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Local non-profits struggling amid shifting pandemic landscape

Pandemic has led to cancellation of many critical fundraisers; 'How do you plan for something when everything is changing so dramatically,' official asks

Gilda's Club Simcoe Muskoka’s Noogieland space in the Barrie clubhouse was newly revamped to welcome kids for March break, but the pandemic quickly eliminated all social gatherings, so it remains empty and unused.

The summer’s Kids Kamp activities, which followed, have instead been running online.

Other areas of “the clubhouse” dedicated to teens and programming remain empty. And a table outside the art program room displays a growing collection of hand-crafted mastectomy pillows that, during the pandemic, are no longer going to the hospital for distribution to patients.

Cancer patients and their families are still receiving support and programming continues, largely virtually, as the nonprofit looks beyond the COVID-19 crisis and how in-person activity will resume.

But there remains the very real concern about how its services and those of other non-profits will continue with the flow of money generated through fundraising activities suddenly interrupted. 

At Gilda’s, for instance, its annual Afternoon By The Lake, which typically brings many people together and raises $170,000 every year, was cancelled.

After regrouping, organizers have decided on smaller, more intimate events. They are currently setting their sights on hosting an intimate evening with Jim Cuddy at a private lakeside cottage in October.

“It’s as clear as a pot of coffee, it’s just given me enough of a caffeine headache to be able to see what lays before us,” said Gilda’s Club executive director Aaron Lutes. “And that’s one of the difficulties, especially for smaller charities that are almost surviving off those month-to-month.

“How do you plan for something when everything is changing so dramatically?”

With its 10th anniversary approaching, Gilda’s, adds Lutes, is positioned to survive, but it must consistently reassess its approaches as the conditions change. It continues to develop its relationships and to connect with donors in the community, who typically support a $500,000 annual budget free of government help.

Although this year, Gilda’s did manage to tap into federal pandemic funding flowing through local organizations: $20,000 through the Barrie Community Foundation and $35,000 through the United Way of Simcoe Muskoka. The Canadian Red Cross was the third national granting agency.

Early in the pandemic the Ontario Nonprofit Network conducted a survey indicating more than three-quarters of respondents experienced disruption of services to clients and communities and nearly one in five non-profits expected to close their doors, at least temporarily.

And in April the federal government announced a $350-million fund for charities hurt by the pandemic

Of the 40 applications it received, the Barrie Community Foundation had distributed $254,000 to 24 non-profit organizations in Barrie by the end of July.

“I talked to dozens of organizations,” said the foundation’s executive director, Sarah Ingram, who noticed a lot of the funding was being sought to help organizations transition more of their efforts to online platforms as they changed their operations to adhere to the distancing rules.

The foundation itself also tapped into its own community crisis fund to help organizations with $1,000 in micro-grants. So far the fund has raised $25,000. As more donors contribute to the fund, more is being distributed to local groups.

“The community has been remarkably supportive of this initiative,” said Ingram. “People want to help.”

And those groups, she added, continued to provide their services to those who relied upon them through the pandemic and the challenges it presented. While they are challenged, like those at Gilda’s, they are also trying to be nimble.

The United Way Simcoe Muskoka, another designated granting agency, was also able to distribute money through its COVID relief fund to which local donors quickly contributed, said chief executive officer Dale Biddell. Although it’s still active and needed, donations have dropped off.

The United Way distributed the federal funding to 88 projects. That included $130,000 for the New Horizons for Seniors Program to help vulnerable seniors affected by the pandemic and money to 12 agencies funding nine projects to assist seniors; $1.2 million in emergency community support to help 47 charities and non-profits adapt during the pandemic so that they could provide their services; $1.3 million to 32 projects across Ontario to address housing and homelessness needs in rural and remote communities.

The United Way Simcoe Muskoka also provided $120,000 to assist vulnerable people with basic needs and $42,500 to expand capacity to help those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic through its urgent needs fund.

In addition, it provided $35,000 in mental health supports to Catholic Family Services of Simcoe County, The Gilbert Centre and YWCA Muskoka for mental health supports to ensure expanded mental health, social inclusion and harm reduction supports are available during the pandemic.

An added complication for some non-profits prior to the onset of the pandemic is that some were already struggling. Those relying directly on events to raise funds have been further challenged, particularly smaller organizations that can’t afford fundraising expertise, Biddell added, .

The trick now is for the non-profit sector to pivot and re-examine their approaches and strategies.

“We’re going to be in this environment for awhile,” she said. “Those organizations that have not also been able to develop their digital capacity and their social media engagement tools are also going to find themselves challenged.

“A lot of them (small charities) don’t have that really strong online presence.”

Long-term sustainability dictates that how these organizations are funded and how that funding is perceived to be used ought to change, Biddell suggested. 

Donors need to understand that it is critical to many of these highly regulated organizations that some money be directed to the administration and operations of the organization, and that donations not be exclusively earmarked for programming.

But in the long-term, Biddell sees the need for the development of a new model for non-profits and the pandemic is forcing the exploration of new business models.

“Change comes because somebody has a vision and desires and follows it through and is ready to take a risk and in other times circumstances forces things to change and I would say at this point we’re facing the latter,” she said.

Biddell and others working in the sector are hopeful and encouraged by the community’s response so far, but are concerned about the future.

“If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be told you have cancer ... COVID-19 has given everyone a glimpse of what that must be like. That’s being told about an uncertain future, anxiety, fear, depression, a sense of isolation,” said Lutes.

“These are all common experiences of a cancer patient and as COVID-19 has had its grip on us now for five months, I think a lot of people are more empathetic to the experiences and journeys of others, and that allows us to be more charitable in giving and understanding of what the needs are in our community.”

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About the Author: Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative

Marg. Buineman is an award-winning journalist covering justice issues and human interest stories for BarrieToday.
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