(April 8, 2020) For16 years, as executive director and president of The Maytree Foundation, Ratna Omidvar focused on local, national and international efforts to promote the integration of immigrants. She spent four years as Distinguished Visiting Professor and Founder, Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University. In the 1990s, she was the Executive Director of Skills for Change, known for its “pioneering programs that respond to shifting immigration and workplace trends and lead to employment.” Appointed to the Senate in 2016, she became an advocate for a stronger charity sector. The Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector, which she co-chaired with fellow senator, The Honourable Terry M. Mercer, held hearings in 2018 and 2019. Its report, Catalyst for Change: A Roadmap to a Stronger Charitable Sector was released in June 2019, was the first holistic dialogue on the sector in decades. On April 7, Senator Omidvar joined editor in chief Gail Picco to discuss her views of the impact of COVID-19 on the charity sector in Canada. This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Gail Picco: What’s it like now being a senator in the middle of all this?
Senator Ratna Omidvar: I can tell you, because we are weighing in on really important legislation but and yet we don’t have the time to do the kind of due diligence we would normally do. However, we recognize that the content does not have to be perfect. We want to get money into the hands of people who need it right away. We have a great deal of disruption. But with with disruption can come innovation in a number of ways. Nobody’s calling it that, but you could characterize the emergency measures the federal government is taking as a start towards universal basic income. But we are worried about the health of our families too. And the people who had jobs lined up and now have nothing.
Gail Picco: What are the most urgent concerns right now, do you think, domestically?
Senator Ratna Omidvar: Right now, I would say, there are two urgent buckets. People are socially isolated. There are all kinds of pressures, people need access to mental health resources, and women’s shelters. And I worry about the security of the charitable sector because I read about the layoffs across the sector. Diabetes Canada has laid off half its staff, for example. And they have been accommodated by the Canadian Emergency Benefit Program, but they do provide essential services. I worry about the long-term impact on organizations already on the brink, operating month-by-month, even week-to-week.
Gail Picco: I’ve seen what imagine Canada has been putting out and been talking to people working in the sector, the food organizations that received 100 million dollars granted to them last week, for example. And what I see is the federal government responding in a nuanced way towards the needs of the charitable sector. Do you think this is a reflection of the fact that many members of the current Cabinet have worked in the charity sector?
Senator Ratna Omidvar: I see the government responding to the ideas of the sector and I give Imagine Canada credit for that. I’ve also been working really hard to ensure that the charitable sector is not left out of the conversation when special measures are being developed. The inclusion of the charitable sector in the wage subsidy program has been a great win. My letter to Minister Hussen today was sent for that purpose. Every senator has an association of some kind with a charity. Being a director or engaged in fundraising, involved in one way or another. It’s the glue that holds the country together.
Gail Picco: Imagine Canada has called on the federal government to provide $8 to $10 billion dollars in stabilization money for the sector. Other groups have done the same thing. One of the niggling things at the back of my mind is that private foundations, for example, are sitting on a $90 billion of assets right now, and only having to pay out at 3.5% a year. And in 2017, charities reported $177.5 billion of cash in bank accounts, long-term investments and short-term investments. Obviously, that’s not divided equally among charities, but the issue is why Imagine Canada is not turning to the philanthropy sector and saying, why don’t you also support us during this potential collapse? Do you think private foundations have any obligation to contribute to the mitigating the crisis?
Senator Ratna Omidvar: Private foundations have a significant role, not just in responding with new grants but also moderating their practices. What I mean is that in these difficult times, foundations should embrace core costs of delivering services, including overhead.It is also hard to talk about the foundation sector as a whole. It is large, it has huge assets in the aggregate, but most foundations are small. So the data needs to be parsed out and looked at in context.
I do know that the greatest increase in philanthropy has been in Donor Advised Funds. We have a significant chapter [in the Senate Committee Report] about that. These Donor Advised Funds are not required to make a payout at all. so, I would say one of the things we can do is make sure Donor Advised Funds make a minimum disbursement of 3.5%. The people who hold these investments are normally individuals who come into a large amount of money and they want to think about, and deliberate, where and how they are going to spend their charitable dollars, so they just park it in a Donor Advised Funds.
Gail Picco: Let’s go onto a bit of a different topic. I know you are worried, and The Charity Report has covered this too, about what’s going on globally with COVID-19 in refugee camps and other displaced populations, northern Syria, for example. Can you tell me about the latest developments on it?
Senator Ratna Omidvar: It’s devastating. People who are approved as refugees cannot travel. They are cramped together, worn down, malnourished. They are prime targets. It has not widely spread yet, there are a couple of cases in Greece already. I give credit to our government who have not become nativist. They have approved aid for women’s programming, in particular. It is only natural for all Canadians to want to be safe and healthy. But people outside the country are in need to. And it’s not an either or situation and I’m glad we are walking that line equally, diligently and responsibly.
Gail Picco: In moments of reflection, what do you see coming out at the end of this? Do you think things will change?
Senator Ratna Omidvar: I think the world as we know it will have changed completely, the way we travel, and the way we consume. I think local charity will experience a resurgence and a renewal because they will be responding to the local demand. Local institutions will be become gathering points. Our libraries have always been popular, but visiting libraries will be more common, people will go to local art shows instead of flying to London for a premiere. They will find new ways to connect with charities. But I do fear that many charities will close their doors forever, because they simply will not be able to keep their doors open even with the 75% subsidy. I think the $10 billion stabilization fund mentioned by imagine Canada will have to be reassessed based on the numbers of charities who can access the wage subsidy and I think there is some further modelling to be done here. Notwithstanding, there are a number of charities already teetering on the brink. We may see mergers, two organizations or three coming together, and I definitely see a move towards digitalization of service. But I do feel for the people in the sector. As our report pointed out, one of the most surprising and disturbing things about the sector context is that the people who help others often don’t have a decent quality life of themselves. They are victims of precarious work, without benefits and so on. All of these things are brought into the mix. What we described in the report as a slowly intensifying crisis in June of last year has intensified and escalated.
Gail Picco: What’s happening with the report right now? I’ve read it and a few other people I know have read it. Are there any plans to revisit it? Is there another initiative in the works? What would you like to see happen?
Senator Ratna Omidvar: Because of parliamentary procedures and timing of the election, the report has been tabled in the Senate. It has actually not been debated. But as soon as things are back to normal, I have legislative proposals to come out of it, one to amend the Income Tax Act to lift the qualifying donee rule that prevents charities from working with other groups who may not be charitable organizations. In the meantime, I support this rule on direction and control being temporarily lifted, which allows people most in need to be helped even though they may not be connected to charitable organization.
Gail Picco: Thanks very much, Ratna. Let’s talk again soon.
Senator Ratna Omidvar: Yes, we’ll circle bank on a couple of things.