People across the world are being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and unfortunately, the e-NGO sector is no exception. The Sustainability Network along with Environmental Funders Canada took it upon themselves to conduct a flash survey to understand the upcoming needs and risks of fellow e-NGOs. They surveyed almost 250 organizations two months after the pandemic struck and focused on understanding demographics, operations, financial impact, emergency funds and emerging opportunities for the sector. Paul Bubelis is the executive director for the Sustainability Network.
A/J: The report highlights the uncertainty and difficulty e-NGOs are having with regard to qualification for government emergency funds like CEWS and CEBA. What do you think are the key changes necessary for e-NGOs to be able to access these funds more easily?
Bubelis: Those [difficulties] were actually a little bit of a surprise. The Sustainability Network communicates with thousands of people within the e-NGO community – and we ourselves accessed both those supports. It was a calculation done by our bookkeeper, so it was surprising that something like a third to 40% of people and groups may have thought they didn’t qualify, were unsure, or had not even looked into it. Looking back, showing the decrease in revenue to qualify for the subsidy was challenging for some organizations as they struggled with ‘self-screening’ due to not having staff available to make their calculations. Another issue was that other organizations had Boards of Directors that were not comfortable taking a loan (CEBA). This problem was very self-straining because even though the loans were only 3⁄4 re-payable as not everyone or every Board was comfortable taking on that sort of liability. To their credit though, the Canadian government did set up a 1-800 helpline and so I am sure that they have heard these remarks from other organizations and individuals as well.
A/J: Fundraising efforts, corporate donations, and grants are also a major part of e-NGO funding strategies. How can individuals and big funders help this sector navigate the COVID-19 crisis?
Bubelis: The key takeaway is that right now, in some ways, it is a little bit too early to tell. Unlike restaurants, e-NGOs are grant dependant, meaning that most of them are not worried just yet. They will most likely become worried around fall 2020 or early 2021 when grant season comes to an end. Individuals can help combat these challenges by providing unrestricted donations, as opposed to project donations. Unrestricted donations are significantly more useful because they are far more flexible and can be used by the organization as they see fit. Many survey respondents are asking funding for more flexibility around deliverables and timelines as well as deferrals in order to use money to pay for things that require immediate action. Lastly, respondents noted that operating grants would be very useful right now as opposed to the more traditional project-based grant.
A/J: Tell me about the opportunities within the COVID crisis?
Bubelis: We chose to finish the survey with an opportunity-framed question because most of what we were asking [organizations] to tell us about was sobering and full of uncertainty. Most respondents agree that any ‘normal’ strategy plans are probably out the window, so right now is a great time to stop, take a breath and check how your plan works within a post COVID world. The financial crisis of 2008-09 drove lots of collaboration and this time could be used for e-NGOs to reflect on partnerships, collaborations, and even mergers to benefit from economies of scale. One positive is that everyone has been cooped up for so long and really want to get outside. This provides ‘opportunity’ for those that own land trust and those who want to engage on the programming side of creating positive change within a community.
A/J: The Sustainability Network has been working with e-NGOs to strengthen this sector for a long time. What do you think will be the most significant outcomes of the COVID crisis for the e-NGO sector?
Bubelis: The outcomes needed to ensure that the e-NGO sector moves forward after COVID -19 are beyond just hunkering down and waiting for it to blow over. When there’s a crisis, it’s a time to be bold and not a time to hide. The e-NGOS must get involved in the Federal government’s response to survive throughout the medium – long term. As a community, we must make sure that it is a just recovery, e-NGOs have lots of advice and vision to offer. Lastly, this is an opportunity for many organizations to take some risks and be part of an active solution.
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Mimi Shaftoe is in her third year of Conflict studies at the University of Ottawa. She’s passionate about climate and environmental justice, and loves to read and explore new places. She is currently coordinating on A\J’s Summer Student Takeover.