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COVID-19 Challenge, Change and Innovation in Canadian Civil Society

Executive Summary

This study set out to examine the implications of COVID-19 on the civil society sector and determine the lessons learned to date, how a sample of the sector have responded, and seek input on what actions might need to be considered by government to best position CSOs for the future. 

The research is qualitative with a total 16 organizations surveyed through hour-long, structured interviews, generally with the Executive Director (or equivalent). The sample focused on those CSOs serving vulnerable groups, which for our purposes include: Persons With Disabilities (PWDs); women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ); Indigenous people; youth; and seniors. 

The impact of COVID 19 on those surveyed is significant and organizations were forced to make substantive changes to their ways of doing business. 

The ability to move services/programming to an on-line environment was important to success. Those that were more successful had existing on-line activities, fewer capacity constraints in resourcing and easier businesses to transform. 

Those organizations that relied on fundraising as a significant share of their total revenue have faced particular challenges. Traditional models (e.g. breakfast fundraisers), have all but disappeared and on-line/virtual models have been challenging for most, as they seek new ways to raise money. 

Federal government programs have been important but much more important to some than to others. The most widely used program has been the wage subsidy (CEWS). 

Partnerships and collaborations have been important but most indicated that they have deepened relationships rather than forged new ones. Of significance has been the sharing of information with “sister/in sub-sector” organizations as challenges were confronted and lessons learned and shared. 

Organizations surveyed are generally optimistic about the future and confident they can meet their medium-term priorities. 

That’s said, respondents indicated underlying concerns about the sector and its sustainability once COVID specific funding ends. This is compounded by a sense that some vulnerable populations’ needs are not being met as the sectors’ responses to COVID, while heroic, are not fully meeting all those in need. 

COVID has necessitated change and many of these changes should be encouraged. Historically, the Not-for-Profit /charitable sector has been slower to innovate and adapt to technological change than the private sector1. 

Our main recommendation is to develop a strategy that supports the long-term sustainability of the sector.