Illustration by Paul Dotey.

Atlantic Canadian Service Charities Face New Pressures in the Wake of COVID-19

Editor’s note: The charitable sector is responding rapidly to the expanding impact of the pandemic, in terms of outreach, operations, and advocacy. In the coming weeks, The Philanthropist will provide up-to-date coverage, as well as our usual reporting and commentary on other news of relevance to foundations, charities, and non-profits. Read more of our COVID-19 coverage

One day last week, Melanie Sturk was sitting in her car in her Halifax driveway, discussing her new normal. “The dog is still excited that we’re home,” she said, near the end of her first full week of working from home. “I have a virtual meeting later today, my husband was saying, ‘Oh, you’ll go viral if a dog comes onto the screen.’ I’d rather avoid that.”

Sturk is the director of organizational development at Phoenix Youth Programs in Halifax and, like everyone in Atlantic Canada’s charitable sector, is adjusting to delivering services in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re really trying to maintain the support that we provide, but having to do it in a very different way.”

While the outbreak has affected charitable organizations like Phoenix across the country, Atlantic Canada has been particularly hard hit. For years, the region has consistently seen lower amounts of charitable giving than the other provinces.

A 2018 report by the Rideau Hall Foundation and Imagine Canada found that, while claimed donations increased 150% across Canada between 1984 and 2014, Atlantic Canada saw the smallest increase in the number of donors (2.1%), total donations (1.6%), and the size of the average donation (1.5%). Anecdotally, local charities say they have been seeing higher demand for support and services, even before the pandemic.

Some relief may soon be on the way. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that charities and non-profits will qualify for 75% wage subsidies, and provincial governments across the region have responded with a range of measures to vulnerable people and service organizations. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador last week announced more than $120 million in core funding for community-based organizations to respond to the pressures of COVID-19. Additionally, it said $18 million in annual funding for 22 groups that had been earmarked for 2018–2021 will continue to flow.

Nova Scotia’s government, meanwhile, promised an extra $50 weekly to each family member on income assistance and supports for seniors, including volunteer programs and technology to help families stay in contact. New Brunswick’s leaders have committed to paying childcare fees for essential service workers and those who have lost their income due to COVID-19. And the government of Prince Edward Island launched a volunteer services directory to connect non-profit organizations with those who need help and those who want to help.

The Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia launched an online survey last week asking organizations about the challenges they’re facing. It closes on April 2. “We employ 25,000 people across the province and contribute $1 billion annually to the GDP of the province in direct economic benefits,” says Patricia Bradshaw, chair of the board of the Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia. “The volunteers [who] are being laid off contribute another $1.5 billion. The impact on the economy of not supporting the sector is going to be huge.”

The impact on client groups may be even more dramatic. Like many charities, Phoenix’s services and its volunteer engagement have been directly impacted by social distancing policies. The organization supports youth between the ages of 11 and 24, their families, and communities. Its services include housing support, life skills, and programs ranging from arts and recreation to leadership and financial management. Phoenix also helps youth transition to outside living arrangements and offers ongoing support.

While shelter and independent-living support staff are still on site, other programs, like arts and recreation, which are largely staffed by volunteers, are on hold. “Our work is all about relationship building,” said Sturk. “Losing that face-to-face contact, that engagement, is very challenging for us. But under the circumstances, we want to keep everybody safe.”

The other big hurdle for Phoenix has been financial “We’ve had to do a massive [budget] rewrite just in the last week,” she said. “Our development goal has been reduced by more than 25%. When we realistically look at what’s about to unfold, just in this past month, we’ve lost three of our third-party fundraisers.” Phoenix had expected to raise about $1 million in in-kind donations, and more than $60,000 in revenue, from the three cancelled fundraisers.

Many other groups that deliver complex services have scrambled to find ways of adapting.

The ALS Society of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia assists about 150 clients across both provinces through equipment loans and support within the healthcare system. It’s a small number of people, said Kimberly Carter, president and CEO, “but the needs of people with ALS are huge.”

Since the outbreak, all equipment loans have been put on hold for the foreseeable future, said Carter. These include breathing devices, patient lifts, and hospital beds. The vendors who repair equipment from the loan program are closed, and the society doesn’t have the space in its warehouse to safely store both new and used equipment.

“We don’t know what the effect on our clients will be,” observed Carter. “We’ll probably be able to handle it for a couple of weeks, but if it goes on much longer than a couple of weeks, we will have clients, especially with breathing equipment, [for whom] this could be a matter of life or death.”

As governments have closed non-essential businesses, widespread layoffs have translated into a sharp increase in demand for food banks. Even in ordinary periods, Atlantic Canada is subject to high rates of food insecurity, ranging from 13% of the population in New Brunswick to 15.3% in Nova Scotia, according to a recently released University of Toronto study. In PEI, the rate came down slightly since 2017, but still affects 14%, or 18,900, Islanders.

Mike MacDonald, executive director of Charlottetown’s Upper Room Hospitality Ministry, has seen the number of clients his organization supports rise in the last two weeks.  “We have lots of people who continue to use our service on a fairly regular basis, but we have seen a number of new people and also a number of people who we may not have seen for a year or more,” he told The Philanthropist last week. “People who have been okay, but probably on the edge and this was enough to push them over.”

The ministry’s food bank expected to serve about 130 families last week, but 195 came through the door, MacDonald added. (The soup kitchen numbers have thus far stayed consistent at 800 to 825 meals daily.)

MacDonald is confident the ministry can continue to support its clients thanks to a significant jump in online donations. Still, his concern is that the organization’s staff and volunteers can’t devote as much attention to clients as the numbers rise. “We really like to take some time and chat with people coming in to make them feel welcome, at home, comfortable and relaxed, but we’re certainly not doing that now.”

Additionally, due to the government’s social distancing rules, the ministry limited the number of people in the building to five at a time, which means visits last two minutes at most. “We’re just trying to get people in, getting them the food that they need, and out,” he said. “Right now it almost feels like we’re kicking them out as soon as they come in.”

While the federal and provincial governments continue to provide stimulus, many in the sector want to see more support directed to non-profits so they can provide much needed community services across the region. Some also feel the government’s messaging isn’t always clear.

“Non-profits and charitable organizations come to us with questions and we don’t want to mis-communicate anything,” says Philip Garvin, Highland-region hub convener and labour market lead for the Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia. “We’ve had to put some of our messaging on hold until we’ve got clarity. There was a [federal] announcement on Friday that sounds great, but we don’t have all the details for it.”

While government officials work out the details, most Atlantic Canada charities realize they’ve got to continue doing what they do best. “We’re going to try to hang in there,” says Raymond Arsenault, coordinator of Meals on Wheels in Summerside, PEI.  “Every day there’s something new that comes up, every week is a new change. But as long as we still have enough people who require our service, we’re there for them.”

Kim Hart Macneill is a Halifax-based freelance editor and journalist.