'Stand strong': Charities brace for a lean season as pandemic cuts into donations, volunteer base

With a sudden drop in volunteers, restrictions on the services they can provide and an increased demand for assistance, charities across the country are facing an unprecedented set of challenges.

Crisis 'risks hollowing out the charitable sector,' the head of one charity says

A Montreal firefighter volunteers at the Moisson Montreal food bank in Montreal on Friday. Charities across the country are facing new challenges and are trying to meet increased demand. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Like many charities across the country, Montreal's Mile End Mission is trying to re-invent the way it works.

The community organization usually serves hot meals several times a week in its busy lunchroom, bringing staff, volunteers and community members together.

These days, people line up outside — standing well apart — and are handed packaged meals to go at the door.

It's one of many changes the mission has made in response to the risks associated with COVID-19.

"We've had to cancel the majority of our activities — our daily activities, our drop-in program, our art program," said executive director Linda Hachey.

Still, the mission is trying to ensure the health and safety of its members, particularly those most vulnerable, and to help them through phone calls and connections with social workers.

"We're just going to continue doing community by different means."

Call for assistance

Charities across Canada say they're facing an unprecedented challenge with COVID-19, with food drives and major fundraisers cancelled, a drop in donations and, in some cases, a shortage of volunteers.

"We've certainly never seen anything like this before, the way support has just suddenly suddenly stopped," said David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada.

If the crisis goes on for much longer, he said, "it risks hollowing out the charitable sector."

UNICEF is part of a coalition of charities asking the federal government for help. In a letter issued earlier this week, the coalition requested a $10-billion fund to protect its member organizations from "suffering irreparable damage."

The letter, signed by the Canadian Cancer Society, War Child Canada, United Way and others, said that, without government support, some charities will "no longer be able to support vulnerable people, communities and animals, and many will face a significant likelihood of total and permanent closure."

"We're an important economic part as well as an important social part of Canada's society," Morley said. "We need to be sure that the government remembers that as they're planning how we can all get through this together."

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office told CBC News that the government has "always recognized that charities play an important role in our society ... we will be announcing new measures in the coming days."

People wear masks while sitting in a bus shelter in Toronto on Friday. The outbreak has brought the economy to a virtual standstill, putting further pressure on some charities. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

For many organizations, the impact has been felt already with full force.

Renaissance, a Montreal non-profit that helps people get job experience, usually collects donated clothing in giant bins and sells it at its retail stores across the city.

Now, the stores are closed and general manager Éric St-Arnaud said they have temporarily laid off 850 people.

"This is a difficult time because our purpose is to help individuals to integrate into the workforce," he said. "All the money that we create through our business is re-invested through the organization."

St-Arnaud is asking people to stop dropping off clothing donations because Renaissance no longer has the capacity to collect and sort them.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Halifax also is unable to collect and sell clothing donations, work which usually generates about one-third of its operating revenue, said community engagement manager Shelda Cochrane.

"We are concerned," said Cochrane. "We have already had to lay off some staff and as an employer, we don't want to be in that position. If it carries for a long time, we will have to look at program cuts and further staff layoffs."

The organization is centred around face-to-face connections; Cochrane said that while in-person visits have stopped, the organization is encouraging digital meetups instead. She said some young people need those connections now more than ever.

Meeting the demand for food

Food Banks Canada CEO Chris Hatch said the COVID-19 crisis has brought with it two major concerns: a lack of staff and volunteers and a shrinking supply of food as spring food drives are cancelled and people stay home.

"My biggest concern is the food supply," said Hatch, adding that he expects a surge in demand as people across various sectors lose their jobs because of the crisis.

In Quebec, Premier François Legault has encouraged those under 70 and in good health to consider volunteering for organizations that need help.

The province has a website where potential volunteers can see where help is needed in their community.

At Mile End Mission, Linda Hachey said the space is too small to accommodate even the 19 volunteers they usually have while practising physical distancing, so they're operating with far fewer people.

She said the best way people can help her organization is through cash donations.

"We're standing strong and we're going to encourage our members to stand strong," she said. "They're strong people and we're going to continue to just encourage that."


Alison Northcott

national reporter

Alison Northcott is a national reporter for CBC News in Montreal, covering current events and politics across Quebec. Born in Winnipeg, she has over 15 years experience in journalism.

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