Ontario's non-profits say they need a lifeline. Will the government provide one?

Provincial and federal government have offered some funding for non-profits during COVID-19 — but experts say it won’t come close to being enough
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Jun 09, 2020
Abdirizak Karod is the executive director of the Somali Centre for Family Services, which serves the Ottawa area. (Courtesy of SCFS Ottawa)

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As director of the Network for the Advancement of Black Communities — which brings expertise, skill development, and knowledge-building to Black community organizations from Windsor to Ottawa — Amanuel Melles has seen cash-strapped grassroots organizations struggle to stay afloat. And that was before the pandemic hit. 

“For the Black community, these non-profits literally play a vital role. They are a lifeline,” says Melles. “I refer to them as grassroots because they are the roots of our forest, yeah?”

He points to research that shows lower rates of Black employment, youth employment, and graduation. He says that Black youth, in particular, grow up in a system that doesn’t provide the supports they need to thrive in school. Further, research from the Mental Health Commission of Canada shows that African- and Caribbean-Canadians are “more exposed to factors that are linked to poorer health,” such as poorer education and housing, unemployment, poverty, and criminalization. “There is a specific type of racism that has made life tough for the community,” says Melles. “What the pandemic is doing is amplifying it.”

The Network for the Advancement of Black Communities isn’t the only non-profit confronting a new set of pressures and challenges. The Somali Centre for Family Services, which serves the Ottawa area, is also dealing with an “overwhelming” need for services at the same time that revenues have halted and service delivery has changed significantly. “Although the name is Somali, we serve all kinds of new immigrants,” says executive director Abdirizak Karod. “All those people who come to Canada for better opportunity and safety.”

The centre provides employment services, health information, language classes, and counselling to approximately 15,000 clients annually, says Karod. Its building on Bank Street remains closed to the public, but some of its programming has moved online. 

Karod says there haven’t been any indications from the centre’s federal or provincial funders that cuts are on the way — but with “little generation of income” among people in the community as job losses mount, he says that demand for services, particularly food delivery, has gone up while revenues have stayed the same.   

“This was the most difficult Ramadan I’ve ever encountered. It’s overwhelming, the services our clients need right now,” Karod says. “You’re trying to give them info online, but some of them don’t have internet. Before, they could just walk in and find someone who spoke their language. Now you have to provide someone who can speak their language over the phone. There’s more pressure.”

Ontario’s non-profit sector collectively employs 1 million people and generates $50 billion in economic impact, according to the Ontario Nonprofit Network, an organization that advocates for the roughly 58,000 non-profits in the province. ONN has urged the Ontario government to create a $680 million stabilization fund to “ensure that nonprofits and charities can help rebuild the economy and communities.” The group estimates that Ontario’s non-profit sector has lost $1.8 billion since the emergency closures in March. 

“We did an in-depth survey of 500 organizations, and we kept hearing the same thing,” says Cathy Taylor, ONN’s executive director. “All of them are facing a triple threat: declining or vanished revenues, staffing and human-resources issues, and operational issues — just having to close down and move to virtual work. One in five organizations said they weren’t sure if they would reopen.”

Most non-profits have less than three months’ worth of reserve funds, Taylor says — and, for many of them, that three-month mark is coming up in June: “They are hitting a crisis point” Some federal funding programs, such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and other grants and aid packages for shelters, food banks, and charities that serve vulnerable Canadians, “have been successful,” she says, adding that “some organizations can access those; others cannot.” The ONN expects that Ontario’s non-profit sector will receive approximately $883 million in federal relief. Combined with an estimated $237 million from the province, that leaves a $680 million gap in funding. Hence the need for a stabilization fund, Taylor says.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Service told TVO.org via email that the Ontario government is taking action “to support nonprofits and social service providers during this challenging time, to ensure critical services continue for their clients and communities” and pointed to the previously announced funding.

Taylor says that the fate of smaller organizations keeps her up at night. She is particularly worried about organizations that earn their revenue through registration fees, camp fees, box office, or ticket sales. These organizations, she notes, tend to be volunteer-driven and are less likely to be eligible for emergency government funding, which makes them particularly vulnerable in the pandemic. “This fund would mitigate some of the job losses, backstop some of the massive fundraising losses in the medium term,” she says. “For organizations that shut down, it will be harder and harder for them to reopen without this kind of funding.”

She says that one in five non-profits in the province has indicated that they might not be able to reopen post-pandemic. Many fill service gaps in communities, especially for racialized and marginalized populations, she says — and closing forever could worsen the impacts on communities already being squeezed by the shutdown.

For many families, the closure of a non-profit could also mean the end of organized sport in their city or town. Soccer clubs and leagues across Ontario, for example, rely on registration fees, says Johnny Misley, CEO of Ontario Soccer, which is the country’s biggest provincial sport organization, with over 500,000 participants and 600 non-profit clubs. On March 13, Ontario Soccer suspended all sanctioned soccer activity until further notice. 

“Eighty per cent of soccer revenues come from registration fees,” says Misley. “Like others, we’ve been paralyzed by COVID-19. Not any different than the restaurateur down the street, but there isn’t emergency funding readily available for a lot of these clubs.”

Ontario Soccer, itself a non-profit, has had to lay off 80 per cent of its staff. Misley says an injection of funding would allow the organization to bring some of those people back so that they could prepare the province for an eventual return to play (which, Misley says, will be done in phases, similar to the province’s approach to reopening).  

“Doesn’t matter what type of non-profit service you are — be it a sport organization or local food bank — you run on a shoestring budget that depends on membership revenue or donations,” Misley says. “When that is taken away from you, you risk suffering.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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