By Mary Giles
Canada’s 86,000 charities, which account for 10 percent of full-time jobs, have been significantly impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 70 per cent experienced a reduction in revenues, on average about a 30 per cent decline.
Despite a higher demand for many types of services, the loss of revenue, paid staff and volunteers has reduced their ability to provide crucial services. It is predicted that 1 in 5 charities and nonprofits may close as a result of the pandemic.
“Before the pandemic, the voluntary and nonprofit sector was experiencing significant change,” says Susan Phillips, a professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA) and graduate supervisor of the Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership (PNL) graduate programs.
“Nonprofits provide indispensable public services,” says Phillips. “They are critical to democracy, building stronger citizens and supporting social innovation. They are rooted in our communities — geographically, culturally and socially. However, they often operate with short-term, inadequate financing.”
“The nonprofit sector is also highly feminized — 75 per cent of the workers are women, and racialized and immigrant women are disproportionately employed in precarious contract work, under-paid, without benefits or pensions.”
Advancing a decent work agenda was underway before the pandemic revealed some of these issues, but now needs to be accelerated.
“The global pandemic has intensified the existing financial challenges and the racial justice movement has highlighted the urgent need for fundamental systemic change,” she says.
“Now is a time of reinvention for the sector — in financing, service delivery and digital transformation, diversity, inclusion and leadership succession, decent work, and how institutional philanthropy supports the charitable sector.”
Research for Social Change
In 2018, Phillips (and SPPA colleague Nathan Grasse) received a four-year SSHRC grant, “Strategies for Enhancing the Financial Sustainability of Canada’s Charities.” The study looks at public tax data to examine factors that determine vulnerability in some charities and nonprofits, as well as factors that lead to resiliency in others.
Last year, Phillips, along with Grasse and SPPA Professor Paloma Raggo, received a Carleton University COVID-19 Rapid Research Response Grant for the project, Risk, Resilience, and Recovery: A Path Forward for Canadian Charities in a Post-COVID-19 World. Using an interactive Delphi approach, the project first examined how philanthropic foundations have responded to support charities and promote systems change throughout the pandemic and, in a second stage, how the charitable sector will recover and rebuild.
“In a post-pandemic recovery, there is a need for more than just recovery or rebuilding, but some fundamental reinvention of funding, service models and philanthropy,” says Phillips. “Our research helps organizations innovate and find routes to resilience as they adapt to the ‘new normal.’”
“Planning for recovery in the next stages of post-pandemic transition remains uncertain. Organizations will need to reinvent and rebuild, expand services, as well as prepare for future crises — pandemics, income inequality, and environmental disasters from climate change.”
Dismantling Old Systems
Philanthropy is not, and should not be seen as, a substitute for government. “But, foundations can play an important role in supporting innovation,” say Phillips, “because they can take risks that governments can’t and can be patient with their capital in realizing results that may take years.”
“Canadian foundations have tended to be rather conventional in their grant-making,” she says. “This is beginning to change, however, in part due to increased public scrutiny of foundations and questions about the public responsibilities of tax-subsidized private wealth.”
“At the same time, many philanthropists are seeking to affect greater impact and advance systems change. This is leading to new models of ‘community-first philanthropy’ that shift power from funders to community to determine priorities and develop their own capabilities.”
An innovative model of this type of community philanthropy is the new Foundation for Black Communities (FFBC), an organization that seeks to ensure Black communities can thrive and have the agency to determine their own futures.
Carleton’s PNL program collaborated with the FFBC on a report, Unfunded: Black Communities are Overlooked by Canadian Philanthropy, that reveals how little public or philanthropic funding goes to Black-serving and Black-led organizations and communities. The report, which includes authors Rachel Pereira (MPNL ’19) and PhD in Public Policy candidate Fahad Ahmad, found that Black-led organizations received only 0.03 percent of foundation grants in 2018. The report was cited in the 2021 federal budget as a source for the commitment of $200 million to a Black-led philanthropic fund that will provide support for Black community initiatives.
Phillips says, “The racial justice movement has also underlined the need for serious attention to more genuine diversity and inclusion in the leadership and staff of the charitable and philanthropic sector, which has lagged behind the public and private sectors in diversity, equity and inclusion.
“The emergence of a diverse, dynamic young leadership for the sector is evident in the students who are attracted to the PNL programs in recent years. This year, the Black Canadian Fundraisers’ Collective created a new scholarship to promote Black leadership within the philanthropic and nonprofit sector, which was recently awarded to four outstanding future sector leaders.”
Mobilizing Research for Practice
Since the creation of the MPNL in 2013, Phillips and her colleagues have worked to mobilize data and research to inform professional practice and public policy. They regularly collaborate with national organizations to address some of the timely “reinvention” challenges and host public conversations to advance critical thinking on important issues.
In 2020, the program launched PANL Perspectives to engage sector leaders and the public. The online platform covers a wide range of topics, including ethical issues in philanthropy, governance matters and fundraising. In a recent article, Phillips outlines three key priorities to help the sector to rebuild post-pandemic.
The first comprehensive book about Canada’s nonprofit sector, edited by Phillips with Bob Wyatt (executive director of the Muttart Foundation and Carleton 2017 honorary doctorate recipient), Intersections and Innovations: Change for Canada’s Voluntary and Nonprofit Sector, is 36 chapters by 52 authors on all aspects of the charitable and philanthropic sector.
In the book’s introduction, Phillips stresses the importance of inclusion and talent development for the nonprofit sector: “With the competition for leaders that lies ahead, diversity and real inclusion in nonprofit leadership are not just a matter of fairness of opportunity; they are behaviours and outcomes essential to being competitive for talent and successful in achieving missions.”
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