The Lesson Government Never Learns: How COVID-19 Funding is Failing to Reach the Charitable Sector and the Communities they Serve

Screen-Shot-2020-08-11-at-11.52.05-AM-1The results are in, and the survey says…government relief that is supposed to assist the nonprofit community in dealing with the overwhelming challenges of COVID-19 are failing to reach the vast majority of organizations in need.

According to the survey Risk, resilience, and rebuilding communities: The state of Ontario nonprofits three months into the pandemic jointly commissioned by the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) and the Assemblée de la Francophonie de l’Ontario (AFO):

  • 65% of nonprofits we surveyed did not benefit from any of the funding streams provided by the federal government to the sector.
  • 75% of nonprofits did not benefit from any of the funding measures announced by the province of Ontario to support the nonprofit sector during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • 67% of nonprofits did not benefit from any of the tax measures announced in the Ontario government’s COVID-19 Action Plan.

Nonprofits were nominally included in a number of business-focused responses, most important of which were the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), the Ontario-Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program (O-CECRA), and the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA).

Only 35 per cent of organizations benefited from the CEWS, only 18 per cent benefited from the CEBA, and only 4 per cent benefited from the rent relief program, O-CECRA.

Operating on the assumption that offers of assistance to nonprofits are actually supposed to lead to nonprofits receiving assistance, this is nothing short of a massive failure. Yes, nonprofits “appreciate the effort” and a minority have definitely received crucial funding for which they and their communities are grateful to government and taxpayers, but no one can look at the numbers above and declare “job well done.”

ONN has a number of recommendations which are excellent (starting on page 37) but I feel a certain level of additional bluntness is required: give nonprofits more funds, period. They are on the front lines of fighting this pandemic and we cannot afford to lose them – they are not only dealing directly with individuals who contract the virus, they are dealing with all of the collateral impact, from poverty to mental health to addictions and so much more.

Do not make nonprofits dance on the head of a pin in the application process, and do not be so excessively prescriptive about what qualifies or how the funds must be spent. The sector is simply too diverse – the size of organizations, their location, their mandate – they know what they need to serve their communities best.

The best practice for government is to give nonprofits the means to do their work, and then get the hell out of the way so they can make it happen.

It’s what nonprofits do with their own communities, day in, and day out. Trying to decide on their behalf what they need, and to then prescribe it to them in ways that makes funds inaccessible (or forces nonprofits to use funds in ways that are not optimal to their individual organizational or community needs) is a glaring inefficiency that is seldom recognized, despite the “search for efficiencies” that is a major preoccupation of government at all levels.

Perhaps it “takes a pandemic” to shake loose from the traditional funding trap of government deciding what nonprofit organizations need and prescribing it to them, and then waiting for the research that shows it really wasn’t what they needed (or that they couldn’t access it at all). This is too important a time to repeat these failures and to talk later about “what we learned” – it will be too late.

As the report says on page 39:

In order to support their communities, nonprofits need funding for stabilization and resilience to ensure their safety and sustainability as the province reopens(pending a second wave of the pandemic). Moreover, governments need to signal that there will be investments made long-term to respond to the new challenges nonprofits face presently and those which have been decades in the making. The federal and provincial levels of government have the opportunity to work in partnership with the sector to transform its funding relationship, ensuring that it is both equitable and transparent, recognizing that nonprofits are vital in supporting communities.
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