In a welcome show of initiative and goodwill, RSL Victoria CEO Jamie Twidale offered AVN the opportunity to submit questions in relation to RSL Victoria’s 2019 Annual Report (and accompanying financial reports) released Tuesday 17 August 2020.
While there are other questions we’d like to put to RSL Victoria, we’ve focussed our attention on the content of the annual report in this instance.
The questions and answers are presented below.
Q.1: The role of RSL Victoria includes “Policy development and public advocacy on behalf of the members” (page 8). How RSL Vic develops policy positions and what public advocacy it has undertaken over the last 12 months? Additionally, how do you think RSL Vic is performing in this area?
JT: The current structured approach to consultation and development of Advocacy positions is through Regional Forums to the Veterans Affairs, Welfare & Aged Care Coordinating Committee (VAWACCC) and then to the State Executive to debate and decide. The other way Advocacy positions (Policy) are agreed is through remits to the RSL Victoria Annual Conference or direct to the State President from members or Sub-Branches. The National office has an important part to play in Policy setting and Advocacy and the National President is very active in this space directly with the Federal Government. It is therefore important that RSL Victoria is mindful of and where possible align with views of RSL Australia and other States as well as the need to underpin position with an evidence base where possible.
Our approach to policy setting and group advocacy, or what could be called big ‘A’ Advocacy, is an area that needs further development and is called out as a key objective in the State Branch Strategic Direction. We need to develop better ways to:
consult more widely and frequently with a wide range of Victorian veterans,
ensure there is an evidence base that underpins Policy positions,
deliver a more timely and transparent approach to setting Policy positions, and
set agreed strategy approaches for each Policy position that is tailored to the specific issue.
Earlier this year I commissioned a piece of work to look at best practice Policy and Advocacy. This work is looking at contemporary mechanisms for consulting, developing, and agreeing Policy positions and approaches to Advocacy strategy. That work will soon be ready for consultation through Regional Forums.
In recent years, the State Branch has undertaken a range of Advocacy activities. Many have been through membership of a large range of State and Federal committees, through submissions to reviews/inquiries, with a great deal of work done by the State President direct to Government either directly or via the RSL National Board. Of most note recently were the RSL Victoria submissions made to Government with respect to the draft Cornall and Productivity Commission reports. One of the areas we also need to improve in is capturing this work and communicating it to stakeholders.
Q.2: What do you see as the key imperatives required for RSL Victoria to be able to deliver on the seven objectives outlined under Strategic Direction on page 9?
JT: The five pillars of the Strategic Direction are fundamental to our future and achievement of our 2019-2023 objectives. Getting this right underpins everything. In doing this the following are key priorities for me.
Attract, engage and harness the energy of all veterans; but as a volunteer based organization we particularly need to appeal to younger veterans to move into leadership positions to constructively and inclusively carry on the work of those who came before them.
Develop a modern and fit for purpose constitution that sets the entire RSL in Victoria up for the next 20-25 years. We aim to modernize our approaches in how we work as a single RSL across Victoria in a joined-up way.
Make better use of the total resource pool available to the RSL, harnessed and targeted to our core objectives including investment strategies that create sustainable income streams.
Continuous improvement towards best practice NFP and member-based organization governance and compliance approaches. This includes greater transparency, better communication, and more consultative approaches.
Work with government, other ESO’s and service providers to put the veteran at the centre.
Q.3: What are the key internal and external risks in relation to RSL Victoria’s ability to achieve its mission?
JT: Our key risks include:
An aging member demographic
A declining culture of volunteerism in general society
Aging, and under utilised infrastructure across the State
Underutilization of widely distributed resources
Over reliance on donations from two single annual fundraising appeals.
Deliberate undermining of the RSL reputation that diminishes our social license
Q.4: The report advises that in 2019 RSL Victoria received over 10,919 calls for support from veterans (page 19) and confirmed its commitment to the development of 17 regionally-based RSL Victoria Veteran Wellbeing Hubs (page 22). What informed the business case for the investment in the wellbeing hubs and what other outreach programs are planned to support the many veterans who need help but don’t call?
JT: The current 17 Regional Veteran Centre’s have been created locally over many years originally as the result of a joint venture arrangement between the VVAA and RSL Victoria . They have no ongoing funding certainty (reliant on annual BEST grants and local fundraising) and are largely staffed by an aging volunteer base. Plan 2020 calls for a more sustainable and fully funded model of Wellbeing Hubs across Victoria. These would be staffed by a mixture of volunteers and employees under the management of RSL Victoria, offer a wider range of consistent services and programs that are centrally coordinated in a community of practice approach.
While Plan 2020 identifies several potential Hub sites no decisions have been made. An evaluation of two trial Hubs in Warrnambool and Frankston was completed in early 2020 which has provided valuable insights. Following that evaluation, we have moved to the business case phase which will not only identify possible locations, but also develop the operating and funding model for these Hubs. The business case will seek to propose an implementation timeline commencing in 2022 with some Regional Veteran Centre’s transitioning to Hubs over multiple years subject to a clear and sustainable funding model. That business case will need to be approved by the RSL Victoria State Executive in early 2021.
Two new Hubs may come on line before the overall business case is finalized. The first is a DVA funded Wellbeing Hub in Wodonga. This is part of a Federal Government initiative to have a Wellness Hub in each State. RSL Victoria was the single ESO invited to make a funding submission. The business case for that will be submitted to DVA in the next two week. The second is an inner city Wellness Hub. This was a commitment from the State Branch at the 2019 Annual Conference. And while level 5 of ANZAC House has fulfilled that purpose in the interim, we have an exciting proposal for a joint RSL and Legacy Veteran and Families Wellness Hub to be opened this year at Legacy House.
It is important to note that our current operating model for veteran support is through the Sub-Branches. As such, we see the RSL Sub-branch network as our outreach program. The Sub-Branches are our connection with the community and undertake a huge amount of work in support of veterans at the local level. In recent years however, the State Branch has taken on a larger role of directly providing services and Plan 2020 is recognition that a new model is needed. We see the Plan 2020 Wellbeing Hubs initiative as complimenting the Sub-Branch network.
A key focus for a reinvigorated approach to supporting veterans of all generations in Victoria is through the development of an overarching RSL Victoria Resilient Veteran Strategy. This strategy will look at ways that RSL Victoria can implement a new statewide operating model, implement veteran centered programs (such as our soon to be announced Veteran Employment Program), seamless working arrangements with other ESO and government and most excitingly a move to a single holistic case management approach where the RSL supports the veteran through their personal life journey. Plan 2020 is part of this larger work.
Q.5: Can you elaborate on the situation relating to the doubtful loans connected with the Returned & Services League of Australia (Victorian Branch) Inc. provision for impairment of loan receivables of $1,980,589 (Note 9)?
JT: As at 31 December 2019, $2,595,489 was owing by Sub-Branches to RSL Victoria Inc.An increase in doubtful debts provision of $1,980,589 occurred to ensure that all existing loans were fully provisioned. This accounting treatment is appropriate due to both historical trading difficulties at these Sub-Branches and current issues attributable to COVID 19. We are seeking to work with the relevant Sub-Branches to negotiate terms that will see them paid back where possible.
Q.6: Regarding the reported losses, $2.03M for Returned & Services League of Australia (Victorian Branch) Inc. and $866K for RSL Victoria General Appeals Patriotic Fund, what changes need to be made to return RSL to return to positive cash flow and profits?
JT: It is acknowledged in our Strategic Direction 2019-2023 that we need to maximize our fundraising efforts and grow, and diversify, our revenue. We have commenced a program to change our reliance on single point income sources. We are also looking at investment strategies that see a higher return and spread risk. However, while we need to have a good set of investments, maintain a healthy reserve, and grow our revenue streams we should not be holding back on spending on patriotic purposes. The General Appeals Patriotic Fund is where all our donated money goes and is used exclusively for benevolent welfare purposes and the raising of those funds. It runs on a negative cash flow basis most years and it receives a significant benefit from other State Branch entities to enable it to do the work it does for the least cost in overheads.
Q.7: It’s been noted by others that within the RSL Victoria General Appeals Patriotic Fund $3.4M was spent on wages and admin costs representing 44% of the fund’s revenue. Noting that this is the third year this fund has made a loss, is there a problem with the performance of the fund? Is this expenditure on admin and wages delivering value for money outcomes that are not reflected in these figures?
JT: The General Appeals Patriotic Fund (GAPF) employee expenses was $2.4M in 2019. The GAPF employ’s our frontline veteran services staff (pensions and compensation advocates, welfare officers etc.) who directly interact and support veterans and their families daily. They handled over 10,000 interactions with veterans and supported close to 1,100 advocacy cases in 2019. They account for approx 75% of the employee expenses or 20% of total expenditure.
All charities spend money on administration – without it, they wouldn’t be able to operate and pursue their charitable purposes. A small number of non-frontline staff are employed by the GAPF which includes management, fundraising, and finance staff. They represent approx 25% of employee expenses or 6.9% of total expenditure. These staff are vital to manage and run our two annual major fundraising appeals, including working with Sub-Branches, and ensuring regulatory and financial of ACNC compliance as well as supporting the frontline staff.
Additional governance, financial, management, marketing, human resources and IT support is provided by the RSL Vic Inc for which an administration levy is charged to offset costs of this support; however this levy, representing $0.37M, was forgiven in 2019.
Q.8: Again, as noted by others, within the RSL State Wide Patriotic Fund there are $2.8M in loans to Sub-Branches. Are any of these loans in doubt and when are they to be repaid?
JT: These loans are made to three separate Sub-Branch Patriotic Funds. Prior to COVID 19, two of the three loans were being repaid in accordance with the loan agreement. RSL Victoria is working with the third Sub-Branch to secure the repayment of that loan. These loans are effectively secured by a property asset and no provision has been made against these loans.
Mark Schroffel is the Editor-in-Chief of Australian Veteran News. Mark is a veteran and has a day-job as strategy consultant and researcher interested in veteran support policies and transition programs. He designed and led the Melbourne Legacy sponsored ShoutOUT research initiative to gather insights and stories about post-1991 veterans and their families. Mark can be followed on twitter @MarkSchroffel
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