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This time of year, charities across Atlantic Canada are more visible than any other time. They’re organizing drives for Christmas gifts for people who are struggling to make ends meet. They’re finding warm winter clothes for those most vulnerable to the elements, and they’re finding space to help give shelter to people who don’t have a stable home of their own.
We all feel compelled to give more in December. We go shopping for our families and drop an extra bag of groceries in the food bank box at the grocery store. We bake goodies for our friends, and make extras to deliver to the local soup kitchen. We pick up extra toiletries to drop off to the shelter, so they have brand new items to give to their clients. We see volunteers manning the Salvation Army kettles and drop in our change.
The holiday season is all about giving, and Atlantic Canadians are very generous. We’re really good about making sure our community charities have the necessities at this time of year, the kind of things that are essential to surviving a wet, cold winter in this part of the country. These items are so desperately needed, and giving them to an organization we know will make great use of them feels so good.
Charities are grateful for these donations and contributions. They know people are giving from their heart, and without these gifts, they’d have to dip into already limited funds. Charities often struggle to pay attention to all of their needs. Their leaders are skilled, often filling the roles of executive director, human resources, fundraiser and spokesperson. Their staff dole out endless amounts of passion and understanding, spend their time navigating complicated systems, actively listening to their clients and celebrating their successes. It takes so much time and energy.
But that time and energy is so very valuable. Non-profit staff work to find creative ways to stretch their dollars and time to impact people more deeply. A drop-in coffee house at a community centre doesn’t just help by offering a snack and beverage – it connects people to each other and resources to meet their needs. It builds supportive relationships, leading to a sense of belonging. A therapeutic art class isn’t just giving someone the chance to paint a picture – it’s giving them the opportunity to socialize with others, contribute their talent and build confidence. A lunch club for seniors isn’t just providing someone with a meal – it’s helping them avoid isolation, feel valuable, and live independently for longer. It is difficult to put a price tag on the kinds of services charities provide. While we can easily see the value of a meal, the spinoff benefits are likely worth much more.
When we give in December, it helps charities get over the next hump. But charities – and the people they serve – are struggling to deal with long-term problems. They’re often working hard every day just to keep going, without the resources to plan for a more stable future.
At the same time, more Atlantic Canadians are falling through the cracks. We are resilient, but generational poverty, automation and industry changes, mental illness and addictions, racism, sexism and other systemic factors are making it harder for people to live their best lives. And that’s the space where charities traditionally have operated: they help bridge the gaps for people, giving them the tools and support they need to get back on their feet and make their lives better.
When needs increase, the charitable sector is expected to grow to meet those needs. But what if it can’t?
According to Imagine Canada, Canada is headed toward a significant social deficit, where charities and the non-profit sector will not be able to meet the demand for their services. Unlike a financial deficit, a social deficit doesn’t show up in bright red numbers on the bottom of a spreadsheet. Rather it creeps up on us and looks like longer waiting lists for social services, unmet needs piling up and continual stress on an overburdened charitable sector. Ultimately, it leads to a drop in the quality of life for all Canadians.
According to Imagine Canada, this social deficit will mean the charitable sector in Canada needs an additional $25 billion to keep up with the demand for services by 2026.
We’re already starting to see charities being called to fill more gaps than ever. You don’t have to look much further than food banks. Forty years ago, food banks didn’t exist. Today, they feed 850,000 Canadians each month. And even though many people are so grateful to have the option, truthfully, we’re doing people a disservice by forcing them to rely on a food bank. It’s meant to be a temporary fix. But the problem of hunger and food insecurity is a permanent one in many communities. It’s not going away.
So, what is the average person to do? You and I are not going to be able to solve this huge social deficit that is looming, but we can make a difference.
Firstly, remember those small community charities that you love so much during the holidays? Love them all year. Whether you give your time, talents or treasure, the support you give in April or June is just as appreciated as in December. It helps charities to know they have predictable support.
Secondly, fill your passion bucket. Learn about the amazing work a charity in your community does. See if you have a skill they can use, sit down with a program participant for a meal once a month or offer to share their programs and services on social media. The ripple effects of small actions can be felt broadly across the community.
Lastly, talk about the importance of charities with others. Talk with friends and coworkers about the increasing workload of charities, and the important role charities play in the well-being of our country. Bring it up with politicians and decision-makers who can influence policy and legislation that will impact the charitable sector. Adding your voice to the conversation could be the most powerful gift you can give.
Every one of us has been impacted by a charity at some point in our lives, whether we realize it or not. It’s time to recognize their value and set them up for a brighter future.
Sarah White is a mama, communicator and coffee lover, who is passionate about community and social change.