Nova Scotia

Canadian charities say federal aid may not be enough to stay afloat

Charitable organizations in Canada, who have already had to lay off tens of thousands of staff members, say the federal government's wage subsidy is a good start. But it may not be enough to come them through the COVID-19 pandemic.

'Charities run on very tight margins, and as a result, they don't have a lot of leeway for financial hits'

'Most charities in this country do not have reserves, and if they do they're not very deep,' says Bruce MacDonald, CEO of Imagine Canada. (Submitted by Imagine Canada)

While charitable organizations in Canada say they're relieved to be included in the federal government's wage subsidy program, they also say it may not be enough to get them through the COVID-19 pandemic and recover in the months after it ends.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Monday that businesses and charities seeing a drop of at least 30 per cent in revenue due to COVID-19 will qualify for the government's 75 per cent wage subsidy program.

The announcement came after tens of thousands of staff had already been temporarily laid off from some of the country's most notable charities.

On Monday, the Canadian Cancer Society laid off a third of its staff across the country.

Diabetes Canada laid off 50 per cent of its workforce on Friday and YMCA Canada temporarily let go 20,000 employees across Canada — 75 per cent of its workforce.

"It's really devastating to have to do that, but as a charity we don't have a lot of options. We rely on donations to do everything," said Andrea Seale, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society.

"One of the hardest things, and I think everybody feels this, is that we don't know when this is going to end and what the new normal is going to look like after this for the economy."

The Canadian Cancer Society says it has cancelled more than 300 events across the country for April that are usually part of its Daffodil Month fundraisers. (Canadian Cancer Society/Canadian Press)

Seale said the timing is particularly painful, as the organization normally puts a lot of focus on fundraising in April.

"We would have 30,000 people out in the community fundraising, so we've had to cancel all of that," she said, adding that more than 300 events were cancelled Canada-wide.

"All of that really adds up to a very big hit to our donations."

'Charities run on very tight margins,' says YMCA CEO

The government will cover up to 75 per cent of a salary on the first $58,700, which could mean payments of up to $847 a week.

More details of the wage subsidy program will be unveiled on Tuesday by Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

The prime minister also encouraged businesses to top up their employees' wages with the remaining 25 per cent of their salaries.

Peter Dinsdale, president and CEO of YMCA Canada, said that 25 per cent is huge when you have "zero revenue" coming in.

"Charities run on very tight margins, and as a result, they don't have a lot of leeway for financial hits," Dinsdale said.

"My biggest concern is some of our most vulnerable Ys won't be able to sustain this two or three months down the road. They'll have to make the difficult decision to permanently close down their doors and we're doing everything we can to prevent that."

YMCAs across Canada have been forced to close because of COVID-19. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Dinsdale said he believes the wage subsidies could be "a real game changer," but he's waiting to see the details in the coming days.

To help the industry, a coalition of Canadian charities has asked the federal government for a $10-billion fund.

"Most charities in this country do not have reserves, and if they do they're not very deep," said Bruce MacDonald, president and CEO of Imagine Canada, an organization that represents thousands of Canadian charities and non-profit groups.

He said they're hearing from volunteer-based organizations who may not be able to benefit from the federal government's announcement on Monday.

"If their services and programs are delivered 100 per cent by volunteers, and volunteers are now having to practise physical distancing strategies, that means that those services might not be available," he said.

"But as always, the charitable sector is resilient."

Before Monday's announcement, Imagine Canada was projecting that three months of mandated physical distancing and the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19 would cause charities to lose $9.5 billion and lay off more than 117,000 people across the country.

Moving online

Dinsdale said one of his biggest concerns is figuring out how YMCAs can still interact with their communities.

"That's hard to do when you close your doors," he said.

Many Ys are offering online fitness classes. One centre in Nova Scotia is using its child-care staff to call seniors on their membership list to engage with people who may be more isolated.

Diabetes Canada laid off more than 50 per cent of its staff on Friday. Jake Reid, national director of government relations, says any potential relief for their organization is good news. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Another YMCA in Halifax has been turned into a women's shelter.

"It's finding the sense of community for all of us," said Brian Posavad, CEO of the YMCA Halifax/Dartmouth, where 60 staff have been laid off. He said there were roughly 550 layoffs across the province.

"It's such an important sector to come out of this crisis. The social fabric of your community is so interwoven with so many different small charities, not-for-profits and small enterprises," he said.

'I hope people will be with us'

Seale said the Canadian Cancer Society is going to shift its efforts toward online fundraising.

"Cancer is not stopping because of the pandemic, so I think we'll need people to show their support, to volunteer as we can get back out in the community," she said.

"As we get to the other side of this, I hope people will be with us. And I'm sure that they will be."