loss in personnel, compared to an Australia-wide average of 16.5%.

2021 Staff State Sector

We also asked organisations whether they had increased staff numbers, or planned to do so. While 46% of respondents had not made and did not plan to make changes to their headcount, a relatively large number
(32%) said they had increased staff numbers already, and an additional 19% said they planned to do so soon. This is perhaps not surprising when considered in the context of the increased demand for services reported on page 8 of this report. Indeed, our analysis confirms that the organisations experiencing increased demand, and those who have experienced an increase in income, are more likely than others to be planning staff increases.

2021 Staff Plans

The takeaway: JobKeeper was touted as a business scheme but our survey reveals that it was also extremely important for the not-for-profit sector. Those who lobbied to ensure the not-for-profit sector was included in the scheme (including the Community Council of Australia and the hastily convened Charities Crisis Cabinet) did the sector a considerable service in getting its needs placed on the Federal Government’s agenda. At the time of writing (May 2021), with the worst days of the pandemic behind us (at least for now), there’s optimism in the air. If funding can be found to allow the not-for-profit sector to scale up to match demand, we can expect an additional bounce in job numbers.


When we surveyed the sector in April 2020, things were looking grim on the funding front. More than half of the groups we surveyed (67%) said they’d already experienced a decrease in fundraising income, with 47% reporting a significant decrease.

Decreases in income ranged from 1% to 100%, with a median estimated downturn of 53%; i.e. of all organisations that had experienced a downturn in fundraising income, the typical organisation had lost more than half its income.

A small portion of respondents said they’d experienced an uptick in fundraising income; in that group, the typical increase was around 10%.

One year on the picture looks a little rosier. The percentage of organisations reporting an increase in income doubled (though admittedly from a fairly low base) – from 6% in 2020 to 12% in the 2021 survey. Increases were modest (median of 10%).

The percentage who experienced no impact on fundraising was also up – from 12% to 19%. Meanwhile, the percentage of organisations reporting a significant decrease in fundraising income shrank from 47% to 30%. However, once you take into account those who reported a slight decrease, it’s clear that the effects of the pandemic on fundraising income have been significant, with 57% reporting a downturn of some sort. The median decrease was 50%.

2021 Effect Fundraising

Our analysis did not discern any difference between organisations in rural/regional and metropolitan areas of Australia.

Organisations in the arts and culture sector were more likely than others to report a downturn in income, with 73% indicating they’d suffered a decline during the past year, compared with 63% for education organisations, 57% for sport and recreation orgs, 54% for community development, environmental and health organisations, and 48% for human services organisations.

2021 Effect Fundraising Sector

When we look at state-based differences, organisations in the ACT appear to have suffered the most from a drop in income, though this result must be viewed with caution because of the relatively low representation of organisations from the ACT in our survey. Among the remaining states, Queensland organisations reported the most significant losses in income, with 60% saying they’d experienced a decline, compared with the average across all states of 57%.

2021 Effect Fundraising State

Looking ahead

The YouGov consumer sentiment survey provides some good news for not-for-profits who have been hit by a downturn in donations. More than a third (37%) of Australians who support not-for-profits say they plan to donate more in 2021 than they did in 2020, with only 7% saying they plan to donate less.

2021 Donations

Among those who support not-for-profits, people from NSW (43%) are more likely than those in Victoria (31%) and Queensland (31%) to say that they plan to donate more in 2021, and young people – Gen Z (48%), Millennials (47%) and Gen X (40%) – are more likely than Baby Boomers (18%) to predict they will donate more this year.

2021 Donations State Age

The takeaway: The fundraising income of the not-for-profit sector has not been as hard hit by the pandemic as appeared likely at first; yet the picture is still grim for many, with more than one in two organisations reporting a funding downturn. A large number have lost at least half of their fundraising income. The Federal Government’s now-defunct JobKeeper scheme provided a lifeline for many. Encouragingly, 37% of Australians who already support not-for-profits say they plan to donate more this year than last.


Tough times ahead

A total of 604 respondents to our survey (73% of the sample, compared with 72% in the 2020 survey) said they relied on volunteers to deliver programs or services. When we surveyed in 2020, 58% of organisations who rely on volunteers said they had experienced a drop in volunteer numbers as a result of the pandem-ic, with 43% reporting a significant drop in numbers.

This year, the difficulties have become even more pronounced, with 64% of respondents reporting a drop in volunteers, though many are reporting less severe impacts than they did last year – in the latest survey 34% said they had experienced a significant decrease in volunteer numbers, compared with 43% last year.

2021 Volunteers

The vast majority (81%) of 2021 respondents said the pandemic had affected their ability to manage and recruit volunteers.

2021 Volunteers Recruitment

The survey throws into sharp focus the not-for-profit sector’s reliance on older people to power the nation’s volunteer army – and the sector vulnerability that results from this reliance.

The YouGov consumer sentiment survey confirms the findings of our not-for-profit sector survey.

The survey of Australians found that Baby Boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) and the Silent Generation (those born between 1918 and 1945) – i.e. Australians older than 57 – account for 43% of all days volunteered, despite the fact they make up only 34% of the population.

2021 Volunteers Population

Among those who volunteer their time to not-for-profits, Baby Boomers (those aged 57 to 75) are more likely than all others to volunteer several times a week – 23% of them do so, compared with 14% of Gen Xers (those aged 41 to 56), 16% of members of the Silent Generation (those aged 76 to 103), 11% of Millennials (those aged 25 to 40) and 9% of Gen Z (those aged 18 to 24).

Viewed across a year the contribution of older generations to not-for-profits through volunteering is notable, the YouGov survey shows. On average, members of the Silent Generation are volunteering 46 times a year and Baby Boomers 51 times a year, compared to 34 times a year for Gen X, 30 times a year for Millennials and 26 times a year for Gen Z.

2021 Volunteers Age

Our analysis shows that health and disability & human services organisations were among those to have suffered the most pronounced drops in volun-teers, while arts and culture organisations fared best.

2021 Volunteers Sector

The drop in volunteerism occurred across all states and territories of Australia, our analysis shows. (Tasmanian and ACT groups seem to have fared slightly better than those in other states, though this result may have been skewed by the relatively small number of responses from those states.) Metropolitan and rural organisations recorded practically identical results.

2021 Volunteers State

The YouGov consumer sentiment survey provides a small flicker of light at the end of the tunnel for not-for-profit organisations battling a downturn in their volunteer workforce. More than one in three Australians who volunteer for not-for-profits (37%) say they plan to volunteer more this year than last.

Among this cohort, younger people – Gen Z (51%) and Millennials (41%) – are more likely than Baby Boomers (28%) to say they will volunteer more this year than last. Interestingly, women are more likely than men (8% versus 3%) to say that they plan to volunteer a lot less in 2021.

Organisations searching for new tactics to attract and retain volunteers may be interested to learn that more than half (56%) of the Australians who participated in the YouGov poll believe not-for-profits would retain more volunteers if they established an online community and engaged with them more. This sentiment is more popular among Millennials (63%) than Baby Boomers (48%).

Nearly half (49%) of Australian adults agree that volunteers want to connect with not-for-profit organisations on tailored volunteering opportunities, while 45% say it’s difficult to find information on how to volunteer and what opportunities are available on not-for-profit organisations’ websites.

2021 Volunteers Intentions

The takeaway: The pandemic has severely disrupted Australia’s already struggling volunteer workforce, and there is little sign of a recovery on the horizon. Not-for-profit organisations will need to adapt their recruitment and management strategies if they wish to see volunteer numbers return to pre-pandemic levels.


Most not-for-profit organisations (61%) said they had undertaken some reskilling/retraining during the pandemic.

Zoom, Teams and other online conferencing, digital and cyber-security tools featured prominently in the comments. Other training themes included skills in online presentation, COVID-safe/occupational health and safety procedures and mental health first aid. The survey suggests upskilling is likely to continue. The sector appears to be anticipating that demand for improved marketing and cognitive skills (e.g. project management) will go up, while the need for improved communication, digital and social and emotional skills will go down.

2021 Skills

The takeaway: Communications, digital tech and social and emotional skills were targeted for skills development during the first 12 months of the pandemic, with more investment in training likely in coming months.

Supporting the sector that supports our communities

Last year we were heartened to hear that 47% of respondents felt they’d received the support they needed from government, peak bodies and philanthropy in the early stages of the pandemic.

The comments revealed some fantastic examples of funders and other supporters providing useful or significant help, although there were some tales of woe as well. Support continued for the not-for-profit sector as the pandemic wore on, our 2021 survey reveals.

Government was cited as the strongest supporter of the not-for-profit sector, with 28% saying they’d received significant government support, and 51% some or a little government support. Once again, JobKeeper was cited by many as having provided “massive and necessary support,” as one respondent put it.

The philanthropic sector is often cited as a key supporter of the not-for-profit sector so it’s interesting to note that 41% of our respondents said they received no philanthropic support at all over the past 12 months. In fact, philanthropy was eclipsed by the corporate sector, according to our survey, with 39% of our respondents saying they got some support from philanthropy (only 5% said that support was significant), compared with 44% who said they were supported by the corporate sector.

2021 Support

The takeaway: Government support, particularly JobKeeper, has been essential to the survival of the not-for-profit sector over the past 12 months. As the urgency of the pandemic recedes into the distance (for now) thoughts are turning back to age-old issues: funding, volunteers and staff.

Challenges & opportunities

We asked respondents to identify the three biggest challenges facing not-for-profit organisations.

Budget constraints, diversity of fundraising streams, access to volunteers, managing demand, access to skilled employees and digital tech were top of mind.

2021 Challenges

We also asked not-for-profit representatives to identify any opportunities that had emerged as a result of the pandemic. Some interesting trends emerged.

Half of the not-for-profits surveyed felt that the pandemic had opened up the community’s eyes to issues they had been dealing with for years.

Just over 40% had developed new relationships with business and other parties.

Well over a third (38%) had welcomed the opportunity to adopt digital technology (and the flexible work practices that opens up), and a similar number took the opportunity to diversify their revenue base.

And one in five had taken the opportunity to focus on good governance and/or conduct more strategic planning.

2021 Opportunities

The takeaway: Not-for-profits are anticipating budgetary/funding constraints, access to volunteers and staff, challenges managing demand for services, and management of digital tech will occupy much of their attention in the coming months. But some opportunities have opened up as well. Not-for-profits have welcomed a greater community awareness of their issues. Many have developed new relationships in the wake of the pandemic. Some have welcomed the opportunity to adopt digital tech, to diversify their revenue base, and to focus on governance and strategic planning.

The final word

Last year we asked respondents to give us one word to describe what they thought the sector would look like in a year’s time. The range of responses reflected the unavoidable uncertainty of the times.

“Resurgent”, “messy”, “bruised”, “disrupted” and “evolved” were among the most thoughtful and evocative descriptions received. “Relieved!” also stood out. Back then it was hoped that the Federal Government’s JobKeeper scheme would offer an essential lifeline to hard-hit organisations.

This year’s survey results confirm all of those predictions.

Our survey turns up some unforeseen results too: volunteerism has been smashed; maybe it will never return to what it was before the pandemic. Demand for services contracted but has now rebounded strongly. Bolstering income, volunteers and staff have returned as key focuses for the sector.

Still, the YouGov consumer sentiment survey provides some cause for optimism. Around nine

in 10 (88%) of individuals say they believe not-for-profit organisations will play an important role in helping rebuild lives, communities and our society generally post-COVID-19.

Most Australians believe that governments (71%) and large corporations (76%) should do more to sup-port not-for-profit organisations, while 68% believe communities should do more to support them.

2021 Final Word

The survey also provides some signposts for not-for-profit organisations wanting to enhance their engagement with the community, with 30% of respondents saying they believe it’s hard to connect with local not-for-profits to offer support, and 42% saying they would volunteer more if they had more access to information about what opportunities were available.

Organisations wanting to tap into younger age groups should note that Gen Z (53%), Millennials (57%) and Gen X (45%) are more likely than Baby Boomers (24%) and members of the Silent Generation (24%) to say they would volunteer more if they had access to information about opportunities and knew where to go.

And well over half of Australians (57%) say they would volunteer more if their employer organised opportunities or allowed time off for volunteering. This sentiment is particularly prominent among Millennials (73%), compared with Gen Z (55%), Gen X (51%) and Baby Boomers (31%).

It will be interesting to see how these trends play out as Australia’s vaccine rollout continues and the pandemic rolls on over the next 12 months.

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