(March 25, 2020) – As community organizations across the country are struggling to deal with the vulnerable people they serve, managers are facing fear, staff shortages, and the uncertainty of how long their work can continue.
“I’m operating with a bare minimum of staff,” says Carol Latchford, executive director of the Red Door Shelter in downtown Toronto.
The Red Door has two locations, one for women escaping violence, the other for homeless families. Between the two locations, there are 150 beds. Sixty percent of those beds are filled by children. Forty percent of staff is coming to work. A lack of childcare, a fear of COVID-19 or another illness is keeping the rest at home.
“Only the bare minimum is being done,” says Latchford. “But we are practicing social distancing and considering moving our VAW (violence against women) population to hotels to cut down on the number of women in the shelter and avoid shared bathrooms.”
Angela Crockwell runs an organization called Thrive in St. John’s. Their outreach program provides food, personal care items, safe drug equipment and referrals to additional services. They are funded through a special federal program to help individuals primarily between the ages of 14-29, leave sex trade activities and exploitive situations including sex trafficking.
“We are still operational,” says Crockwell. “Our site on Water Street is open every day. As much as is reasonable, I am having people work from home. Right now, I’m trying to find laptops and headsets for them because this is going to go on a long time. It’s not going to be a week or two.”
Thrive has developed new ways of operating.
“We’ve gotten rid of all the furniture that can’t be sanitized,” says Crocker. “People who come have to ring the doorbell.
“When they come in, they are directed straight to the bathroom to wash their hands. Then they ask us for what they need. People might need personal care items, food or safe injection kits. For people who can’t come to us, we’ll drop items off on their doorstep. We’re all practicing social distancing.”
Crockwell says they are doing all they can, but she’s concerned about the most vulnerable. A lot of the families Thrive serves rely on breakfast programs in the school and they are trying to figure out how to get the food to them.
“We’re in pretty good shape in terms of food,” she says. “All the schools that have been closed, as well as the restaurants, are supplying us with food. It’s more about us having the capacity to store it and get it to the people who need it.”
Crockwell is also worried about young people at high risk.
“We are doing a program on sex trafficking and we’ve had young women working in the strip clubs, which are now closed, feeling pressured to go out on the street,” she says. “Their housing is dependent upon it.”
In some regions of the country, community foundations are jumping in to help fill the gap.
RIck Frost, CEO of The Winnipeg Foundation—the oldest and one of the largest community foundations in the country—knew the COVID-19 situation was getting serious when he was away on vacation at the end of February. In a feature-length interview with The Charity Report, he said “around March 9, I realized how serious this was going to be.”
He said that they had to determine where they were going to send the first grants.
“I was fortunate enough, during the first week I was back, to spend two hours at the Main Street project, which is a downtown shelter for the homeless. I knew then that we were going to focus on the most vulnerable. And our grants team immediately raised the whole question of food services and how we were going to work in that area.”
Within 10 days, The Winnipeg Foundation had made 25 grants, including $100,000 to Kids Help Phone because Kids Help Phone is ‘going to be a lot of help to a lot of kids.’
Frost says community foundations are “uniquely positioned to know what their community needs.”
At first glance, community foundations may not seem the nimblest of charitable founders. They are largely made up of “donor-advised funds” or DAFs. DAFs are typically restricted funds, only to be spent on certain things, and most often endowed so the foundation can spend only a small percentage of the capital each year.
“At The Winnipeg Foundation, I work with a collection of endowments, donors set up these funds and there are conditions,” said Frost. “But some foundations have more discretion than others. In our case, we’re pretty fortunate that we have quite a bit of discretionary dollars. In addition to that, we have long time relationships with our donor advisors.
“This is clearly not an endowment situation.”
The Vancouver Foundation is taking a similar approach to The Winnipeg Foundation and is working in conjunction with Vancity credit union, United Way Lower Mainland, and the City of Vancouver.
“We have raised $3 million so far, based on $1 million of discretionary spending and $500,000 from our DAFs” says Kevin McCort, the foundation’s CEO. “We made our first grants last week.”
The Vancouver Foundation and its partners are focusing on housing, food security and community services.
The scenes in Vancouver, Winnipeg, St. John’s and Toronto are being repeated in cities and towns across the country.
Karen Mercier works with the Regina Humane Society as director of development.
“At any given time, we house about 200 animals—cats, dogs, rabbits and the occasional bird. We operate with about 30 staff. Fifteen of those staff are currently in the facility. We are responding to animal emergencies.”
Last week she said the society adopted out 33 animals, a higher number than usual. Fostering numbers are also up.
“People are fostering animals for the short term, perhaps feeling it might relieve some of the stress they are experiencing,” says Mercier.
“I’m worried on an operational and fundraising level. We don’t have events, but we do have direct mail, but what if there’s no printers open to actually print it? We’re okay, but we’re worried for our staff. If one gets sick the animals still need care.
“We don’t want to get to a place of lay-offs. We have a three-month reserve.”
The Regina Humane Society is one of the three hundred community organizations that fall in the catchment area of the South Saskatchewan Community Foundation.
The Foundation’s executive director, Donna Ziegler, says that last year they received applications from 220 organizations.
“The beauty of the community foundation is that it is very simple. We organize it all for the donor and we are able to do all the vetting,” said Ziegler.
“Right now, we are using discretionary funds to organize matching donations and we almost immediately raised $200,000. We asked for applications from organizations in our community and will do a five-day turnaround on a decision, then send the funds electronically if the organization has that capability.”
“We want the charity community to have some hope,” says Ziegler. “We want them to know they can keep going, that resources aren’t going to stop. We will be here. That’s our goal. To help frontline charities.”
The Toronto Foundation is the fifth largest foundation in Canada and is, according to its 2019 audit, currently holding $229 million in assets after liabilities, $132 million of which is restricted.
“I don’t think anyone has a hard and fast plan yet,” says Julia Howell, vice president of community engagement at the Toronto Foundation. “People who have ceased regular operations are looking at available options.”
She said the Toronto Foundation has just received a seed grant from VanCity to fund a COVID-19 operational plan.
“Our power comes from our ability to act as a collective of givers. We are a charity that grants $15 to $19 million a year in DAFs. If we can be a broker, there can be an impact. The City of Toronto is setting up a giving portal. We’re figuring it out as we go along.”
“Everyone is scared and anxious,” says Carol Latchford at the Red Door Shelter in Toronto.
“My job is to manage the fear on both sides,” she says, “with staff and residents. And I just don’t know how all this is going to affect our fundraising. We raise about $850,000 a year now, but I just don’t know.”