News Digest

Sector News Digest — April 21, 2020

In this week’s Special News Digest: surveying the impact of the pandemic, online fundraisers, calls for policy overhauls and relief measures by First Nations, foundations and post-secondary institutions.

New federal funding announcement

After weeks of lay-offs and grim news, Canadian charities and non-profits finally have reason to celebrate. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the creation of an Emergency Community Support Fund (ECSF), an investment of $350 million to “help our most vulnerable Canadians and ensure organizations have what they need to help.”

Examples of initiatives that could benefit from the ECSF include assistance in transitioning from in-person to “virtual contact,” ramping up information and support help lines, and expanding grocery and medication delivery services. Funds will be channeled through “national intermediaries” to local, community-based charities and non-profits.

Reports of COVID-19’s toll on this sector continue to pour in. In a joint statement, Community Foundations Canada, the Canadian Red Cross, and United Way Centraide Canada, three of the organizations designated as intermediaries, described the federal government’s announcement as “a vital step forward.” Details about fund disbursements are forthcoming.

Surveying the damage

Provincial non-profit umbrella organizations are surveying thousands of members to gauge the initial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results paint a grim picture of nationwide disruption.

Surveys from Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and Ontario reveal sectors battling what the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) calls a “triple threat”: revenue loss, office closures and service cancellations, and human resource challenges. Almost one in five ONN members have closed their doors, at least temporarily. Three quarters of the nearly 500 respondents report reduced revenue.

In Nova Scotia, where volunteers contributed 74 million hours to the sector in 2018, nearly a third of Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia members have laid off staff. Only 7% are currently operating normally, with 35% in need of immediate financial support.

The Saskatchewan Nonprofit Partnership (SNP) noted negative impacts on the mental health of staff and volunteers. SNP respondents called for measures such as counselling, technology support, improved internet connectivity in rural areas, and a “bridge fund” to help the sector navigate through an “evolving crisis.”

In the arts, one of the hardest hit sectors, 81% of ONN members report a loss in revenue. In a recently published report, the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) surveyed its client organizations and artists to determine the effectiveness of an emergency relief fund.

While 61% of the more than 7,500 respondents expressed “a high level of confidence” that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy would help them weather the storm, the sector, heavily reliant on the self-employed, remains at risk, the CCA concluded.

The federal government appears to have listened. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $500 million relief fund for the arts and cultural sector on April 17.

Online fundraising events

In regions right across the country, numerous charities are transforming cancelled in-person fundraising events into virtual gatherings tailor-made for times of quarantine. On April 24, for example, the Community Foundation of PEI will host a Stay-At-Home Online Gala—an evening of “social distancing at its finest” featuring live entertainment and special guest appearances by local celebrities.

First Nations step up

Some First Nation organizations have moved to fill in gaps left by the federal government’s emergency relief measures.

Gwaii Trust Society launched the COVID-19 Emergency Response Grant in late March, offering from $1,000 to $25,000 to non-profit organizations, health authorities, local governments, and emergency service providers to keep “Haida Gwaii residents safe, healthy, fed, sheltered and connected.” Every Thursday, the society hosts a “COVID-19 Small Business Navigator” Zoom meeting to “discuss the current challenges and brainstorm solutions.”

On the east coast, Ulnooweg Development Group, an organization that assists Mi’kmaq entrepreneurs in Atlantic Canada, is using 3D printers to produce medically certified face shields. Armed with a Class 1 federal licence to produce and distribute medical supplies, Ulnooweg COO Christopher Googoo says the organization is also importing masks, surgical gloves, and other personal protective equipment during the crisis. “It’s all hands on deck,” he said in a CBC Cape Breton interview.

Recognizing the vulnerability of First Nation communities throughout BC—especially, as reported in a recent Narwhal article, those that rely on tourism—Indigenous Tourism BC is offering immediate $5,000 grants to “market-ready Indigenous tourism businesses.”

Community foundations push out relief grants

In Alberta, a province struggling from the “double whammy” of low oil prices and a pandemic, as outlined in a recent Philanthropist article, the Calgary Foundation has created a COVID-19 Urgent Charity needs page—a “place for local registered charities and not-for-profits to share current and emerging needs with people who want to help.” The idea is to match concerned philanthropists with groups in need because of the outbreak.

At last count, 282 organizations were listed, including Hospice Calgary, Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society, and Youth Singers of Calgary. Funding requests from participating groups ranged from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000.

Other community foundations are taking different approaches. The Vancouver Foundation in late March set up a $6.6 million Community Response Fund in partnership with Vancity Credit Union, the United Way of the Lower Mainland, and individual donors. It has rapidly distributed emergency grants to a wide range of organizations.

Making the case for policy overhauls

“Let’s write policy” seems to be another rallying call these days.

First Policy Response, a collaboration between the Ryerson Leadership Lab, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, and public policy entrepreneur Matthew Mendelsohn, aims to “come together as a policy community to outline economic and social policy responses in real time,” said Mendelsohn when introducing the initiative.

The group’s new website offers a “curated summary of articles, opinion pieces, papers, and Twitter threads,” including the April 8 “Policy Options” article by Senator Ratna Omidvar and Hilary Pearson, former head of Philanthropic Foundations Canada. Omidvar and Pearson argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has served to underscore existing flaws in charitable sector policy, and they call for decision-makers to finally reflect the sector’s importance: “It is time for the federal government to take charitable organizations seriously not just as service providers but as employers, community builders and innovators.”

Other charity/non-profit networks are also pressing for overdue policy reforms. On April 7, for example, 138 organizations in Ontario, including numerous healthcare providers belonging to Health Providers Against Poverty,  wrote to the federal minister of children, community, and social services to demand increased income supports and the cancellation of clawbacks for vulnerable populations during the pandemic.

How a crisis breeds innovation

Despite the odds, many philanthropic organizations have sought innovative solutions as they seek to meet the challenges presented by the pandemic.

Most, of necessity, are virtual and information-based. They include a webinar series hosted by G(irls)20, blog posts about non-profit governance from BoardSource, work-from-home advice and access offered by Grant Connect, and new podcasts produced by the Winnipeg Foundation.

CanadaHelps is also offering an online guide to government supports and programs. The Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations provides a regularly updated list of useful resources. “We are all in this together, and we will get through this together,” they write.

Post-secondary institutions provide a lifeline 

Across Canada, post-secondary institutions, both universities and colleges, are providing emergency grants to students who have been left in the lurch by the pandemic. According to The Globe and Mail, institutions such as Montreal’s McGill University, Toronto’s Seneca College, and the University of Calgary are offering a range of supports, from cash grants to loaned laptops.

University supporters are also involved. “At Dalhousie University,” the story noted, “more than 400 students have received emergency aid, and a drive to seek more funds from donors is under way.” Many students are facing not only interrupted classes but the cancellation of research internships and summer jobs, while some international students have been unable to return home.

Angela Long is a freelance writer currently working on a book about rural journalism in Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @angelamaelong.