Alberta charities trying to adapt to ‘double-edged sword’ during downturn

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WATCH: The demand on Alberta non-profits is growing but the funds to meet that need aren't always there. Emily Mertz finds out how different charities are adapting to the economic downturn – Mar 30, 2016

Alberta is in an unfamiliar – and uncomfortable – position.

Employment Insurance claims are up 91 per cent since January of 2015 and tens of thousands of people have been laid off as the struggling loonie and the low price of oil continue to squeeze Albertans. Charities are feeling the pinch too.

“What you’re really seeing is a double-edged sword effect,” the United Way‘s Mike Kluttig explained. “It’s expected that charitable organizations will be raising less money because of the downturn, yet at the same time, we’re seeing an increase in need in the community.”

He said last year was a challenging one for fundraising across the non-profit sector and he doesn’t expect this year to be any easier.

“Prior to the downturn, we had 130,000 people living in poverty in the [capital region] community – 40,000 were children,” Kluttig said. “You’re seeing an increase in that now.”

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With the number of layoffs Alberta’s seen, Kluttig says there’s more situational poverty.

“From a social service perspective, we see it very clearly, the numbers are there. Food bank use is up 60 per cent, we know that there has been a spike in distress line calls, a spike in suicide rate. More of these immediate types of supports, like housing, food security, even school supplies.”

READ MORE: Red Deer Food Bank staff see ‘heart-wrenching’ unprecedented demand 

United Way has a lot of corporate sponsors, but admits it’s already seeing some companies not being able to offer the same amount of support they have in the past.

“That also means that we have to look at new ways and reach out to the community in different ways to generate awareness and support,” Kluttig said.

“A big part of these innovative approaches is about creating awareness and breaking down barriers.”

United Way runs a two-hour poverty simulation event where participants see what four weeks in the life of a family living in poverty feels like. The online poverty simulator is called “Make It The Month.” The organization also runs a massive dodgeball tournament called U-Dodge that creates teams made up of Edmonton police, United Way staff, local companies at-youth at risk.

Overall, when it comes to fundraising, Kluttig said the United Way will focus on the basics.

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“Our approach is really to keep it simple and being able to tell the stories of what’s happening in the economy to families and letting people know – people who have means and have a desire to help – how they can get involved.”

Although fundraising revenues were down last year, volunteering was up 10 per cent. Kluttig said that’s a testament to people’s character.

“We’ve seen tough times before and we’re in a tough time now,” he said. “It’s really about banding together and rallying support to get through it.”

READ MORE: 91% spike in Alberta EI claims since 2015; economist warns of defaults 

The Salvation Army in Alberta is busy right now and could use more staff, but the funds simply aren’t there for hiring.

“We are finding that in some areas, because of the increased demand, we have to cut back on what we can offer to individuals,” Pam Goodyear said.

“For example, food hampers may be smaller.”

Goodyear said fundraising is currently on par with last year, but the demand for services has soared.

The Edmonton Humane Society is exploring more ways to use social media to solicit donations. Crowd-funding initiatives like Give2gether traditionally collect donations that are smaller in size but reach a wider audience.

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“This allows us to tell the stories of animals who’ve received life-saving care in our animal hospital,” CEO Miranda Jordan-Smith said. “Donors are able to connect with these cases and make contributions to our Sick and Injured Animal Fund.”

Plus, social media is a low-cost way to spread the word.

“We’ve adapted to the current economic condition by looking at new ways to diversify existing programs and services and to identify new potential revenue streams,” Jordan-Smith said. “We’ve also been reducing costs wherever possible.”

READ MORE: Alberta men have higher unemployment than Canadian average for first time since 1989 

Sean Wingrave realizes it’s a difficult time to be asking for donations but hopes his event stands out. It’s not your average fun run.

“The Really Long Run for MS is what is called an ultra marathon,” he explained. “Basically, I’m running from Leduc to Camrose…Two marathons back-to-back on the same day.”

Wingrave was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007. Running became part of his recuperation. He started with a few kilometres at a time and gradually built up to… two marathons.

“I never intended it to be what it became. I just thought, I’ve got to do something big for people just to go ‘holy cow, I want to get behind this!'”

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Last year, Wingrave raised $23,000. He’s not sure he’ll be able to match that this year.

“People losing their jobs and stuff and you hear about it every day. You don’t want people to feel like it’s an expectation that you should throw in $20, $50 or $100,” Wingrave said. “Raising the money is great but the awareness is also great.”

Regardless of the event or campaign, Kluttig hopes the cause itself will keep support coming in.

“The charitable sector is becoming more and more competitive every day, there’s no doubt about that. You have so many different, unique ways of raising money for so many causes and all of these causes are important. So it’s a matter of making sure you’re dialling in to supporters who care about your cause,” he said.

He believes Albertans will band together to support each other in this tough time.

“At a time like this, that’s actually why we exist,” Kluttig said. “This is the time where we’re supposed to be there for the community.”

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