Local non-profits share how they survived COVID as a 'forgotten' sector

Ottawa non-profits say lack of volunteers and revenue drops made it extremely challenging for them to stay afloat during the pandemic, but the community's support is what kept them going.

Some hanging on by thread, Ottawa non-profits describe living through a 'roller-coaster'

Impact Hub Ottawa is a co-working space and non-profit located downtown. The pandemic made it difficult for local non-profits to receive funding and access resources for communities they serve. (Submitted by Elizabeth Cleland)

Some Ottawa non-profits say they survived major financial hits, depleted resources and dwindling numbers of volunteers as a "forgotten" sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the local community's support is what kept them afloat. 

"The non-profit sector's often forgotten, and then being an Indigenous non-profit within that sector, you're even more forgotten," said Gabrielle Fayant, co-founder and helper at Assembly of Seven Generations (A7G), a youth-led non-profit that supports Indigenous youth.

"The last two years for A7G have been quite a roller-coaster."

Without a core funding source, Fayant said the group is often under-funded and relies on its volunteers. 

During the pandemic, the number of volunteers dropped and challenges grew as Indigenous youth needed more mental health resources, medication, and other essentials.

It's constantly taking a village for us to stay afloat.- Gwen Madiba, Equal Chance

The A7G team had to step up to make sure Indigenous youth that relied on them didn't fall through the cracks.

"It was so stressful," said Fayant, describing the wait for funding to come through. 

"You don't have time to wait until you get a government grant or government funding. You just have to act because people's lives are on the line."

And that's what A7G did. The team made sure its programs happened — from providing care packages, groceries and medication, rent support, crisis interventions, and land-based education outdoors when restrictions weren't as tough — made possible through the team putting in extra hours and reaching into their own pockets.

Assembly of Seven Generations, a youth-led nonprofit, preparing the community's fall feast during the pandemic. (Submitted by Gabrielle Fayant)

"It was mainly on our shoulders," said Fayant. "We're always forgotten and just like, working with peanuts really."

On the flip side, Fayant said she's seen some of the "most beautiful things" come out of the hardships, from local businesses and groups supporting them and lending a hand, to the creativity and community-love coming from the youth they support. 

"We're really grateful for just the local community. Without them, we wouldn't have been able to get by."

Gwen Madiba, founder of Equal Chance, which supports vulnerable members of the Black community who are low-income or homeless, said the group had to reorganize, re-plan and rethink its offerings.

"All of our programs were impacted," said Madiba, from its food security program to its headphones initiative for students studying at home. 

"The beginning was very rough. We were barely getting any donations."

Gwen Madiba, founder of Equal Chance, is in the left photo hugging two children after giving them headphones as part of the non-profit's program to help students learn online. On the right, children are seen on bikes as part of the organization's bicycle program. (Submitted by Gwen Madiba)

The organization also had a hard time receiving funding after applying, and was told at times it didn't qualify for certain programs — so the team had to come up with innovative ways to raise money, and even reached out to ministers asking for help. The staff had to work extra hours, Madiba added.

"You can't just drop them while the world was also dropping them," she said. "Sometimes we are forgotten, but we on the other end, cannot forget the people we started our organization for."

What saved its programs, however, was the solidarity of the Ottawa community, said Madiba.

The Ottawa community really showed up.- Gwen Madiba, Equal Chance

"I mean everybody. Allies, Black folks, Indigenous folks, other BIPOC people that just showed up to the office with cans of food … and that really, really helped us maintain our food program, for example." 

Now, Equal Chance is doing better. 

"The Ottawa community really showed up," she said. "It's constantly taking a village for us to stay afloat."

Before and after COVID-19. Impact Hub Ottawa was mainly an in-person, co-working space for non-profits, social entrepreneurs and small business owners. The non-profit pivoted to online gathering during the pandemic. (Submitted by Elizabeth Cleland)

For non-profits like Impact Hub Ottawa — primarily an in-person co-working space for non-profits and social entrepreneurs — COVID-19's impact was felt right away.

"Before COVID hit, we were at capacity in our physical space," said managing director Elizabeth Cleland.

Heavily dependent on revenue from its office space and people's memberships to use the space, the financial hit was substantial, Cleland explained.

Though she's grateful to have accessed wage subsidy programs among other relief, Cleland said "it's still just not enough" and challenging for a small team.

The hub was also closed down for about half the time since March 2020 due to lockdowns and public health rules, so the organization had to find ways to pivot to the virtual realm. 

Cleland said thanks to the agility of her team, the organization hosted more than 100 online events and gatherings, with more than 1,000 people during the pandemic. 

"That really enabled our members to connect," she said.