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Canadians can help charities survive the COVID-19 pandemic — and, through them, the vulnerable people they serve

Canadians can help charities survive the COVID-19 pandemic — and, through them, the vulnerable people they serve
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Most of us thought we’d go back to normal by summer when we went into a semi-lockdown state in Ontario in March. Now, as most of the province moves into Stage 3 of reopening, many people are waking up to our reality: this is normal for the foreseeable future.

Many people have been harmed by this pandemic. Some have fallen ill and some have died. Some have lost their livelihoods and won’t return to work anytime soon. In the charitable sector — a sector that employs in Canada and represents eight per cent of the GDP — one in five organizations have either suspended operations or ceased programs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Imagine Canada’s Sector Monitor report, and many charities have already closed their doors.

The report also found that, compared to the recession of 2008, twice as many charities have seen a negative impact on their bottom line as a result of COVID-19, with more than two-thirds of charities reporting a 31 per cent drop in revenues — a significant drop for charities that already operate on barely sustainable tight margins. All Canadians, but especially the most vulnerable, will be hurt by this.

Before the pandemic, charities across subsectors were at various stages of digital readiness, meaning an ability to operate and deliver services using online and digital technologies. Most had limited to no operating reserves — in some cases because it is frowned upon by funders and, in others, because there simply wasn’t enough money left after putting every cent into program delivery.

Through all this, charities made do. They ran the vital programs they could get funded and sadly cut those they could not. Many charities, especially the smaller ones that make up the majority of charities in Canada, operated on a shoestring with subpar equipment and overworked, but passionate staff.

But in a crisis like this, survival becomes nearly impossible when revenues are slashed, demand and costs increase, and entire operating models built on close contact or large gatherings are upended. Charities will need to change to survive this pandemic and to hopefully come out the other side of it more resilient. However, the cost of innovation and change can be a blind spot Canadians have when we talk about how we support our charities.

Right now across Canada, charities are finding creative solutions to adapt to COVID-19 in the short term, and innovating to find long-term solutions, ensuring their critical work is not lost. They are taking programming online or outdoors, partnering with other organizations to offer new programs or to share expenses, and developing new revenue models to replace lost income.

There is an incredible opportunity right now for Canadians who are financially stable to step up and contribute to charities — not just to the charities on the front lines, though they are incredibly important, but also to the settlement agencies, the arts organizations, the hospices, the community centres, the chronic illness organizations, the animal rescues and so much more. Most importantly, people need to make gifts to general operating funds so these organizations can pay their rent and their staff. It is not enough to fund programs right now; we must also fund infrastructure. Without infrastructure, programs will disappear and it will be very hard to bring them back.

Recently, the organization I lead, CanadaHelps, partnered with Imagine Canada to launch the COVID-19 Charity Adaptation and Innovation Fund, creating an easy way for Canadians to support 400 organizations transforming what they do in the wake of this crisis. This is one way Canadians can support the sector in this time of immense need, enabling charities to continue supporting our most vulnerable. Setting up a recurring donation, or donating securities to the charities you care about, are other ways to have a significant impact.

If you’ve been lucky enough to weather this storm relatively unscathed, you can be a critical part of rebuilding our community and investing in its strength in the long term.
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