The Alex Community Food Centre has seen increasing community need during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, The Alex put on several fundraisers — both in-person and virtually — to help the people of Calgary. PHOTO: THE ALEX

Alberta’s economy has been brought to its knees. Already rocked by the province’s seemingly endless struggles with a volatile oil and gas sector, it took little for the COVID-19 pandemic to push it over. With one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, a ballooning provincial deficit, shuttered businesses and vacant offices, Alberta seems to be at risk of losing its advantage.

It’s in this challenging environment that more Albertans have turned to non-profits in their communities for critical assistance. From putting food on tables to providing affordable housing options, Alberta’s non-profit sector has risen to the challenge — but will it be able to continue doing so as the holidays approach? This question remains top of mind for many organizations, particularly those in the social services sector.

In any economic downturn, it’s often non-profits that provide direct and immediate support to those most in need, who also see the biggest increase in need. The Calgary Homeless Foundation has seen this firsthand. 

“These are hard times. Even with the general population, anxiety, mental health struggles, substance abuse and addiction is up. When you work with people who are more vulnerable, this is even more pronounced,” said the foundation’s President and CEO, Patricia Jones.

“Of course, people who were vulnerable before the pandemic will continue to be vulnerable,” Jones continued. “But people who are now at the edge of homelessness after losing their jobs are in an incredibly stressful position. The partners we directly work with have certainly seen an increase in community need.”

Homelessness and the pandemic

One of the foundation’s key community partners is The Alex. The two work closely together, along with Alberta Health Services, CUPS Calgary, HomeSpace and the Government of Alberta, to run Calgary’s Assisted Self-Isolation Site (ASIS). ASIS provides isolation spaces for homeless Calgarians who have experienced symptoms of COVID-19 or been diagnosed with the virus. 

For The Alex, which provides access to health care, housing and community support for vulnerable and at-risk Calgarians, the increased community need has been staggering. 

“We have certainly seen a higher volume of calls and inquiries, as well as an increase of new people accessing our services since the pandemic began,” explained Tori Wright, director of community engagement and development for The Alex. 

“If anything, COVID has taught us that any one of us can be vulnerable. Whether it be through the loss of a job or loved one, increased anxiety, addiction, trauma, it can be any of us.”

At The Alex, plans are being put in motion for a busy holiday season as the long-term impacts of the pandemic and struggling economy are felt throughout the province. 

“We expect to see even more people reaching out to us this winter, as we already see increasing distress, severity and complexity of issues among members of our community that we are already serving directly,” Wright said.

Meeting this increased need is difficult because the non-profit sector’s traditional funding sources are in jeopardy.That funding usually comes from three major sources: donations, revenue earned and government funds.

However, donations from individual Albertans have been dwindling for years as unemployment rates rise, according to Statistics Canada. The ability for non-profits to generate revenue from sales and fees, as well as fundraising, has been threatened by reduced funding. Government funding is also at risk due to Alberta’s $24.2 billion deficit, which the province is adamant about reducing through funding cuts. 

Calgary non-profits face a grim winter ahead, as the COVID-19 pandemic and Alberta’s economic downturn show few signs of letting up. PHOTO: SHUTTERSHOCK

Non-profits that are part of the provincial government’s response to the ongoing pandemic, such as The Alex, have secured more funding than others. However, these organizations will still be directly impacted by cuts in other areas. 

“Currently, our core government funding is considered stable through to next year,” Wright explained. “But we are keeping a close eye on how changes happening now can impact the people we are serving, and how this will in turn impact us. Specifically, we are certainly keeping a close eye on the changes we’re seeing in health care.”

This presents a unique challenge for non-profits. Even if government funding remains stable, cuts to health care and decreased assistance for low-income Albertans have placed additional strain upon an already overwhelmed system.

Remote and virtual fundraising

The Alberta Nonprofit Network (ABNN) — which represents many of those non-profits — warns that impacts to funding have left organizations with limited options and time. 

“We can’t keep up with increased demand and decreased funding long-term. In the coming months, many organizations will need to start dipping into their reserves and this is not a sector that has deep pockets to draw from,” said Mike Grogan, network steward of the ABNN. 

“Likely about a third of organizations don’t even have reserves to begin with.”

Without the ability to adapt to alternate funding sources or rely on cash reserves, non-profits have been forced to get creative. Although fundraisers and galas have largely been cancelled due to the inability to gather in large groups, organizations are using technology to engage with stakeholders and make donation pitches.

For The Alex, one of their signature fundraisers helps pay to operate their Youth Health Bus. The bus travels to different Calgary Board of Education high schools offering free and confidential care to teens. 

This year, the fundraiser will be going virtual. Instead of an intimate wine and cheese networking night, families are encouraged to join an inclusive Zoom call for an evening of fun and fundraising. 

“There is no doubt that our fundraising, particularly at the individual level, has been impacted. We want to use larger-scale digital events to fundraise in the hopes of raising both awareness and funds,” Wright said.

While virtual fundraisers and events are an innovative idea, Grogan cautions they will not be the singular solution to problems in the sector. 

“Virtual fundraisers and galas really show the creativity and resilience of non-profits but they are not to scale. Costs are significantly lower, but you just don’t have the same ability to fundraise. It’s also hard to hold people’s attention and encourage that same level of engagement, as we see dozens of these virtual events happening monthly this winter.”

This leaves organizations having to find other creative opportunities to help address their funding gap.

“If anything, COVID has taught us that any one of us can be vulnerable. Whether it be through the loss of a job or loved one, increased anxiety, addiction, trauma, it can be any of us.”

tori wright, the alex

A surprisingly popular revenue source for The Alex this year has been Skip The Depot, a home bottle and can pickup service. Users can sign up to have their bottle credits donated directly to the charity of their choice. The Alex received more donors through this service in the first few months of the pandemic than all of 2019. 

“While this is a relatively small portion of fundraising dollars for us, it was heartening to see people adopt the program while they were presumably generating more bottles and staying at home,” Wright said.

It is small displays of generosity like this that could help provide much needed relief and support to Alberta-based non-profits struggling to make ends meet as their funding dries up.

“The initial response and reaction is over and we did see some extreme generosity. But now is about keeping an eye out, as the next six months are critical to determine what will happen in the fundraising landscape for us,” said Wright.

COVID-19: No end in sight

The ABNN will also be keeping a close eye on the non-profit sector in the coming months as they track what they now see as not a temporary setback, but a long-term trend.

In their June survey, titled ‘From Response to Recovery,’ the ABNN gathered results from 200 non-profit organizations and registered charities across Alberta to help understand the most prevalent challenges across this overwhelmed and underfunded sector.  

Respondents listed their most pressing issues and concerns as increased demands for services, decreased ability to fundraise or earn revenue and the inability to access funding. The ABNN cautions that these issues will only increase in severity throughout the winter.

“How long we can continue offering increasing services without increased funding is the question a lot of us are asking,” said Grogan. 

Alberta non-profits listed some of their most pressing concerns in an Alberta Nonprofit Network survey from earlier this year. GRAPHIC: MACKENZIE HERMANN

Citing a bilingual survey conducted in June by the Ontario Nonprofit Network and L’Assemblée de la Francophonie de l’Ontario, Grogan did not mince words when asked what Alberta’s non-profit landscape will look like by next spring. 

“In Ontario, one in five non-profits are considering closure before the end of this year. I don’t think this will be any different in Alberta. There could potentially be thousands of non-profits who won’t make it through the winter.”

With the holiday season quickly approaching, a glimmer of hope remains for some organizations. The spirit of giving may present an opportunity to help fill the funding gap before the new year.

“A significant portion of donations are traditionally made in December, in response to direct appeals from organizations,” Grogan said. “We just have to wait and see how these appeals can be ramped up and if supporters will have the resources to offer the same level of support they traditionally do around the holidays.”

As many Albertans face the financial toll of the pandemic, holiday donations are likely to be lower than expected. Without the ability for organizations to access additional funding to help address rapidly increasing needs, many vulnerable Albertans are at risk of being turned away from struggling organizations this winter. 

“People need to recognize that this is a sector under incredible stress,” Grogan said. “Many of these services and needs will go unmet. It’s highly unlikely that other non-profits and organizations can pick up the slack, as they are struggling as is.”

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