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Community Update: Collaboration, innovation & transformation for the future

As the holidays approach, our communities are in yet another stage of uncertainty: the omicron variant has disrupted many businesses, industries, and sectors that were moving towards a sense of normalcy.  

For others, normalcy is still a long way off. The sense of urgency around addressing the social needs associated with the pandemic seems to be slipping away, even though many people are still struggling with challenges related to their mental health, isolation, poverty and more.  

Since February 2020, United Way East Ontario’s COVID-19 Community Response Table has taken on many roles. This group of more than 100 public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and others has kept a common goal of supporting local people through the effects of COVID-19. This has required constant collaboration between organizations and across sector boundaries to quickly find innovative solutions to the most pressing challenges facing our communities.  

Now, in this state of transition, we are taking stock of how far we have come as a community. Back in early 2020, we started with weekly emergency meetings to find solutions to emerging issues. These evolved into monthly meetings that took deep dives into social challenges and the new approaches we needed to take to set a more positive path forward. Earlier this spring, we looked at principles for a more equitable economic recovery from the pandemic.  

As we look ahead to the new year, what’s clear to us now is that we must focus on sustainability and transformation of the charitable and social services sectors in order to continue supporting the people who need us. Emergency funding is running out, organizations are having difficulties attracting and retaining staff and volunteers, all while the need in our communities is greater than it has ever been.  

Our path forward is about more than one organization taking on a renewed focus, or one sector changing its approach to supporting clients. This moment is about taking “what’s worked” during the pandemic and turning that into long-term systemic change. It’s about looking at the chronic issues and treating them with the urgency they require to build more resilient communities over the long term. It’s about using all the tools in our box—investment, research, advocacy, convening, fundraising—to reimagine what it means to support our communities holistically 

We want to answer the question “what does better look like?” 
It looks like:

  • Continued innovation, collaboration and partnerships to address common issues 
  • Heightened awareness of social justice issues and the solutions required to address them 
  • Increased understanding of the social services sector’s role in supporting our communities 
  • Integrated and comprehensive services that respond to the needs of people – not just any one organization’s mission

At our latest COVID-19 Community Response Table meeting, we heard from Marie-France Lalonde (MP, Orleans), Jeremy Roberts (MPP, Ottawa West  Nepean)Laura Dudas (Ottawa City Councillor and Deputy Mayor, Innes Ward) and Debbie Robinson (Warden, Renfrew County) about government priorities and the policy landscape; Bernadette Johnson, Director of Advocacy and Knowledge Mobilization at Imagine Canada about what the non-profit sector is experiencing across Canada; and local frontline services to discuss what critical obstacles they are facing. 

What do we know about the charitable sector right now?

Bernadette Johnson of Imagine Canada presented data from charities across Canada, who were surveyed on their capacity and ability to continue delivering on their mission during the pandemic. The Sector Monitor Survey (of more than 1,200 charities, conducted between April 20 and May 12, 2021) presents a detailed look at how charities are doing, and Bernadette presented the highlights: 

  • 56 per cent of charities have demand challenges, either related to a decrease in service due to closures (14 per cent) or where the need for service has increased beyond the capacity to deliver (42 per cent) 
  • 40 per cent of charities are still experiencing declines in revenue, with an average decline of 44 per cent 
Bernadette Johnson

Staff in the charitable sector report feeling tired and stretched too thin across many operational areas. Volunteerism has not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, which is a tool that many charities rely on in times of crisis, and in normal times, to support their ability to deliver services.  

Bernadette said that “charities are very concerned about labour. They’re concerned about retention and recruiting.” At the same time, charities want to be able to provide employees with paid time off, learning and development opportunities, adequate wages and even additional support like tuition relief.  

What do we not know about the charitable sector right now?

We don’t yet know if the corporate “war for talent” will affect our sector’s ability to compete for employees, but early data shows that there is difficulty finding qualified candidates to fill job vacancies.  

Notably, women who left the workforce during COVID-19 are not returning, which could have drastic effects on the charitable sector, which is dominated by women. 

Inflation and supply chain disruption are causing rising costs, which will affect organizations’ ability to deliver service, while putting added strain on people who are already financially unstable.  

What’s changing in the charitable sector?

As we have seen over the pandemic, there is an accelerated need for adoption of digital technologies for the sector to be able to keep up, which has become a challenge for many charities that do not have access to adequate funding. Donors and funders are often more interested in investing in programs, overlooking the importance of the baseline infrastructure and overhead required to deliver those programs. 

At the same time, charities are supporting, responding, and protecting communities from the challenges associated with a rapid switch to digital adoption by championing things like accessibility, digital literacy, online safety, and more.  

The level of response that has been required by social services and charities during the pandemic has prompted many organizations to ask: is the non-profit sector the only answer to these challenges?  

“The sector will always be needed, but what might be our role in advocating for new fiscal policy that might lessen the reliance of communities on our services in the long run? How do we harness the increased public profile and appreciation from the public of our work? How do we account for the decline in donations and volunteering?”

What are our local partners saying?

Our partners at the COVID-19 Community Response Table noted the biggest challenge for many charitable organizations right now is inadequate core funding – support that covers baseline infrastructure to keep the lights on. Project funding is often available and responsive, but this is not matched by the same level of resources to maintain a charity’s core mission.  

We also heard our local partners echo Bernadette’s national findings: there is significant difficulty in hiring and retaining people in the workforce right now. This has had the added effect of reduced fundraising capacity, and increased risk of employee burnout.  

“There’s nothing like an emergency to show you all the holes in your safety net.”

Michael Murr of the Centre for Social Enterprise Development also noted that they are looking at ways that social procurement from private organizations can fuel long-term sustainability and stability for charities and social enterprises that serve vulnerable communities.   

What is the government doing to mitigate these challenges?

MPP Jeremy Roberts spoke about provincial investments into community organizations like the YMCA, who are helping newcomers build their skills to enter the trades.

MP Marie-France Lalonde shared federal programs that will support economic growth and financial wellbeing of individuals. This includes:   

The charitable sector also awaits news on when the Community Services Recovery Fund—$400 million promised in the 2021 federal budget—will be distributed to help charities and non-profits across Canada adapt and modernize. 

Deputy Mayor of Ottawa Laura Dudas talked about the City of Ottawa’s latest budget, which saw the largest increase in funding to nonprofit social service agencies since 2006. The budget also allocated $2.6 million from the police budget into programs for racialized youth, community-based, culturally appropriate mental health services, and the creation of a call referral program for people in crisis.  

“Having that constant collaborative approach to working with the [charitable] sector as a municipality is going to be imperative to addressing some of our societal issues like affordable housing, food insecurity, or economic diversity.”

Renfrew County Debbie Robinson provided an update on how Renfrew County has been responding to the social services needs of its residents. Some highlights include: 

  • Creating a one-stop shop at the County administration office for people to access social services without having to visit multiple locations for help 
  • Providing emergency shelter for the 456 people experiencing homelessness who sought help from the County during the pandemic—452 of which now have permanent homes 
  • Implementing a pilot project that allows paramedics to provide in-home care to people who are on waitlists for long-term care facilities 

  • Created the Renfrew County virtual triage and assessment center (VTAC): a phone number to call if someone in the County suspected they had COVID-19, which included transportation from paramedics to testing centers and monitoring from a physician. 23,000 people in Renfrew County do not have a primary care physician, so VTAC evolved to be a service where residents could speak directly with a physician no matter what the health issue. This service has assisted 51,000 people since it was implemented during the pandemic 

What comes next for our communities?

United Way East Ontario is currently collecting data in partnership with United Way Halton and Hamilton to assess charities’ capacity for innovation, transformation and resilience during the continued pressures of the pandemic. We will present these findings to our partners in the new year.  

United Way will continue to convene the COVID-19 Community Response Table in 2022 to explore: 

  • Capacity building needs for innovation and resilience 
  • Unique needs for charity partners in rural areas 
  • How data can inform the transformation of our sector 
  • How leveraging the heightened awareness of our current social justice agenda can fuel long-term solutions  
  • What tools we need to achieve a more equitable economic recovery 

Our goal is to use what we learn to inform our recommendations for policy change and resources that will empower our sector to be stronger, more cohesive, and nimble.  

As it has been since before the pandemic started, our work is grounded in the principles of collaboration, partnerships, and innovation to address the greatest needs, and have the greatest impact for the people who need us most.  

In a year that will see both municipal and federal elections, we look forward to working with all levels of government across political lines to invest in and support the charitable sector, the people and infrastructure that power it, and the communities we serve.  

We also know that we cannot wait for the government to make the first move—we need to take a leadership role in building a stronger, healthier future for our communities and for the social safety net that supports us all.  




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The Government of Canada tabled its 2024 budget on April 16, 2024. Read our analysis on what it means for social services and people in need across East Ontario.

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