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Reflecting on a year of crisis and nonprofit advocacy

Reflecting on a year of crisis and nonprofit advocacy

Volunteer at Calgary Food Bank

Photo credit: Calgary Food Bank relieves food insecurity and provides support for clients who are experiencing emergency situations. 

With more than half of Canadian adults having received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and Dr. Tam confirming we’re past the peak of the third wave, the future is beginning to look more hopeful. The period since the global pandemic was declared in March 2020 has been tumultuous and challenging in innumerable ways, and the nonprofit sector has not been spared. However, we’ve also come together to accomplish some remarkable things. In this post, we’re reflecting on nonprofit sector advocacy over the past 16 months and some of the results we’ve seen. In a follow-up, we’ll dive deep into what we can learn from Budget 2021.

Nonprofit sector policy and advocacy in the era of COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in Canada, the nonprofit sector quickly mobilized in response. From the first days of the crisis, organizations and individuals worked together to advocate for relief for charities, nonprofits and their communities. For instance: 

  • hundreds of organizations endorsed letters to the federal government asking for stabilization funding; 
  • thousands of people emailed or tweeted their MPs and Ministers;
  • dozens took the time to contribute their experiences to help inform policy development; and
  • many spoke with the media to highlight the crucial work our organizations were doing as well as the challenges we faced, bringing public and political attention to the needs of charities and nonprofits.

There have always been individuals in our sector who are deeply engaged in policy and advocacy work, and have done much to advance sector-wide policy.  However, our team has never before seen as much engagement or consensus on sector-wide policy issues as we have this past year.

In addition to these individual actions, numerous advocacy coalitions were formed by nonprofit leaders. Notable examples include the Canada Cares Coalition’s call for a donations matching program, the Help The Helpers coalition led by War Child, and a coalition of federated charities advocating for support for human services organizations. Each of these coalitions had their own proposals, but were united in the ultimate goal of securing core operating funding for charities and nonprofits. In the case of Imagine Canada, we advocated for a Sector Resilience Grant Program to provide stabilization funding during the crisis. From what we observed, the sector’s cohesion around this goal was a true strength and helped make inroads with decision makers. 

Securing relief for the nonprofit sector

When the Prime Minister first laid out the federal government’s response to the pandemic on March 11, our sector was omitted. To ensure charities and nonprofit were not forgotten, a concerted advocacy effort was waged to have charities and nonprofits access federal emergency measures.  

Nonprofit organizations were ultimately included in most of the major relief measures, including the Canada Emergency Rent and Wage Subsidies and the Canada Emergency Business Account. As a result, to date, the federal government estimates that charities and nonprofits have received between $3.1 and $3.4 billion through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy alone.

Charities and nonprofits have long fought for inclusion in government programs that arbitrarily exclude them, so these developments were not a foregone conclusion but a crucial victory that has helped sustain many organizations over the past year. 

As the crisis continued, several targeted relief measures were announced for the nonprofit sector or parts thereof, such as the Emergency Community Support Fund and targeted support for shelters, food banks, and mental health organizations. While these measures were insufficient to fill the gap in the sector’s finances, they helped many frontline organizations meet rising demand and demonstrated a recognition of the nonprofit sector’s value. 

While ultimately our sector was not able to secure the amount of stabilization funding it asked for, our collective advocacy helped secure billions of dollars in relief. 

An improved relationship with government

In addition to these concrete relief measures, we’ve seen many other signs that elected representatives are paying attention to the nonprofit sector. While prior to the pandemic, mentions of our sector in Parliament were few and far between, from March to December of 2020 there were more than 65 and there have already been more than 75 in the first 5 months of 2021. MPs are speaking about  the contributions charities and nonprofits make to communities, the challenges we face, and the size and strength of our women-majority workforce. More importantly, we’re seeing more and more MPs raising key policy issues such as the need for core funding, issues with program eligibility, and proposals to take profit out of care.

In addition to these interventions, in January, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development was given an official mandate to “Continue to work across government to ensure that charities and nonprofits have the tools that they need to modernize as they emerge from the pandemic to support the Government’s overall agenda in a manner that responds to the needs of Canadians in every region.” This was an important development, putting our sector officially on the government’s agenda and creating a temporary de facto home in government for the sector in the Department of Employment and Social Development.

A few months later, in March, the House of Commons passed an opposition motion calling on the Government to include measures to support the charitable sector in the next federal budget, with support from the four opposition parties. That Members of Parliament chose to use their time in the House of Commons to debate this issue when there are so many competing priorities and the fact that the motion passed with multi-party support are indicators that our elected officials see our sector as a priority. 

So what does this all mean?

This year has been an extremely difficult time for our sector. Many organizations are struggling and will continue to struggle for some time. However, amidst the hardships, we should take a moment to mark the fact that, over the past 16 months, the nonprofit sector has made dramatic progress in getting our issues on the government’s agenda and raising awareness about the challenges we face and the vital work that we do. Concretely, by working together, we’ve advocated for both targeted measures aimed at our organizations and inclusion in macroeconomic relief measures. This has resulted in billions of dollars flowing into the nonprofit sector at the time when we needed it most. 

We are grateful to everyone who has advocated on behalf of the nonprofit sector over the past year, and we are hopeful that many of those who got engaged this year will continue to participate in nonprofit sector advocacy going forward.

Read part two, where we reflect on what Budget 2021 means for the nonprofit and charitable sector.

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