Canadian Charities Were in Trouble Long Before COVID-19

No one was prepared for a pandemic, but charities weren’t set up for any crisis, of any magnitude — here’s why

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

To say I’ve lost count would be disingenuous— I never started counting. I knew after the first wave that the flood gates had opened. I suppose I could ballpark hundreds; hundreds of friends who have lost their jobs in the charitable sector amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. They are a portion of losses felt across the country in every industry yet, they are unique. They are unique partially because of the work they did — work that is needed now more than ever. And partially because many may still have jobs — if they didn’t work for a charity. No one was prepared for a pandemic, but charities weren’t set up for any crisis, of any magnitude — here’s why.

On March 26th, Imagine Canada published COVID-19 threatens to devastate Canada’s charities — a call to action for additional government stimulus to ensure the survival of charities and non-profits throughout the pandemic. The release highlights that without additional stimulus, over the next six months the sector risks losing up to 15.6 billion dollars and up to 194,000 employees — most of whom are women. They are not wrong, many charities will and have begun shutting their doors. Most of my friends who have lost their jobs are women. This is objectively bad but it is not because of COVID-19. Charities are at greater risk during this pandemic, in comparison to their for-profit counterparts, for two reasons: limited revenue sources and short-term planning.

Risk: Limited Revenue Sources

Unlike the for-profit sector that relies on markets and consumer demand for their products and services, most Canadian charities rely largely on two sources — government funding and donations. A 2015 report from Blumberg’s outlined that of the $251 billion of revenue generated by Canadian charities, $168.5 billion (67%) came from government sources. While government funding, donations, and markets all face ebbs and flows; only markets and consumer demand maintain a consistent presence under pressure. People and organizations will always buy, sell, and trade things (Economics 101). This is why amid a global pandemic clothing, electronics, and even cars are still being sold and purchased — albeit at less volume.

Counter to market forces, government priorities and donor interests are inconsistent. With every election, charities that rely primarily on government funding risk ceasing operations entirely because of shifts in policy or ideology. Similarly, the interests of major donors (foundations and high-net-worth individuals) are easily swayed.

During pandemics or global crises most major donors redirect their giving to the areas they perceive as the most in need. Major donors redirected their giving in 2004 following the tsunami in Indonesia, in 2010 following the earthquake in Haiti and today during COVID-19. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the second-largest foundation in the world, has allocated 250 million dollars (CAD 351M) and the full force of their efforts, almost exclusively to finding a vaccine and treatments for COVID-19. While humanitarian aid, emergency services, and healthcare organizations will experience a vast influx of support from major donors during this pandemic, most charities will experience insurmountable loss.

In the absence of major donors, charities that are reliant on small donations are equally at risk. While large donors are likely to redirect their giving, small donors (primarily middle-class individuals)— who otherwise might give — are unlikely to have the capacity to do so. With one-in-five Canadians reporting difficulty meeting financial obligations in April, that is 20% of potential donors who have significantly reduced giving capacity due to COVID-19.

Mitigation: Diverse Revenue Streams

Markets are risky, but not as risky as putting all of your eggs in one basket. Canadian charities should loosen their dependence on government funding and major donors in favour of diverse revenue streams.

Having diverse revenue streams is vital for sustainability. This is true not only for charities but, for businesses as well. The restaurant industry is a clear example. With most dine-in spaces closed, restaurants that also offer delivery service have a chance of survival post-COVID-19. However, restaurants that only offer dine-in service risk never reopening. Charities that are dependant on government funds or major donors are in the same boat as dine-in only restaurants.

While the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) has strict limitations on the financial activities of charities, there are several approaches charities can consider to diversify their revenue.

Related Businesses

Canadian charities can own and operate related businesses to generate revenue, so long as the business is run “substantially by volunteers” or “linked to a charity’s purpose and subordinate to that purpose”— I know, word jargon. The CRA provides clearer guidance on what that means. Essentially, the related business can’t take up more time, effort, and resources than the charity’s purpose. The simplest example of this is a hospital parking lot.

A hospital can generate thousands of dollars a year by charging for parking. A parking lot at a hospital is a logical service — it provides space for the vehicles of visitors and people seeking non-emergency care. Therefore, a parking lot is linked, but subordinate to, a hospital’s purpose.

A Separate Legal Entity (Social Enterprise)

Running a parking lot is not practical for most charities and other services may not easily link to a charity’s purpose; this is where the social enterprise model can be effective.

Under the social enterprise model, a charity can create a separate legal entity — a corporation. By building a commitment into the corporation’s articles to donate all, or most of, its profits to its charitable counterpart, there is effectively no cap on the additional revenue charities can generate. Corporations do not have the same revenue generation limitations as charities, so how they make money (as long as it’s legal) is fair game — no need to link to a charity’s purpose.

While the social enterprise model can be lucrative, it is difficult to establish. A charity must have the capacity to set up and operate a completely separate entity. A corporation requires separate executives, separate directors, separate employees, even a separate building. Establishing a social enterprise requires legal and business acumen, financial capacity, stringent planning, and time. Still, it is the most flexible revenue diversification approach available to charities.

Risk: Short-Term Planning

Jim Collins and Morten Hansen’s book Great By Choice details, through 20 years of research, the methods that help establish great organizations — it’s the opposite of what you might think. Great organizations don’t find success by being innovative, taking risks, or challenging the status quo. Rather, they are successful because they prepare for the unexpected, focus on stability, practice fiscal restraint, and maintain an unwavering commitment to the quality — not the quantity — of their products or services. While describing these methods is straightforward, applying them to charities can be difficult.

For many charities, implementing the methods outlined by Collins and Morten would require reducing service capacity and limiting programs in the short-term, to ensure stability in the long-term. This is easier said than done. Reducing the service capacity of groups like shelters and food banks has a tangible human impact; turning away people in need is not something charities do often.

Instead, charities often choose to do as much as they can in the moment. This sort of short-term planning is common in the sector but, it also puts the stability of the sector at risk. While immediate support is critical, charities must consider the impact of their work on a cumulative basis — how much they can do in the long-term. Balancing these competing priorities can be challenging and shifting from short to long-term planning also requires a shift in fiscal strategy. One method charities can use to maintain close to current service capacity and ensure long-term stability is building fiscal reserves.

Mitigation: Building Fiscal Reserves

“Most charities in this country do not have reserves, and if they do they’re not very deep.” — Bruce MacDonald, president and CEO of Imagine Canada

Fiscal reserves are the equivalent of saving for a rainy day, we all should do it but very few do. Guidance from the CRA indicates that charities are permitted to maintain “justified reserves” to meet immediate needs and specifically to protect against situations of economic downturn. An independent assessment by Grant Thornton suggests that for most charities “justified reserves” range from six months to two years of a charity’s operating expenses. While six months of operating expenses may not seem like a lot, it’s the difference between the YMCA Canada laying off 75% of its workforce — two weeks into the pandemic hitting Canada — and other charities holding out until the Federal Government provided additional support.

Charities can get creative with establishing reserves. While money is the easiest reserve to maintain and access, reserves can be assets (property, land, etc.). Charities who own assets or receive them as donations can choose to hold on to them as a contingency — selling them only when necessary.

While all Canadian charities should seek to establish fiscal reserves it is worth re-emphasizing that, as with related business activities, the CRA does have restrictions on them. Further, fiscal reserves are reflected in a charity’s financial statements, which may deter donors from giving — if they think you already have enough money. Charities looking to build fiscal reserves should have a reserve fund policy — to articulate to both donors and the CRA how the reserve is being managed and why it is critical to maintain.

It’s Business

Ultimately, the best protection charities have against pandemics like COVID-19 is to not operate as charities. This may be a sad realization, or an affront, to those who perceive charities as purely altruistic — a stark contrast to capitalism. But, charities are capitalist by nature. They, like all businesses, court customers (donors) and sell products and services (the feeling of helping others).

Charities shouldn’t be penalized for operating businesses (I’ll gladly pay for parking at the hospital). And, they shouldn't lose support today because they are saving for tomorrow (there’s no such thing as a charity having too much money). The sooner we give charities the same leeway we give for-profit businesses, we give them the space to do what they do best — help those who need it most — during a pandemic and every other day.

Strategist | Facilitator | Fundraiser. I write about people, culture and organizations.

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