Work smarter: Uni experts help social service agencies improve outcomes for Australians experiencing disadvantage

Advocating change for Australians experiencing disadvantage would have to be one of the most challenging jobs in the community.

But a collaborative research partnership between Australian Catholic University and two of Victoria’s most active social service agencies has highlighted the effectiveness of more informed policymakers.

Catholic Social Services Victoria, which represents more than 40 Catholic welfare arms in the state of Victoria, and St Mary’s House of Welcome, a not-for-profit service to homeless people in Melbourne, have been working with ACU experts and researchers to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on the demand for social services.

The partner-initiated research project was made possible through ACU’s Stakeholder Engaged Scholarship Unit (SESU) which collaborates with organisations that support people who experience disadvantage or marginalisation.

Led by Dr Tom Barnes from ACU’s Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences and Dr Scott Doidge from ACU Engagement, the research on COVID-19 and social service agencies focused on the impact the pandemic had on people who access social services, as well social service providers.

An interim report for the project found that people who experienced the most marginalisation pre-pandemic were hit with the highest COVID-19 impacts, and in some cases, forced people to reach out to welfare services for the first time.

Catholic Social Services Victoria executive director Joshua Lourensz said the partnership had placed their organisation in a more confident position to advocate for those struggling the most in Victoria.

“The ability to access experienced, ethical, and engaged researchers from ACU, means we as the peak body for Catholic social service agencies in Victoria have a better chance of advocating for real change in our communities,” Mr Lourensz said.

“More importantly, we are in a strong position to present research-backed arguments in favour of better social outcomes for women, young people, and the homeless, in the lead up to the upcoming federal election.”

On Victoria’s growing issue of homelessness, CEO of St Mary’s House of Welcome Robina Bradley said being able to sort out fact from fiction would enable grassroots charities to serve their patrons with greater focus.

“Hundreds of men and women walk through the doors of St Mary’s House of Welcome, but we wanted to find out how many of them were forced into homelessness because of the pandemic,” Ms Bradley said.

“Our organisation alone would not have the capacity to undertake such in-depth research.

“We are extremely appreciative of the resources that ACU provided us through this partnership, and strongly recommend this collaborative approach for other not-for-profits.”

Dr Barnes, who will be the lead author of the project’s final report, due out in March, said participating in the project was a strongly rewarding experience.

“Completing this project has been rewarding for me personally as an ACU researcher committed to studies in social justice and the common good, but also for my colleagues at ACU because of the opportunity to work on socially impactful but also career-developing research,” Dr Barnes said.

“More importantly, our partners in this project benefited from our contributions to the national conversation about the direction of policy at a critical moment in the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr Barnes said research projects that focused on the impact of COVID-19 were becoming increasingly important and relevant to organisations and society.

“This project in particular delivers on this potential for non-profit civic organisations who need to understand what this impact means, now and into the future, but who may lack the material resources needed to bring research to fruition.

“ACU’s support provides this resource.”

SESU advisory group chair Professor Br David Hall fms said any organisation working in areas that align with ACU’s mission should consider becoming a research partner.

“ACU is committed to collaborating with organisations who support people who experience disadvantage or marginalisation through the provision of academic experts and researchers who can explore and solve real-world problems that are important to their area of service,” Br Hall said.

“As a Catholic university, we are committed to the pursuit of truth for the good of all humanity, and in doing so, find solutions to the serious problems facing our modern society.

“This is the heart of the research partnership offered through SESU, and we invite organisations to partner with us to make real world change.”

The Stakeholder Engaged Scholarship Unit at Australian Catholic University (ACU) is now taking expressions of interest for research projects from organisations working in areas central to the University’s mission and ethos.

Organisations can submit their expressions of interest by March 14, 2022.

Read more about the SESU and how to submit an expression of interest online or send questions to

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