The pandemic has had an enormous impact on Montreal’s network of more than 600 non-profit community organizations. Community-based non-profits differ in many important ways and the impact of the pandemic varied significantly depending on the size of the organization and the type of services it provided. One of the major differentiators has been the level of preparedness of an organization. Nobody expected 2020 to unfold the way it did however some groups were better positioned for a crisis than others. It stands to reason that those who were well resourced and had robust management processes in place have managed far better than those who did not.

Community organizations provide a variety of the services we rely upon.  They can include soccer leagues, lawn bowling clubs, cultural groups and organizations that focus on the arts.  While each of these groups has had significant adjustments to make, this column will focus on how organizations that serve the vulnerable and the disadvantaged are changing as a consequence of the shifting landscape caused by covid-19.

The delivery of community services for the vulnerable is shifting dramatically

Many smaller community organizations had to temporarily suspend or greatly curtail their activities during parts of 2020.  Those that were able to continue to provide services before the availability of vaccines had to make changes that they never envisioned.  For example, community organizations typically operate in relatively small physical spaces and rely on face-to-face interactions with those they serve.  With the need for social distancing it became impossible to allow people to gather shoulder to shoulder in buildings.  The initial concerns about the potential transmissibility of the virus raised enormous operational concerns.  In some cases, outbreaks in various day centres and emergency shelters caused public health authorities to reduce capacities and impose stringent sanitary conditions.

During the course of the pandemic new services emerged in Montreal to address specific needs. These pop-up services included temporary food security operations and temporary shelters. Most were run by well established non-profit organizations using funding from the federal government and supported by the city.  However, any temporary services are unsustainable in the medium term due to cost considerations and the complexities of operating. The visibility of a number of challenges like homelessness, hunger and violence perpetrated against women has elevated the awareness level of the general public and is compelling policy makers to address them. I believe that we are going to see an important move forward at a government policy level because there is an emerging groundswell of expectation for change. The public no longer accepts the premise that we should download complex social problems to underfunded charitable groups.

The need for flexibility and innovation will be greater than ever

The challenges caused by the disruptions of the past 18 months have caused most community organizations to reinvent themselves or make major changes to their operations. One of the most obvious changes has included the need for services to be designed to limit direct human contact. Many groups struggled to find ways to serve people early in the pandemic however most have made adjustments.  Some kinds of community services like counselling, assistance with immigration and legal aid migrated to online platforms. Other services now require an appointment and most facilities have installed Plexiglas, require masks indoors, and enforce social distancing.

Funding and fundraising is also changing dramatically. Community-based non-profits that deliver services to the disadvantaged often count on government support. Some operate almost exclusively using government funding. As the crisis starts to wind down governments are beginning to limit their spending. The considerable amounts of emergency support provided in 2020-21 cannot continue. Unless there are major policy initiatives that include recurring funding, it is quite likely that the need for austerity will have consequences for many community organizations.

This leads to another important consideration. Most community organizations have financed a good percentage of their efforts by engaging directly with the public and appealing for private donations. This landscape is also changing dramatically. One of the primary fundraising methods for many community groups was to run events like golf tournaments and charity dinners. In some cases, the cost/benefit of events is suboptimal. In the medium term event-based fundraising may not be the path to the future.  Instead, many community organizations that engage in charitable work are discovering that they will need to dramatically reinvent the way that they engage with their donors and supporters.

The pandemic has demonstrated that many of the things we’ve taken for granted can change very quickly, and the ability to shift gears and adapt quickly will be increasingly essential for community-based non-profit organizations.

Sam Watts is the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission  He is also the author of Good Work…Done Better

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