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The New Normal: Charities must survive triple threat during pandemic

Even non-profit organizations offering essential, frontline services aren’t without their challenges as they cope with the uncertainties of the future

As we embrace each phase of the COVID-19 pandemic reopening, NewmarketToday will be exploring the latest developments in our "new normal" for business, shopping, dining, entertainment, culture, recreation and (hopefully) socializing in a regular series of articles. 

York Region’s non-profit organizations and charities are facing a triple threat as a result of the  COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of us in the non-profit sector may not be here,” is the stark commentary from Susanne Cappuccitti, executive director of the Character Community of York Region, as she looks into the near future of the sector that has been turned upside down as a result of a singular focus on essential services and the restrictions in place to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

A report by the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) found that the province’s 58,000 non-profits and charities are not only losing revenue from the cancellation of fundraising events and dramatic decline in donations, but are also grappling with the closure of offices and cancellation of programs and services while facing unprecedented human resource challenges with paid staff and volunteers. 

As much as the Character Community has a role in ensuring we are drawing on the strength of our character to help us get through these “difficult and challenging times,” Cappuccitti said, “We’re not really an essential service charity.”

“I, personally, see this huge divide between essential service charities and the rest of us, and I think that is going to last a long time. There is going to be years of implications — from mental health and housing, and sexual assault, domestic assault, and food insecurity. Agencies like Victim Services and the food banks, and other frontline care providers, they’ll need significant funding,” she said.

Even non-profit organizations offering essential, frontline services aren’t without their challenges as they cope with the uncertainties of the future.

“We’ve had an outpouring of support as I think the community understands how central hospitals are to the COVID-19 response,” said Susan Mullin, former president and CEO of Southlake Regional Health Centre Foundation. “We already had a supportive community and they’ve stepped up in so many ways.”

More than 1,600 donors have contributed to the COVID-19 Action Fund, with dollars, as well as 150 in-kind gifts of PPE, hand sanitizer, medical field tents and other necessary supplies.

“Some of those folks have been longtime supporters of Southlake, and a whole lot are first-time supporters,” said Mullin,  who has returned home to Nova Scotia this month to join the QEII Health Sciences Centre Foundation as president and CEO.

Early into the pandemic, the foundation’s annual April Run for Southlake — which was targeted to bring in about $400,000 to help fund priorities such as surgical equipment and an expanded mental health unit — was cancelled, as was its golf tournament last month and multiple large events held by the community.

Like many other charities that rely on events for a portion of the funds supporting their services — they account for about 15 per cent of fundraising revenues at Southlake Foundation, for instance — the foundation is experimenting with a pivot to virtual events.

The annual golf tournament was replaced with an online appeal to participants and sponsors, while the runathon is being reimagined as a virtual 5K event from Sept. 23 to 27.

“We’re hoping to recoup some of what would have been raised at the run but it won’t be quite the same,” Mullin acknowledged. “We don’t know quite what to expect, but we probably won’t get the same numbers.”

According to the ONN, almost 50 per cent of non-profits are open with modified operations, and in some cases, have moved to online services. However, almost one in five non-profits have closed their doors — at least for now.

In the midst of a pandemic has seen a marked increase in the number of youths coping with mental health issues, YouthSpeak Performance Charity is another non-profit organization that has had to completely rethink its service and fundraising models. 

In a normal year, its youth speakers would provide about 300 presentations, in assemblies and  workshops, to students in York Region and surrounding regions, said Una Wright, founder and executive director of YouthSpeak.

COVID-19 put an abrupt stop to those events, in a school year already marred with event cancellations as a result of the provincewide teacher job action.

“There’s definitely a concern for youth and youth mental health issues because of the pandemic, and we really need funds to support an online version of our programming because we can’t get into the schools and in front of kids anymore,” Wright said. 

Early into the pandemic, YouthSpeak did some online classroom workshops with teachers and their students, focusing on coping strategies to help them deal with anxiety and stress, she said.

“That sense of hopelessness for kids, that’s the big thing right now, how do they feel optimistic and hopeful about our future when it’s so uncertain?”

Youth mental health issues were a focus even before the pandemic, Wright added, “schools were calling us in for younger and younger kids.”

Local Love funding of $5,000 through the United Way of Greater Toronto helped kick start virtual programming, and the government rent subsidy was another boost that helped sustain the charity.

“We have applied for anything and everything possible,” said Wright, adding that an additional $5,000 is needed to continue virtual programming as registration is currently by donation only, not fees.

“We want it to be accessible to everybody — it needs to be accessible to everybody — not everybody is going to be able to afford to pay,” Wright said.

Employment wage subsidies have helped maintain the five part-time youth speakers on staff, and she is calling on the rest of the team when bookings are made, she added.

Among YouthSpeak’s virtual offerings are live workshops for adults and educators on how to support their children, with youth sharing personal stories and tips remaining a key element of the presentations.

There is also a wellness presentation for primary-age children, and a self-care tool kit for parents and kids, in which they go on an adventure together, learning coping strategies on the way.

YouthSpeak also held its annual BAM (Bullying Addiction Mental Health) event as a virtual fundraiser called ZoomBAM.

The Newmarket Lions Club was quick to step up with donations of treats and water bottles to frontline health-care workers at Southlake hospital and Newmarket Health Centre using funds raised before the pandemic, spokesperson Rick Metcalfe said.

“That was important to us,” he said. “We understood the challenges and special conditions under which they are working.”

However, the funds raised through its Catch the Ace lottery and bingo licence have been halted for months, which will hamper the service organization’s ability to give back further.

“If you don’t make the money, you can’t spend it,” he said, already thinking about the annual Santa Claus fund that typically kicks off in September.

While the club is the only one in Ontario that sells its Catch the Ace tickets online, about two-thirds of the tickets are sold in person at events, so they decided it wouldn’t be fair to continue the draws amidst the restrictions, Metcalfe said.

He’s hoping tickets will be available soon in local businesses as reopenings continue.

Throughout the pandemic, requests for assistance, such as purchasing eyeglasses, medical equipment and health aids, continue to come in.

“That doesn’t stop because of COVID-19,” Metcalfe said.

As well, the club typically sponsors about 10 to 15 kids, many of whom are special needs, to attend overnight summer camps, which won’t be happening this year.

Metcalfe is optimistic the club will be able to resume in-person fundraising in some measure soon, adding they’re getting ready to celebrate its 90th anniversary next year, making it the oldest continuous service club in town.

With its events and programming on hold, the Character Community has also had to rethink how it can continue its initiatives that instill character and have a lasting, positive impact in the  lives of  children and youth — particularly as its current sources of funding become uncertain.

All programs have been reviewed and will be offered virtually where possible, Cappuccitti said.

The Slap Shot program, which offered character development through on-ice hockey programming, is being adapted as the Slap Shot Leadership program, taking place indoors with physical distancing.

Similarly, its Social Justice Day program can be adapted to smaller groups of students, while continuing to work with community partners like Victim Services and Addiction Services, she said.

“I don’t think (school) assemblies will be happening anymore,” she said, “but this (program) will be more relevant than ever. In the last few months, kids have been feeling that they don’t have any control over their lives, or that they don’t have a voice.”

Its annual Music Alive competition may also be operated as a remote program, she said. 

And this year, its signature Character Awards event has become a “road trip”, with small presentations being made to award recipients across York Region.

The Character Community’s major funder is the Regional Municipality of York, which provides $100,000 annually to support its outreach and programming.

“I know the region is under a lot of pressure right now,” Cappuccitti said. “There’s so much that we don’t know right now, but without the regional funding, I don’t think we will be able to go forward next year.

“And if we’re not able to get into the schools, I’m not sure the program could continue. We are very dependent on what the (York Region District School Board) decides.”

She estimates that the foundation has lost about $100,000 as a result of cancelled fundraisers — about $38,000 came from bingo games alone — third-party events, and sponsorships, which is about a third of its operating budget.

Trillium has suspended all grants to focus on essential services charities, Cappuccitti added.

“(We) know what the importance of character is, everybody wants it and wants us, but I get it, we’re competing with the hospital and a lot of great charities that need money. I’m the first person to recognize that, but we need to support each other,” she said.

At the Southlake Foundation, even though support from the community has been “overwhelming,” there remains some uncertainty about the future, Mullin said.

“For now, the response to the COVID action fund has helped make up the difference (of cancelled events), and the question will be how long will the community be responsive,” Mullin said. “We know there may be other implications.”

The pandemic has impacted the financial security of some supporters, which will affect their ability to donate, and even those who haven’t been hit as hard may hesitate and wait until their finances are more secure before fulfilling commitments to major gifts, Mullin said.

And undoubtedly, endowed funds will be impacted by the turmoil of the stock market, she added.

The foundation is currently ahead of its target to raise $10 million in the fiscal year that began April 1, with more than $3.2 million donated as a result of the community’s response to the COVID-19 health crisis, Mullin said.

“The question is are these gifts made now instead of the gifts typically made in fall,” she questions.

For now, the foundation’s board of directors is taking it one step at a time, Mullin said.

“We feel like it is too soon to really understand what the long-term implications are. We’ve stepped back and said OK, what do we need to do in the short term around events — we’re not in a gala year, so in some ways, we’ve been fortunate — and we will continue to monitor the situation into the fall and winter.”

“And we’re hoping that the community will remember that while COVID has been our response now, we have other priorities that were burning priorities before this; we’re replacing equipment in our surgical suites, we’re expanding our mental health unit for 12 new beds, and we’ll be coming back to the community to talk about mental health in the coming weeks,” she added.

Bottom line, the hospital is relevant to everybody in the community — if you haven’t received care there yourself, it’s highly likely a family member has, Mullin said.

“We do know that the hospital continues to be incredibly relevant to people and I do think people recognize how important it is for the hospital to be strong and ready for this kind of thing.”

Knowing that school “assemblies are going to be out for some time,” YouthSpeak will continue to rely on its virtual programming, and Wright said the change forced on them by the pandemic has actually helped broaden its services and ability to reach people in need of support.

“We will continue the virtual strategy,” she added, “and adapt as needed when we can move back to in-person presentations.”

But funding remains a concern, Wright said, as long as school events aren’t happening. 

The ONN is calling on governments to provide emergency stabilization funding to the non-profit sector, despite its resilience and innovation in the face of challenging times.

According to its study, nearly 75 per cent of respondents have seen reduced revenue from fundraising, with the hard-hit arts sector reporting an 81 per cent reduction in ticket and event sales.

The pandemic will cause revenue losses of $50,000 to $249,999 for a large minority (43 per cent) of organizations, and another 10 per cent estimate the financial impact to be $1 million or more, the ONN study found.

One third (36 per cent) of respondents indicated their organization has either reduced hours for workers or laid off staff. The pandemic and state of emergency have been particularly devastating for workers in arts and culture, sports and recreation, child care, and non-profit social enterprises.

Last March, 100 Women Who Care Central York Region cancelled its spring meeting as the province declared a state of emergency.

“We just thought that there was no way we could ask anybody at that time to commit to giving $100 to us to give to a charity. We felt if they had $100 and knew somebody who needed it that they should have the freedom to just go do it, and if they had $100 and they needed it, then they should feel free to just keep it. We put no expectations on any of our members,” said Laurie Brakeboer, founder of the organization that raises thousands of dollars for Newmarket, Aurora, King and East Gwillimbury charities every year.

The group is part of a nationwide network that operates on the simple premise that when people come together they can be a powerful force for doing good work.

Typically, the local group of about 170 members meets four times a year, in total donating more than $13,000 at each meeting to a selected small local charity.

Brakeboer said she is well aware of how much impact the funds could have for small charities struggling to provide services, if not survive, during the pandemic.

“So many charities are hurting so much right now,” Brakeboer said. “I don’t know how many are left, but for those who are, a donation of more than $13,000 would be impactful.”

Despite some of the technical challenges — making online presentations for nominated charities, voting and donating online — the organizing committee has decided to move ahead with a virtual model.

Every dollar donated goes directly to the charities, so thanks to a grant made to the international organization, the local chapter was able to apply for access to large meetings using Zoom, which will be the platform for the virtual meetings in July and October.

While the camaraderie and connections that resulted through the quarterly in-person meetings have helped fuel the growth of the group that launched in 2015, Brakeboer is being optimistic about the potential of the virtual meetings.

“I have always run the organization with the theory I’m not going to plan for anything negative until negative things happen. So, at this point, I’m working from the theory that those who can (take part) will and those who can’t will reach out and explain the situation.

“I’m just keeping positive, and I keep hoping that everybody is going to join in and that everybody is in a position to give. I hope we don’t find out that we have members who have been financially struggling,” said Brakeboer.

“I’m hoping that everyone has missed the connection,” she added. “There has been some fantastic feedback from the (virtual meetings) taking place in the U.S., the members have had almost 100 per cent attendance.”

And, she said, there could be new members who are actually able to join now that the meetings are offered remotely.

“Maybe going forward, we’ll do both in-person and remotely,” Brakeboer said. “We’ll see what becomes of it.”

You can learn about 100 Women Who Care Central York Region here.



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Debora Kelly

About the Author: Debora Kelly

Debora Kelly is NewmarketToday's editor. She is an award-winning journalist and communications professional who is passionate about building strong communities through engagement, advocacy and partnership.
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