COVID-safe fundraising opportunities were few and far between in 2020 and Canberra’s Stella Bella Little Stars Foundation is one of thousands of Australian charities forging ahead amidst financial precarity.
According to the latest data, there are over 5,000 charities operating in the ACT, offering an array of services – from advancing health, education and culture to supporting Indigenous people, older people, LGBTQI+ communities, people with disabilities, veterans, children, families and more.
This year, the team behind one such charity stepped up to provide more support to its community of seriously ill children and their families, with fewer resources.
Stella Bella Little Stars Foundation founder and CEO Suzanne Tunks said with two of three major fundraising events cancelled – the annual ball and trivia night – the Foundation missed out on a significant amount of community donations.
“We usually make around $60,000 [at the ball] and it really goes a long way, that’s been our bread and butter all along,” she said.
“Our financial support [given to families] has been equal to or more than usual this year. It’s a big difference not having the ball.”
A study of the financial health of Australian charities since COVID-19 found most charities were in a lean financial position.
Using statistical modelling, the report estimated over 70% of Australian charities were operating with a deficit. A further 17% were expected to become unviable within six months and only 12% were surviving with a surplus.
The ACT boasts the highest percentage of donating taxpayers in the country – nearly 39% of Canberrans claimed tax-deductible donations in the 2017-18 financial year – and when a COVID-safe charity event was announced, it sold out in a matter of days.
Blackshaw Gungahlin events coordinator, Kylie Barry, said when she began planning their annual Charity Golf Day in June, she didn’t know whether it would be legal to go ahead in November, and whether people would still buy tickets during a pandemic.
But when Ms Barry heard Stella Bella Little Stars Foundation had to cancel all other major fundraising opportunities she was determined to go ahead.
“The response has been overwhelming, we’ve had beautiful donations from the community and local businesses,” she said.
“I told sponsors whether the event happened or not, the money would go towards Stella Bella regardless.”
Last year, the golf day raised $30,000, bringing the five-year total to $100,000 for the children’s charity. And although capacity will be reduced by one-third this year due to social distancing restrictions, Ms Barry said she was hopeful the event would raise a similarly hefty sum via a raffle and auction on the day.
Meanwhile, Ms Tunks is focussing on supporting the Stella Bella community.
The Stella Bella Children’s Centre operated business as usual most of the way through the pandemic.
“It required a lot of extra brain work, but we’ve managed to keep up with it,” Ms Tunks said.
“We’re good at working on our toes to come up with ideas that suit the circumstances.”
COVID-19 didn’t just impact fundraising, it also affected the ability to connect with community – something Ms Tunks said was equally concerning.
The Foundation pivoted to offer a virtual event, The Stella Bella Lockdown Lip Sync Battle, which was an opportunity to create an inclusive occasion to connect socially, while raising some much-needed funds.
Ms Tunks said it was an innovative idea and a lot of people had fun, but nothing could replace face-to-face connection.
“The lack of connectedness is really hard. We weren’t able to have our family camp where up to 20 families with really sick kids go away and camp together,” she said.
“It’s really rejuvenating being together as a family, and with other families in the same boat.”
Looking to the future, Ms Tunks couldn’t predict what next year would bring, however in hindsight because the Stella Bella community includes children who are immunocompromised, it “had a real edge” when it came to adjusting to coronavirus restrictions.
“A lot of our families get locked down a lot, so they were better prepared than other members of the community who have never had to live this way.”