Pandemic funding and Canada’s Charitable Sector: Looking back and forward with United Way Centraide Canada

January 17, 2023

Just a little over six months before a global pandemic was declared, the Government of Canada  announced an Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector, with the express purpose of acknowledging and supporting the, “key role [the charitable sector plays in terms of] providing valuable information and services to Canadians.”

As it turned out, that key role became an essential piece of infrastructure the federal government relied upon to support Canadians through the worst of the pandemic. 

In late Spring 2020, the federal government announced it was establishing the Emergency Community Support Fund (ECSF) starting with a $350 million investment. Through two rounds of funding, the Community Foundations of Canada, United Way Centraide Canada (UWCC) and the Canadian Red Cross were selected to oversee the distribution of these government funds to community-based charities and non-profit organizations serving vulnerable populations throughout the country. Just last week, the federal government again tasked these three organizations with oversight of the distribution of its Community Services Recovery Fund.

Recently, I had the opportunity to connect with the UWCC team to reflect on this intense period, as well as take stock of the accomplishments and understand what’s coming next.

Both government and the community sector had to learn to cooperate and communicate and in so doing, truly valuable understandings were forged. It is a great example of what good government relations looks like. Here are a few of the highlights.

Information-gathering is foundational. 

Local United Way Centraides (UWCs) across the country are already well connected and UWCC was able to quickly reach out to all its agencies to get a sense of what was happening “on the ground”. As the largest funder of community supports and services in most Canadian communities, UWCs were also able to pull in information from numerous partners: the YMCA, YWCA, the Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters, just to name a few. UWCC was also in touch with national partners like Imagine Canada and the Maytree Foundation. This enabled UWCC to develop a clear picture of what was happening in communities and within the sector, across the country in real time.

When several ministers responsible for the national response were looking for information, UWCC was ready. The network’s ability to work bottom-up as well as horizontally meant that local UWCs were interacting with MPs and other government decision-makers about the needs on the ground, and the potential impact of action (or inaction).

Leverage your assets. 

United Way Centraide Canada is the creator of the 211 system in Canada. It is a free, one-number dial-in and web-based service that people can text, call or visit to find community-based services and supports. So, in addition to speaking with UWCs and service delivery partners across Canada, UWCC was able to access real-time data from 211 service providers. In those early days and throughout the pandemic, 211 was experiencing an astronomical increase in calls. UWCC was able to offer 211 as an existing solution that could nimbly assist in the national pandemic response, and, in fact, during the first wave, funding was provided to extend 211 service to all Canadians.

While the 211 service was providing direct support to Canadians in need, UWCC was able to aggregate and communicate the scope of the issues 211 was hearing about from vulnerable Canadians. The call data also allowed UWCC to anticipate what was coming next. For example, income security concerns were growing daily.

Relationships open doors. Transparency builds trust. 

Given its own experience as a funder, UWCC was aware that funding accountability needed to be “baked in” the funding arrangements. From the beginning, it established regular calls with key bureaucrats to share information about the organizations that were applying for funds and for what purposes. Briefing notes were prepared to ensure overseeing ministries had accurate, up-to-date information for their departmental reporting purposes.

Getting public policy right. Details matter. 

Early on, bureaucrats were reaching out to UWCC as they were being asked to investigate various solutions and scenarios. UWCC was able to provide context to the government in terms of what was needed, where and when. For example, as the world was moving online in response to pandemic restrictions, UWCC made the case on behalf of vulnerable populations where digital access was going to be a challenge: Isolated seniors, people experiencing homelessness, women and youth fleeing domestic violence, and rural youth. Simply moving all services and supports to digital platforms would mean some of the most vulnerable people would fall through the cracks. At the same time, community agencies were being called upon to deliver time-sensitive services and supports at the local level. Now those organizations were needing to reach people through their traditional channels, as well as digitally, and not many were set up to do so when the pandemic began.

UWCC also negotiated to hold back a small portion of the funding, knowing that as the pandemic extended, community needs would continue to evolve. Doing so allowed UWCC to pivot quickly as new needs emerged.

Negotiate the details. Be laser-focused on your values and priorities. 

All these actions allowed UWCC to demonstrate its value as a knowledgeable, nimble, and reliable partner. It was able to get federal money out the door quickly while simultaneously informing the government about what the community services sector looked like, and what was needed to deliver to those who needed support the most.

For UWCC, the north star was its Mission. It exists, “to create opportunities for a better life for everyone in our communities”. During this whole period, even if a proposed solution didn’t lead to something specifically benefiting the focus of United Way Centraides directly, the priority was to inform and to work towards solutions that everyone in Canada needed.

I would also say that UWCC showed up as a full partner; It promoted two-way communication and fostered a thorough understanding of what the government wanted to accomplish, what it was prepared to do, and what it needed. In transmitting this understanding to the local level, a sense of transparency was cultivated. In the end, this flow of information and trust enabled collective energies to be directed toward meeting community needs in a time of extraordinary uncertainty.

When making an “ask” of government, be specific. 

In addition to informing the government’s response, UWCC also proposed a series of solutions, several of which were adopted.

  • One: The development of a community response fund, which became the Emergency Community Support Fund.
  • Two: The expansion of the 211 service to all Canadians. As the first wave of the pandemic was taking hold, the federal government did release funding to increase the capacity and expand access to 211 services for all Canadian residents.
  • Three: UWCC proposed the implementation of a philanthropic matching program to resuscitate declining donations to the sector. In the end, the government elected to apply this concept to support delivery of more COVID-19 vaccines to people in developing countries.
  • Lastly, UWCC advocated to all federal political parties for an investment in supporting modernizing community-based services so they can be more effective in the future. This “ask” evolved into the Community Services Recovery Fund, a $400 million investment.

To grow relationships, think ahead. 

This last “ask” and the resulting funding are critical to “what’s next”. The pandemic experience proves the social service delivery sector is an essential part of Canada’s infrastructure, and this latest round of pandemic funding comes with expectations that the funds will be directed toward “modernizing” the sector — That’s important.

Decades of lumping organizational necessities like salaries, facilities, equipment, and staff development budgets into the category of “overhead” have left many organizations susceptible to future shocks. For example, at the very beginning of the pandemic most social service delivery organizations had neither the equipment nor expertise to shift to digital service delivery. It is a credit to the sector that so many cobbled together a digital response.

A final word. 

While the pandemic highlighted the immense value of the sector, that value extends beyond the delivery of essential services and supports. The pandemic laid bare severe social issues and structural inequalities across the country. These are challenges the social sector will continue to confront, but with increased public awareness, the sector can play more of a leadership role and be seen as a knowledge expert on these important issues.

As noted above, the Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector was originally focused on developing a more enabling and empowering regulatory environment for charities and non-profits. Likely due to the experience of the pandemic, however, that dialogue has now shifted to encompass the very definition of charity and charitable purpose. Any modernization of the sector must consider how we define the work and its relationship to society. These are not small questions, and the answers could revolutionize the sector. I have no doubt the shared experience of the pandemic has accelerated the dialogue between government and the sector. It’s now up to the sector as a whole to leverage this momentum and play a leadership role in defining its future.