Think tanks can lead the way in rethinking charitable sector models in response to COVID-19

19 May 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

Charitable giving around the globe is set to face a massive decline unless civil society snaps into action. In Canada alone, deficits within the charitable sector are set to reach anywhere between $9.5 billion and $15.7 billion, while as many as 194,000 workers may be laid off. Only time will tell how far-reaching the impacts of COVID-19 will be, but in the meantime, think tanks and other charitable institutions must rally together to support one another and ensure a bright future.

What role does the government have to play in this situation? If it acts, how should it act so that it helps build charitable capacity rather than crowding out the initiatives of civil society and charities?

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, Brian Dijkema, Vice President of External Affairs at public policy think tank Cardus, and Sean Speer, Assistant Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, collaborated to author a call to action that invites Canadian governments, philanthropists, charitable foundations, and individual Canadian citizens to join a national campaign around charitable giving in which governments, individuals, and civil society can work in mutually enabling ways.

Imagine what would happen if together we undertook a tripartite campaign in which governments, foundations, and individuals banded together to ensure that the organisations that serve the most vulnerable, preserve beauty, and shape meaning among us – soup kitchens, shelters, refugee settlement agencies, theatres, museums, environmental conservation groups,  and so on – survive the COVID-19 crisis? Times like these place double pressures on charities; needs increase, while donations decrease.

Here’s what we know: matching works We proposed that the government launch ‘matching funds’ initiatives that would match private donations to Canadian-based charities with public dollars on a 1:1 basis, using existing government infrastructure previously deployed in times of crisis.

Evidence suggests these matching campaigns galvanise the giving of ordinary citizens. A major economic study on matching initiatives notes that ‘announcing that match money is available considerably increases the revenue per solicitation by 19 %. In addition, the match offer increases the probability that an individual chooses to donate by 22 %.’

Foundations also have a critical role to play. Our proposal recommends that foundations distribute an increased percentage of their available funds to enable them to act as a sort of ‘central bank’ that provides emergency bridge financing necessary to get charitable institutions through the immediate crisis.

The 10,950 foundations currently operating in Canada, boasting combined assets of $84.4 billion that have more than doubled between 2008 and 2017, are well placed to offer this support. What might be possible if foundations came together and collectively matched the donations of ordinary citizens to carry these vital charitable organisations through these early days?

At their best, think tanks invite policymakers, leaders, and ordinary citizens to reimagine the ways in which we can structure systems and society to better facilitate human flourishing. COVID-19 pushes Canada, and other nations around the world, to rethink their charitable giving models, coming together as never before to honour and sustain the charitable institutions that work each day to provide essential services and care to our most vulnerable.

Charitable associations like Imagine Canada are rising to provide leadership in times like this, innovatively seeking not only to serve their community members but to support their industry peers as well.

Private entities like Gore Mutual are stepping up to partner with Canada Helps (an online charity which uses technology to facilitate funding to charities across Canada) to match funds donated through their platform.

As governments look to move into the next phase of support for vital sectors, matching initiatives, such as the one we call for, can ensure that government can join and support the active work being done in the charitable sector by charities, individuals, and businesses alike.

We want to see our memorandum’s call to action create a positive psychology across the country at a time of great uncertainty and also have positive effects on our collective psyche. We hope our think tank and think tanks around the globe can provide thought leadership and the convening capacity necessary to draw civil society actors, institutions, and governments closer together as we mobilise in this time of need. Let’s seize the opportunity to lower anxiety and counter pessimism around the country by coming together in greater solidarity during a time of isolation and uncertainty.