The Go Green Youth Centre typically runs after-school and weekend programs by and for young people living in densely populated highrise apartments in Toronto’s east end.

Already reeling from cuts by the Progressive Conservative provincial government to funding for youth programs, the charity is now also going without the fees it usually collects from groups that pay to use its field to play cricket in the evenings.

Its full-day summer camp may not go ahead due to safety and social distancing concerns, and Go Green is scrambling to come up with alternative activities it can deliver virtually to help entertain the roughly 500 children it normally serves.

“I’d love to be able to pay for watercolour pencils and a few paint brushes and maybe a couple of canvases, a sketch pad,” said Lisa Grogan-Green, Go Green’s co-chair. “But we need a budget for that, we don’t have the money for that.”

Young clients and staff at Go Green Youth Centre's summer camp in 2019. Photos by Loukas Theodoropoulos

Go Green is just one of hundreds of charitable organizations across Canada struggling to keep its programming going as the lockdown hampers both their ability to deliver services and to fundraise.

Imagine Canada, an advocacy group that represents some 170,000 charities, says COVID-19 and the resulting societal restrictions have so far hurt them much more than the Great Recession of the late 2000s did.

More than two-thirds of the almost 1,500 charities they surveyed in mid-to-late April said their revenue had fallen since the pandemic hit, with an average reduction in incoming funds of 31 per cent.

That compares to fewer than one-third reporting less revenue during the 2008/09 economic downturn and average declines below one per cent.

'More work to be done'

Imagine Canada wants some $10 billion in federal funding for Canada’s charities and non-profits to get through the pandemic intact.

Charities that serve children and young people are working hard to adapt their programming amid the lockdown while also dealing with reduced revenue. They're looking to Ottawa for help.

It calculates Ottawa has so far delivered roughly $3 billion of that via its wage subsidy program and another $1 billion via interventions helping charities working on mental health and food security or running women’s shelters, among other urgent priorities.

“We’re still working to try to get a grant program to help those organizations that still have costs beyond staff that, given the complete collapse of the revenue base, are problematic and don’t necessarily fall into those targeted areas,” said Bruce MacDonald, Imagine Canada’s chief executive.

“There’s still work to be done.”

One such organization with a high degree of fixed costs is the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada, which manages some 700 locations of various sizes on a $200 million annual budget.

While it has seen many of its corporate backers switch to providing funding to help them deliver food aid or virtual programming, its executive director is worried that it may not last.

“What we’re concerned about when it comes to charitable giving is longer-term support to ensure clubs can open their doors again,” Owen Charters said. “It’s definitely not as sexy to fund the things that clubs still have costs for like insurance and overhead costs, maintenance, mortgage or rent payments.”

The organization usually gets about a quarter of its funds from fundraising events such as golf tournaments and galas, many of which have been postponed or cancelled.

“If you’re an organization that lost $500,000 on a gala in April, that’s destroyed revenue that’s not coming back, it might not be until the fall that you can start fundraising again,” Imagine Canada’s MacDonald said.

Another quarter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada’s funding comes from summer programs for which it can charge fees.

“If our clubs can’t open up in the summer that’s a big loss of revenue that’s going to hit them from September onwards,” Charters said.

Demand has meanwhile been growing, with Charters noting that the executive director of one club in east Scarborough had recently told him requests for food aid have grown by 50 per cent each week since the lockdowns began.

Charters noted that charities, unlike businesses that can start generating revenue as soon as they are able to start operating again, often have more lumpy sources of financial support.

“The problem for charities is that demand goes up when times are tough, more needs are placed on a charity, more clients show up at the door, and supply goes down in terms of donors’ capacity to support that increased demand,” he said.

Imagine Canada’s MacDonald warned that without more support, many charities that have already cut staff or reduced their working hours may not be able to pick back up again.

“We are fully expecting that as minimal cash reserves run out and the wage subsidy ends, that it is likely that more organizations will shut down,” he said.

Alastair Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer