As 6,000 organizations step up, hunker down or retrench, a disturbing picture of precarity has emerged, with this vital sector close to collapse.
The non-profit and voluntary sector is the vital third leg of the stool – with government and business, it holds the province of Nova Scotia up and together. The third leg of the stool is wobbly at the best of times and is at risk of collapsing under the added weight of the global pandemic. With 20,000 employees, of whom 68 percent are women, the more than 6,000 organizations in the sector in the province are working hard to respond to the devastating impacts of COVID-19.
The sector is multi-faceted and made up of organizations with missions aimed at supporting amateur sport, local theatre, community gardens, food banks, emergency shelters, immigrant services, seniors support programs, low income housing, accessible health care, legal supports, counselling services, breakfast programs, art galleries, animal shelters and cultural celebrations.
At the end of April 2020, the Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia surveyed leaders in the non-profit and voluntary sector to understand the early impacts of COVID-19. In the survey, we learned that these organizations are responding to the pandemic in three ways: stepping up, hunkering down or retrenching.
A month later, we interviewed over 30 executive directors across the province to see how they were coping. The results are extremely troubling and reveal the profound precariousness of the sector. Let me explain what is happening so you can see why I am so concerned.
On the front lines: stepping up
The one-third of the non-profit organizations that are stepping-up are on the front lines providing essential services to our most vulnerable. They are providing nursing care, meals, new immigrant settlement services, shelter, transportation and support for the disabled, unemployed, homeless, abused, disenfranchised, elderly, at risk, sick and hungry. Many have received financial and other support from government, corporations and nonprofits like the United Way. These groups are helping get the funds into the hands of these front-line “heroes.”
That said, we know that in the many weeks of exceptional effort since the pandemic started, often without the help of volunteers who are themselves sheltering at home, staff in these nonprofits are burning out and suffering compassion fatigue. They are absorbing the loneliness, uncertainty, fear, depression, sadness and helplessness of those they serve as well as experiencing it personally. “I can’t just walk away,” one leader told us. “There have been too many clients to just turn our back and walk away now, but it’s like, whoa and, seriously, I have COPD and heart failure, but I come to work every day.” Another told us, “I am working a minimum of 14-hour days, seven days a week, to try to keep up with everything.”
They are seeing first-hand the systemic inequalities of marginalized communities manifested in ways that cannot be ignored. Perhaps the most compelling is the failure of support structures for vulnerable seniors in nursing homes and the disabled who are living alone at home with no assistance or outside contact. As one person working in a women’s shelter explained, “There are some supports put in place in the short term while the state of emergency is in place. But this is the calm before the storm for us. We’re going to need more staff and more support, and we may or may not have enough, you know, extra funds to sustain that new demand (that comes later), and we are already turning women away.”
Working at home: hunkering down
Another one-third of non-profit organizations are hunkering down. Their staff are often working at home and pivoting to new ways of operating. They are continuing as best they can with the resources available to them. We learned that many have about two months of financial reserves and they have leaned into their best frugal practices to stretch their resources. Many organizations have laid off staff, and everyone left is doing more work to compensate. While managing with children at home, many say they start their days at dawn and work late into the night on rotating shifts with their working partners to do it all. As one person said, “I feel like I am swimming through molasses,” and “everything is taking longer and is more complicated than it would normally be.”
The organizations’ rent, heat and other operating expenses must continue to be paid, and many say they do not have sufficient funds. The government programs can be accessed by some, but many are confused by changing rules, and not all of the many programs from both the federal and provincial governments apply to non-profit organizations. They do not want to take loans, and grants are limited.
These leaders and staff are scared, overwhelmed and exhausted. As one executive director declared, “I am tired, I am tired, I am tired,” and another pleaded not to be asked to “be creative” again. Their reserves, both organizational/financial and of personal energy, are close to being depleted, and they are running on empty. Many are responding with innovative new programs such as the library that is doing “take-out” for books and the circus that is offering limited programs virtually. Some are looking at new partnership opportunities, but they are stretched so thin that innovation is a challenge.
Many are in rural communities dealing with the aftermath of the April massacre, in which a man killed 22 people. When they would normally be bringing community together for support and collective action, they have been forced to isolate, and grief becomes solitary with powerful emotions arriving in waves. The digital divide may never have been as apparent. As one executive director told us, “I haven’t had internet at home for three days, so I only have access to email when I drive to the parking lot of the library and am sending or downloading the emails for the day. I’ve been doing Zoom calls but can only handle sitting in my vehicle for a few hours at a time.”
Waiting and hoping: retrenching
Those nonprofits that are retrenching include arts and culture organizations, summer camps and recreation programs, sports groups and bridge clubs. With no revenues from programs, ticket sales, fundraisers or memberships, they are starving and facing an uncertain future. Some have been paid for programs and now cannot offer them and do not have the funds to reimburse the people who paid for them. Some are facing decisions about closing permanently.
The uncertainty about the possibility of starting up again this year or next is creating feelings of despair. Some of these organizations are operating only thanks to the kindness of their staff, working regardless of pay. This is a particularly troubling time for organizations that are newly formed and ramping up and are now faced with permanent loss of staff, momentum, and incomes that will not cover their fixed expenses. We have heard that they can push away the profound anxiety and depression only so long before it overwhelms them. As one person said, “Well, mainly, 70 percent of our revenue is ticket sales, and 85 percent of the people who walk through our doors are from-away tourists. So, basically, it hasn’t hit us yet because we’re not open, but we are not going to generate the revenue that keeps our doors open this year, so I’m in a panic mode.”
A critical contributor to Nova Scotia’s economy
Nova Scotia’s non-profit sector contributes $1 billion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the economy annually, a recent economic impact study by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council revealed. It is far from being a drain on the economy. The sector is similar in size to the transportation or financial services industries. Wages are low: 16 percent below those of nonprofits nationally and 20 percent below the average for all industries in Nova Scotia.
In 2018, the province had one of the highest levels of volunteerism in the country, with 74 million hours contributed. The impact study estimates that the economic value of volunteer hours was approximately $1.5 billion in 2018. It is also estimates that the volunteer hours translate into 30,000 full-time equivalent jobs supporting the work of the sector. Combined we are talking about the impact of COVID-19 on the equivalent of 50,000 Nova Scotians. We do not know if volunteering will ever recover post-COVID-19, with so many of the volunteers being seniors who cannot risk re-engaging with society, except virtually, until there is a vaccine.
The business case for supporting the sector is convincing, and there are many multiplier effects from investments in the sector. However, the looming social deficit we are facing with the profound fragility and depletion of the non-profit and voluntary sector in Nova Scotia is an even more compelling argument for supporting the sector. Imagine the province if the sector cannot bounce back. We risk collapse of the third leg of the stool, and if that happens the other two legs will not be able to hold us up.
Imagine Canada is advocating to the federal Department of Finance to provide a Sector Resilience Grant Program, and I call on Andy Fillmore, the member of Parliament for Halifax and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, to support this call. Too much is at stake if we fail to support the non-profit and voluntary sector so it can innovate, pivot and help create a new more equitable and inclusive Canada. Longer term, the sector, government and business need to partner to create a boldly different and transformed normal. Working with new, collaborative approaches, we can ensure the stool is braced, strongly connected and perhaps even redesigned so our society is more robust healthier, sustainable and caring.
This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.