COVID-19 is accelerating our move to digital — charities must act now to keep up

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— Article originally posted on Future For Good. —

We’re in a global crisis. It is changing day by day, even hour by hour, and the future looks uncertain.

As if the wide-spreading, galloping new virus is not enough, we now know that to contain it, we may have to pay the biggest economic price since the Great Depression. Already we are seeing millions of people out of work, and the service industry — which is the backbone of the Canadian economy — is being decimated. Combined with extraordinary levels of household debt, we have a perfect storm for prolonged hardship.

But let’s not forget, as, in any crisis, the most vulnerable in our society are hit the hardest and will be left behind — unless we consciously choose to not forget them no matter how tough it gets.

As we know from past crises and disasters, donations and volunteers are at the heart of emergency and post-emergency efforts in Canada and elsewhere. Charitable donations and volunteers keep food banks running and allow for the delivery of emergency food and hygiene supplies. They allow for the provision of testing and medical supplies in outbreak areas and in communities where people are avoiding an outbreak, and they provide strategic support of our public healthcare workers as they work overtime.

In this crisis, we’re seeing a huge response from health charities. Hospital foundations and charities supporting healthcare in Canada and around the world are scaling up operations to ensure healthcare professionals have the necessary medical equipment to treat COVID-19 patients. We are also seeing charities mobilize to support vulnerable populations — offering support to isolated seniors, snack programs to kids who normally rely on public schools and community centres for nutrition, providing virtual mental health support to children and youth, and providing access to hygiene and medical support for Canadians experiencing homelessness.

Overall, charities are facing a huge dip in fundraising, with all fundraising events and -thons called off and programming such as performances and camps cancelled. And with the dip in the financial markets, it’s unlikely charities will receive much in the way of donations of securities. As we see in The Giving Report, when we are in a recession and disposable income goes down, charitable giving goes down as well; in 2009, overall charitable giving in Canada dropped by 1.4 billion dollars from 2007.

Without critical fundraising revenue, many charities will have to let go of staff and possibly close their doors. The charitable sector in Canada employs 1.4M Canadians full time, but most of the work charities do is in-person. With the necessary social distancing being implemented across Canada, there is no part of the sector that won’t be affected by COVID-19. Consider places of worship, community and recreation centres, drop-in centres, galleries and museums, shelters, educational institutions, theatres, counselling agencies, and so much more.  What’s more, consider the people who rely on the social connection provided by these organizations.

Without staff, programming will be cut. We will all feel this loss. A strong charitable sector is like good health — many of us aren’t even aware of all the services done by the sector, but we will feel it when something goes wrong.

Though we are plagued with uncertainty right now, this will end; but things will almost certainly not be the same afterwards.  As we’ve seen in just a few short weeks of companies transitioning to remote work, the move into the digital economy will be accelerated. We will emerge into a full digital economy and it will be here to stay — this has profound and far-reaching implications. I predict that, in the post-COVID 19 world, the fundraising events will just not return to its old ways. The world will be fundamentally different.

Because our lives will change permanently in so many other regards, this crisis will spur innovation on an unprecedented scale and charities should participate. Needless to say, technology will play a huge part —  its role will only be amplified and accelerated because of COVID-19 and the threat of similar new viruses in the future.

People and organizations that are able to adapt during this period — from remote work, to remote fundraising events, to remote service provision — will come out stronger. Adoption of technology and, more importantly, a wholesale culture change will become an imperative in the post-COVID world. But other organizations that were not already well on the road to digital transformation may be weakened or close during this time. If an organization hasn’t been paying attention to the digital economy until now, it must start now and with no further delay.

What can you do to help?

  • Make digital donations: during social distancing and an increasingly virtual workforce, this is the best way to get money to organizations quickly. While some organizations may still be taking in-kind donations, this increases the risk of virus transmission right now, and goods may need to be held for a period of time before they can be put to use. Set up a monthly gift in any amount that suits your budget.
  • If you’re healthy and able, support those around you by doing things like picking up supplies for neighbours who need to remain at home, setting up video calls or phone calls with isolated family or community members, and only buying reasonable amounts of supplies that you need.
  • Follow the advice of public health officials and help flatten the curve — or better yet, plank it — by practicing rigorous social distancing.

My own view on this is informed by growing up outside Canada, in a country plagued by constant upheavals and disruptions — real food shortages, rationing, curfews, massive economic uncertainty, no social safety net, no help for the disadvantaged, and no charities to speak of. The cruelty of what I witnessed was assuaged by images and stories of communities coming together, and of people helping each other with whatever they had. My own father shared the last bottle of life saving medicine he had — with no new ones coming — with a stranger in a hospital who shared his room. I also learned that, when some of us have, and others don’t, we are all worse off in the long run.

In Canada, we created the “caremongers” who are choosing to do the right thing for everyone in this crisis. This inspires me, and I want to believe that Canada is a country that will not leave its most vulnerable behind. The test of us, as a country, will be how we react when things are hard; let’s show the world what we are made of.

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