Barb Fraser, Judy Paul, Marla Force, Pat Bradley and Fay Martin walk the 10K Highland Yard ‘race’ which went virtual this year, via the Rail Trail. /Submitted

Non-profits pivot to take on pandemic challenges

By Amanda Duncombe-Lee

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit non-profit organizations in Ontario hard, with many agencies facing barriers to fundraising, decreased donations and human resource challenges at a time when the need for their services have never been greater. The results of a survey by the Ontario Non-profit Network published in August reported that one in five non-profits may need to close by December. This two-part profile examines how five local non-profit organizations have fared since everything changed and how the community can provide much-needed support.

Places for People
Fay Martin, vice president and chair of the property development committee at Places for People, said the non-profit charitable organization has drawn on a culture of courage to meet pandemic challenges. “When we started there had been no affordable housing here for 30 years – we did it, again and again and again. Our history of just being crazy brave has stood us in good stead…we’ve always had a philosophy to make this work.”

The charity’s mission is to create affordable rental housing in the county and since 2007 has acquired five properties with a total of seven units. Martin said the agency is currently shifting its focus “to meeting the more crucial identified need – the one- to two-person households, which doesn’t go very well against the existing housing stock.” They are currently looking for property in Minden or Haliburton to build a multiplex unit for one- to two-person families. In addition to the existing challenges of zoning and wastewater management requirements, the COVID-19 crisis has brought escalating real estate prices and limited inventory as rural living becomes increasingly desirable.

“We are competing with people with deep pockets who are interested in housing perhaps not as a necessity of life but as a way to improve their wealth,” said Martin. “Everyone wants a little piece of green heaven … the need for affordable housing is greater than ever and harder than ever.”
Although uncertainty exists, there have been surprises too: Highland Yard, their primary fundraiser, has made more money this year in a virtual format than in any previous year. Though only a small number of people registered, expenses were decreased and pledges were larger. “That was a very pleasant surprise,” said Martin.

There are currently several volunteer opportunities available for those who want to make housing happen, including opportunities in marketing, finance, engineering, and DIY construction. Direct donations are also welcome, with 95 per cent of donations going to new housing.

“Eventually there will be an opportunity to invest through community bonds where you can invest in our community at a reasonable rate … and feel good about making your community a better place to live for people who need affordable housing,” said Martin.

Martin said although the pandemic has posed challenges to the agency in finding their next property, they have confidence that they will be able to achieve their strategic vision of 40 housing units in the next 10 years. “I think we are the epitome of rural communities … which is just roll up our sleeves and make it happen – that’s what we’ve done and what we continue to do and I hope we stand as a model for anyone else who wants to do the same thing. I’m really proud of Places for People because I think it continues to do that.”

SIRCH Community Services
SIRCH executive director Gena Robertson said that when Ontario started shutting down in March, the non-profit charitable organization initially had to close both thrift stores, and most programs went on hold except for their free Community Kitchen prepared meals.

The agency worked quickly to adapt its services to increased community need, utilizing a grant to put freezers in residential units and organizations where people had difficulty accessing food. The number of takeout meals distributed increased drastically from about 300 meals per month to 500 per week, eventually scaling back due to sustainability challenges.
With the Repair Cafes cancelled, they shifted to the Caring Connection project, where community members could donate used electronic devices to individuals and families.

SIRCH also took on the City of Kawartha Lakes’ Community Action Program for Children and Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program (CAPC/CPNP) services as of April 1. “It’s difficult to do when all clients are at home, and we don’t know the community as well,” said Robertson.

Robertson felt they were uniquely poised to adapt their services to the changes. “I think everyone is willing to pivot quickly and look for ways to do things and do them better. Partly because it’s our mandate and it’s what we do … we pivot pretty regularly.”

Although they adapted quickly, the agency still had to lay off staff, discontinue face-to-face connections, make significant changes to the School’s Cool program and support clients virtually or by porch drop offs. It has also become more difficult to hire qualified staff for certain positions.

SIRCH is also trying to grow its social enterprises and were awarded with an Ontario Trillium Foundation Grow Grant to create sustainable employment last spring. They renovated the old Shopper’s Drug Mart space into a training centre/commercial kitchen with practice bistro marketplace.

“We’re happy to have lots of partnerships with artists and entrepreneurs in the community who could showcase here, and that way our clients in retail and the bistro will get practice,” said Robertson.

A SIRCH volunteer packs frozen meals to go to another organization. Community Kitchen was one of the only programs SIRCH was able to continue when the pandemic first hit. Today, its programs have started up again including a new bistro and marketplace in Haliburton./Submitted

SIRCH’s programs have started up again with COVID-19 protocols in place, and Lunch is On Us has just resumed in the new space. In November, SIRCH will be starting the Gifts from the Heart Campaign where people can donate online, by phone or by mail. Volunteer opportunities are also available.

“I think the thing that people don’t know is that our only program that has stable government funding is CAPC/CPNP,” said Robertson. “Everything else depends on grants, social enterprise, or fundraising. People automatically assume that if you are a non-profit you get government funding, and that’s just not the case. We do the work we do through dozens and dozens of partnerships and the generosity of grantors and donors whether they’re donating stuff, or money to our cause – that’s what lets us do what we do.”

Community Living Trent Highlands
Community Living Trent Highlands is a charitable non-profit organization that provides a range of services to people living with a developmental disability and their families in the City of Kawartha Lakes, Haliburton County, and Peterborough and area. Executive director Teresa Jordan said there have been significant changes to the structure of its services since March. “Our primary mandate of being connected in the community and living life to the fullest has been completely flipped on its head,” said Jordan.

For the first time in its history, the charity’s services were relegated to the group living home. Their community participation programs were put on hold and staff were re-deployed to residential settings.

“It’s been a real blow to families living with a child or adult child with a developmental disability because they are used to our agency and other private workers connecting with their family and helping them have meaningful days with their loved ones. We have certainly not been able to do that except by phone or we have offered a few virtual opportunities for recreation and connection. It’s been a stark shift from how we usually define ourselves.”

Jordan said she was pleased to see how quickly staff pivoted to develop new virtual programming such as crafts, scavenger hunts, and virtual bingo, laughing yoga and concerts.

The development of a new app called Respite Now has been instrumental in connecting people and families to respite care providers in the four counties. “People are signing up and making good connections that have really made a difference, when we’re not really able to reach out, the same way,” said Jordan.

Community Living receives funding from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, but as a charitable organization, it relies heavily on a few community groups that usually run annual fundraisers. There has been a decrease in these events and in direct donations.

The agency is now working to start re-opening some of its community participation programs. Volunteer opportunities are available, and the office on Victoria Street in Haliburton welcomes cloth mask donations from the public.

Jordan noted that people can support each other directly by keeping connected, and that during times when marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable, we must remember to hold space for understanding lived experience. “If enough people do that, then slowly the thinking of our community changes just that little bit to say, everyone really does belong, and everyone has something to contribute.”