Calgary social agencies brace for cuts as United Way scales back

The United Way of Calgary, which raised nearly $50 million for 83 social agencies last year, is bracing for a continued contraction in donations brought on by a long-running economic downturn — and a global health pandemic.

Charities and community resource groups warned they will lose funding or face cuts

In better days, the United Way of Calgary was able to raise $55.7 million in 2014. Last year, the tally fell to $50 million, and the agency is warning of a further decline as it launches its annual campaign amid a global pandemic. (CBC)

Calgarians have been turning to the BowWest Community Resource Centre to access housing, food, clothing, counselling, education and skills training for almost 20 years.

But the agency, which relies on the United Way of Calgary for a quarter of its budget, is under threat — and it's not alone.

The United Way of Calgary has told all of the agencies it funds to brace for cuts and possibly lose funding altogether.

The United Way, which raised nearly $50 million for 83 social agencies last year, is bracing for a continued contraction in donations brought on by a long-running economic downturn and a global health pandemic. 

"There's a likelihood that we won't be able to fund all the agencies to the same level, or even the same number of agencies," said Karen Young, the CEO of the United Way.

It's come up with three scenarios for its annual fundraising drive in which donations shrivel anywhere from 5 to 25 per cent. That means a drop of $2.4 million to $12.2 million. 

"Funding is precarious for social services, it's always has been precarious for social services," said Katherine Kautz, the executive director of BowWest. 

"We're all in this leaky boat together," she said.

The United Way says a "likely" scenario is a reduction of 10 to 15 per cent, which translates to $4.9 to $7.3 million in lost funding for Calgary's social agencies.

It's a stark prediction that's forced agencies to scramble and put together a plan to try to convince the United Way that there is value in their programs and services — and that funding should continue.

The United Way informed all of its partner agencies that their funding contracts would expire at the end of the year because there was no guarantee the agency could fulfil its commitments.

Focus on economic, pandemic recovery

It's been working with agencies to focus more on helping people recover from the economic downturn and the pandemic, and wants to see more agencies work together.

It's a plan that's been in the works for years but is now being accelerated because of the impact COVID-19 has had on the agency, specifically dwindling donations.

Karen Young is the CEO of United Way of Calgary. The agency launched its annual fundraising campaign last month and expects a 'likely' reduction of 10 to 15 per cent in donations. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Programs that focus on poverty reduction, mental health supports and family relationships are being prioritized under the new funding model. 

"So, based on that, we said, we're going to look at some program investments. But we wanted to shift more to collaborations and partnerships and sort of how do we improve service delivery and co-ordinate service delivery," said Young.

Reapply for funding

Agencies have been asked to reapply for funding under a new "expression of interest." Agencies will start to find out today whether their applications will proceed to the next step of the approval process.

"Now we're taking them through the criteria, analyzing them all, and we're going to be seeing, you know, who's going to be the agencies that kind of move through to Phase 2," said Young.

All of this comes at a time when more Calgarians are asking for help.

"The face of poverty is changing," said Young.

"People that used to donate might be needing services now," she said.

At BowWest Community Resource Centre, demand for services has increased by 43 per cent, according to Kautz.  She's now had to decide which programs to push for, while others may be put on hold.

"What is the most important part that we need to save? What are the parts that would be great to have but in this economic climate it's a little bit difficult," said Kautz.

Kautz says the new application process for funding from the United Way has triggered a first for her agency and others. She says they've applied together with two other agencies to fund a program that helps people who are in a temporary financial crisis. 

Jeff Dyer is the CEO of Trellis, a social agency that helps children and families. Trellis receives the highest amount of funding from the United Way each year, $3 million, and has been told to brace for cuts. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Reductions, cuts not a surprise

Trellis is a newly formed social agency in Calgary that was created after the merger of Aspen Family Services and the Boys and Girls Club of Calgary. It's also the United Way's largest beneficiary.

The CEO says the current situation with the United Way is not a surprise, given the state of the economy, the amount of job losses that have occurred in Calgary and the impact on charitable giving. 

"If we, as agencies didn't think that the economy was going to impact the United Way and funders in general, we're pretty naive. It's impacting everybody," said Jeff Dyer.

He's bracing for an impact. He just doesn't know the full scope. Trellis receives $3 million a year from United Way and could lose up to $450,000 per year under the "likely" scenario.

"We'll have to have some really serious conversations about what programs that impacts, what services we have to pull from. We're gonna have to ask ourselves a question, can we cover some of those losses on our own?" said Dyer.

Support for agencies that lose funding

Young says agencies will be notified starting today as to whether they've been approved to move on to the next round of the application process. She doesn't want to characterize the process as picking winners and losers, but acknowledges this will be a challenging week for some agencies. 

She says support will be offered to agencies that lose funding, including letters of support to other funders and expertise from business leaders who would volunteer to look at an agency's business model. 

"So, it's not like we're just going to say, 'sorry, no, you didn't make it.' We really want to help them with their long-term sustainability. And I'm hoping that this is a short-term problem, not a long-term [problem]."

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.


Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.