December 12, 2018

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Charities feeling the pinch

Local organizations stressed, stretched thin: report

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Eric Plamondon (left), executive director of Art Space, and Winnipeg Foundation CEO Rick Frost understand the struggle charities have with raising funds.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Eric Plamondon (left), executive director of Art Space, and Winnipeg Foundation CEO Rick Frost understand the struggle charities have with raising funds.

When it comes to charities, you can’t get much different than the Lake Winnipeg Foundation and Art Space.

One’s mandate is to help co-ordinate action to improve the health of one of the planet’s largest freshwater lakes. The other is to help with arts and culture by offering space at below market-value rates to house arts groups.

But they do have something in common and it is the same as with all charities: they are constantly struggling to raise funds to stay in operation and fulfil their mandates.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a small charity with a single employee working out of your residence or a large one that helps many people in the community, times are tough.

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When it comes to charities, you can’t get much different than the Lake Winnipeg Foundation and Art Space.

One’s mandate is to help co-ordinate action to improve the health of one of the planet’s largest freshwater lakes. The other is to help with arts and culture by offering space at below market-value rates to house arts groups.

But they do have something in common and it is the same as with all charities: they are constantly struggling to raise funds to stay in operation and fulfil their mandates.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a small charity with a single employee working out of your residence or a large one that helps many people in the community, times are tough.

Donations are hard to get, government funding has become more restricted, and there are more organizations battling to compete for every dollar.

The Winnipeg Foundation, the country’s first community foundation, has enough money in its endowment fund that it is able to do what it can to help, by making $38 million in grants to more than 900 organizations in the city last year.

But the foundation wanted to find out more about how the local charitable sector was doing, beyond the anecdotal things it was hearing in the community. So it decided to do a study and put together a report.

Called Stressed, Stretched and Still Standing, the 27-page report is intended to shine a light on the local charitable sector to see how it’s faring.

The Winnipeg Foundation put together the report after studying tax-filing data with the Canada Revenue Agency, doing an online/telephone survey of Winnipeg charitable organizations, and holding three facilitated focus-group sessions with executive directors last December.

"It’s all to figure out how does the Winnipeg Foundation set up things for the next three years," Rick Frost, the foundation’s CEO, said recently. 

"We sent surveys to 400 charities and we had 250 responses. It helped us find out what is happening out there.

"The charitable sector is important. It provides services, it provides jobs and it provides basic support. But every charity relies on donations to some extent."

Frost said each charitable organization is different in the work they do and the challenges they face, but the report came up with seven conclusions.

They are:

  • While the commitment and passion is strong, the sector as a whole is — like the title of the report says — stressed and stretched.
  • Most organizations are vulnerable to changes in government funding levels.
  • Large organizations can pay more to its employees than smaller ones.
  • It is "very challenging" for all charitable organizations to save enough money for a reserve fund.
  • The organizations, especially the smaller ones, struggle with recruitment and retention of staff as well as finding it hard to recruit qualified board members.
  • Organizations are frustrated they can’t meet the demand for services.
  • Having uncertain funding arrangements not only makes it difficult to plan, but also hurts the effectiveness of the organizations.

Alexis Kanu, executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, said fundraising "is an ongoing part of our work to secure the funding which enables us to do our work.

"It is always a present consideration."

Kanu said about three-quarters of the organization’s funding comes from grants, but the other 25 per cent necessary to stay afloat comes from private fundraising.

"We’ve been able to achieve stability by having multiple smaller funders," she said. "And every dollar counts — we are reinvesting them into the cause of protecting Lake Winnipeg.

"The problems we are tackling are large and complex."

Eric Plamondon, executive director of Art Space, said its situation is interesting because, not only do they have to raise funds to help keep the doors open of the multi-floor heritage building located at the south end of the Exchange District’s Old Market Square, but they have to hope the individual arts organizations that are located there are able to raise enough funds to afford to pay them rent, albeit at below-market-value rates.

And Plamondon said he knows for sure their situation is not unique in the arts community. Last year, Art Space was part of a project that brought together 35 different arts organizations from across the province for a year.

"What is abundantly clear is the charitable side for all arts organizations is instrumental in staying afloat... It is part of our reality."

Plamondon said organizations like his would love to be able to set aside money, either into an endowment account or a rainy-day fund, but it’s already a day-to-day struggle just to raise enough to keep the organization itself going.

The Winnipeg Foundation will use the information it compiled in the report as it puts together its 2019-2021 strategic plan that will help guide how it will distribute funding in the community. Last year, it released its report Vital Signs,which looked at the needs and trends of the community after receiving feedback from people on issue areas critical to their quality of life.

Frost said when they met with the charities and they were asked what they would do if they had three years of stable funding, a lot of them said they wanted to use the money for communication.

"They wanted more capacity to tell their story," he said.

"They also told us they wanted to take professional development courses, but there was always a $150 registration fee. We wanted to know how do we provide more capacity for the basic costs of running an organization."

Frost said the foundation realized a single year of funding for an organization helped them for a year, but for a portion of that year the organization was having to begin taking time away from their mandate to prepare grant applications or organize other fundraising efforts.

"We now provide three years of funding so a festival would get $10,000 for each of three years instead of just $10,000," he said.

"But it has implications for us. You might have to do fewer grants and say no to some people. So we have to be careful about that."

And Frost said the charities are told up front you now can’t come back to reapply in the fourth year.

"This is a distinct ‘get your act together and plan.’ This gets them a chance to develop a program and get them on their feet."

Despite the challenges in the charitable sector, Frost said, "each organization brings a unique enthusiasm and energy to its community building efforts.

"We are inspired and humbled by the important work undertaken every day by the committed charities in our city and by the generosity of the donors and volunteers who support them," he said.

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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