Charities forced to turn away clients

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Fri Jul 16 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

The non-profit agencies that serve the poor, homeless, sick and struggling knew the darkest days would come after the recession. They predicted a year ago, when economic activity was at its nadir, that 2010 would be worse than 2009.

They were right. A survey of 311 charities and voluntary organizations conducted this spring by the Social Planning Network of Ontario showed that demand for services — everything from food assistance to suicide counselling — is still rising while donations dwindle.

“Although many have said it is over, it is clear that we have not seen the worst of the recession,” said Peter Clutterbuck, a member of the research team.

Last week’s report was the second by a province-wide coalition of social planning councils that banded together to track the impact of the recession on their clients.

The first report, entitled Hard Hit, was released in November 2009. It showed that roughly half of the province’s non-profit social agencies were unable to meet the needs of those who sought help.

The 2010 update, A Recovery-Free Zone, showed that despite working longer hours, using more volunteers and redoubling their funding efforts, 50 per cent still had to turn away clients.

But the clients were needier. In the early days of the recession, people sought help because they’d been laid off or denied benefits. By 2010, they were coming in with a snarl of problems: they couldn’t find work; they’d exhausted their employment insurance; they couldn’t pay their bills; they were being threatened with eviction and their health was deteriorating.

Through the lean times, non-profit agencies have done everything they can to insulate their clients from their financial woes. But an increasing number have had to suspend programs or close their doors. Workers are burning out, volunteers are overstretched and donors don’t see any sign of progress.

There were a couple of glimmers of hope in the 2010 report:

Some foundations are recovering from last year’s plunge in the value of their endowments. They may resume grant-making later this year or in 2011.

The Ontario government announced last April that it was launching a “long-term strategic plan” to strengthen its partnership with the non-profit sector.

But they were matched by a couple of worrisome indicators:

Government funding to non-profit agencies started to fall this year. The social planning network expects sharper declines as political leaders shift from stimulus to austerity.

Half the agencies in the survey expect to emerge from the economic downturn irreversibly damaged.

Because Toronto is such a large part of the picture, the network issued a special report on the city.

In most respects, it mirrored the provincial findings. In one key way, it differed. Toronto’s United Way has remained a pillar of strength while its counterparts in smaller communities have languished.

Thanks to the United Way’s pledge to maintain the core funding of all its member agencies, Toronto’s non-profit sector has been able to meet successive waves of adversity. “It plays a critical role in anchoring and stabilizing the community sector in our city,” said principal author Beth Wilson.

Regrettably, one thing did not change. The network made exactly the same recommendations this year as in 2009. It called for a stimulus fund to promote non-profit work; an expansion of employment insurance and a commitment not to cut the deficit on the backs of the vulnerable.

Its proposals were ignored last year. All the signs suggest they’ll encounter the same fate this year.

As a piece of social research, the recession-tracking project has lasting value. As a call to action, it lacks ideas with the power to mobilize communities and move politicians.

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