As I write this, the coronavirus pandemic is shining an unexpected spotlight on charities and non-profit organizations. Canada is reputed to have – in economic terms – one of the largest and most dynamic voluntary sectors in the world. It is estimated to account for more than two million jobs and to contribute tens of billions of dollars to Canada’s Gross National Product. Volunteers are estimated to provide almost two billion hours of time annually – the equivalent of about two million full-time jobs.
But the frontline efforts needed to deal with the fallout from COVID-19 remind us that the sector’s contribution to the country’s quality of life far exceeds the raw economic numbers.
The pandemic and the accompanying economic disruption have thrown into sharp relief those sector groups that serve and support vulnerable or disadvantaged Canadians. Both federal and provincial initiatives have been put in place to bolster the resources these organizations have to meet the needs of the individuals and communities with which they work. That’s the good news.
Another positive note has been the inclusion of voluntary sector groups in most government relief initiatives. Eligibility for these programs was opened to charities and non-profit organizations having had to temporarily shutter operations or suffering economic hardship as a result of “social distancing”.
These and other responses to the crisis were again a reminder, however, of the blind spots and challenges governments have in dealing with voluntary sector organizations.
Ironically, as was noted by the Prime Minister, some low-wage employees in crucial jobs – both in the voluntary sector and in other parts of the economy – faced a dilemma of potentially being better off leaving their positions and accessing government relief payments. Adjustments to programs were made to try to correct this anomaly. More broadly, this incongruity is a reminder of the reliance by governments on using sector groups to economize on the cost of delivering services.
… civic leaders at all levels encouraged and recognized the role that volunteers needed to play in providing services and fostering social cohesion given the disruption brought on by the pandemic.Among other shortcomings – sometimes more evident at the provincial level, as that is the point of delivery for many services – were governments proposing programs providing “80-cent dollars”. This practice, which is not limited to pandemic emergency measures, entails funding client services or other program activities but not providing resources for infrastructure and other overhead needed to support frontline work. Given the fraught state of fundraising in the wake of the pandemic, weak demand for the products and services often sold by charities to generate revenue, and the collapse of investments, it is not clear where the difference is supposed to be made up.
Some governments actually saw windfalls because organizations had to shut down or scale back their operations and so lost access to subsidies or direct funding, since they were no longer able to meet targets for service provision or deliverables. Properly, such saving should have been put back into supports for sector groups and their work, but it is not clear this always happened.
Another aspect of voluntary groups, which governments have difficulty grappling with, is their reliance on volunteers. To be sure, in their public statements civic leaders at all levels encouraged and recognized the role that volunteers needed to play in providing services and fostering social cohesion given the disruption brought on by the pandemic. At the same time, it was widely acknowledged that social distancing curtailed the use of volunteers in many organizations or required new procedures to ensure that people were kept safe when they did offer up their time and skills.
The more efficient use of resources stemming from the availability of volunteers to charities and non-profit organizations is often taken for granted. And, though government were in many cases prepared to prop up voluntary sector groups with financial support, there wasn’t a quick or simple policy solution to organizations losing or having to limit their access to this valuable resource.
That said, the recent Report of the Senate Special Committee on the Charitable Sector recommended a series of measures to reinvigorate volunteerism in Canada. These included:
- development of a national volunteer strategy;
- use of government funding mechanism to promote volunteer recruitment and retention;
- seeking ways to defray the cost of police checks on volunteers; and
- recognition programs for volunteers assisting in the delivery of government services.
One often-cited notion, a tax credit for volunteers, was not taken up. The Committee found that the idea was likely to be difficult to administer, particularly for small groups, and that there were doubts as to how effective it would be in increasing volunteering.
The pandemic and the accompanying economic disruption have thrown into sharp relief those sector groups that serve and support vulnerable or disadvantaged Canadians.With the exception of a national volunteer strategy, it is not clear that any of the proposals would have made a significant difference to the problems that arose in the recent crisis.
Since volunteering is often undertaken – at least in part – for social reasons, it may even be that the pandemic, and the anticipated “new normal” that will come after it, will reduce people’s appetite for volunteering.
On the flip side, there is some suggestion that the compelled isolation and collective purpose stemming from Canadians together having faced a common threat could increase our sense of social cohesion. In that context, finding ways to encourage contributions that are outward looking might find a receptive audience. And with much travel and mass entertainment likely curtailed for the foreseeable future, there could be opportunity to alter how people spend their time away from work in the post-pandemic world.
So, a national volunteer strategy is a concept that may be timely.
Working out a national strategy could also help in coming to terms with some modern trends in volunteering. These include greater interest in “informal” volunteering among younger people. That is, a desire among individuals for more casual and time-limited roles with organizations, rather than on-going, regular positions. This trend to informality is no doubt egged on by technology, and that is another area that could be fruitfully explored in promoting contemporary volunteering.
As well, the strategy could grapple with concepts like mandatory volunteering – something that is now a component of the high school curricula of many provinces. It could examine the popularity of people “volunteering” as part of fundraising events and explore whether this type of activity could be better leveraged to benefit organizations.
Development and adoption of a national strategy could also be useful in slowing, or perhaps even reversing, recent stagnation in volunteering. As importantly, it could also help in expanding the current demographics of volunteering, which see religious affiliation and post-secondary education as key drivers of volunteerism.
None of that will solve the challenges faced by charities and non-profit organizations as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but in fiscally straightened circumstances that government will undoubtedly face once the crisis has passed, it would be a worthwhile investment.
And, looking beyond economics, it could add immeasurably to the ability of charities and non-profit groups to enhance Canadians’ quality of life.