Inside one charity’s effort to save the sector

CanadaHelps' model of creating funds for a pool of charities is a strategic way to get more donors comfortable giving their money away.

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It seems every day RBC adds a new big brand to its Canada United fundraising platform. At press time, there were 67 logos pinned to the website’s partner page, as consumer-facing brands, from Tim Hortons to Telus, help drive traffic to the hub and rally people to do one simple task: watch a video. Every time someone finishes the 30-second spot, RBC donates $0.05 to a fund, with every penny going to a group of small local businesses to help keep their lights on.

But before Canada United, there was CanadaHelps.

The latter platform is similar to RBC’s in that people can support a pool of charities by putting their money into a “fund,” which is then distributed to members equally. Seeing as CanadaHelps often works with partners on fund matching – for example, P&G Canada has offered to match up to $1 million in donations to a Black Solidarity Fund – it also similarly works with those partners to further promote its efforts.

The network’s “curated funds” are made up of charities handpicked by experts in the sector who know the issues well (such as an Indigenous Culture and Language Resurgence in the Canadian North fund); its “cause funds” are directed to organizations focused on specific causes like animal welfare, environmental protection and fighting hunger; and its “local funds” are directed to specific communities, such as Calgary or Montreal.

Grouping organizations this way (instead of having people donate to one specific charity) is relatively new for CanadaHelps. It first launched seven local funds in November 2019 as “part of our broader vision to engage new donors and provide Canadians with new ways of making a difference,” says Angela Kostenko, VP of marketing at CanadaHelps.

“Research shows that younger people, in particular, are more likely to support causes over individual charities but a growing number of older people are interested in cause-based giving, too,” she says. “Cause funds are an opportunity for Canadians to make an impact for a cause or issue they care about, quickly and easily, while allowing them to be confident their donation is going to registered Canadian charities.”

Canadians tend to be more generous in times of crisis, according to data from The Giving Report, and CanadaHelps has found that donors are often searching for the best place to give and make an impact quickly, says Kostenko. Knowing this, it launched two cause funds – one that supports vulnerable communities, the other is for frontline workers impacted by COVID-19 – and it raised $4.5 million in just six weeks for charities responding to the crisis.

“Where [cause funds] have been most successful is when they’ve been timely, when it’s something that people connect to,” says the marketer. “[When] there’s an event, there’s a news story – those are the times people have been most motivated to give.”

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Four months into the pandemic and the impact of COVID-19 continues to be acutely felt among the roughly 86,000 registered charities that make up Canada’s charitable sector.

A study conducted in May by Imagine Canada, which advocates on behalf of charities and non-profits, concluded that one in five charities had already ceased or suspended operations. Those whose doors have closed include a YMCA in Nova Scotia, a Boys and Girls Club in Alberta, and hundreds of Royal Canadian Legions.

The report also painted a picture of an industry that’s adapting – 54% of charities still able to operate have transitioned their in-person programs online and 42% have developed completely new programs. But COVID’s long shadow is not expected to shrink anytime soon: as of May, 45% of orgs believed their financial condition would be worse in three to six months; a mere 8% believed it would be better.

Getting over this hump will require innovative thinking and significant investment from charities currently strapped for cash, says Kostenko. And so it’s for this reason that CanadaHelps recently partnered with Imagine Canada to create a COVID-19 Charity Adaption & Innovation Fund, with the goal of helping 400 charities transform their operations and fundraising means to survive the pandemic.

The fund will enable participating charities to receive money that they can put towards investments in new technology, deliver new programs or services virtually or at a distance, train employees on new safety protocols, invest in PPE, among other things, says Kostenko. While it wasn’t designed to support marketing efforts, there’s “some overlap between the type of work [charities] are doing and how it will support their fundraising and their marketing.”

“There are a number of charities that are going to need to adapt even more radically so that they can continue to exist,” she adds. “Their entire business model might have to be shifted. Imagine a theatre that relies on ticket sales, or a day camp that wouldn’t be able to be run at a reasonable cost because they can only have a certain number of kids in the program. All of these things are going to have to change.”

Originally meant to support 300 charities, the COVID-19 Adaptation and Innovation was expanded to include 400 organizations following higher-than-expected demand. Canada Help’s received a total of 784 applications from among the 20,000 member charities with which it already partners. As of July 28, more than $35,000 has been raised. Those funds will be transferred to participants on a monthly basis, subject to a minimum of $10 per charity.

The recipients include the Waterloo Down Syndrome Society, which is moving its programming (such as cooking classes) online and the Child Development Institute, which “wants to develop and pilot an app to deliver [its] evidence-based model that supports children and families with emotional regulation, self-control, and problem solving.”

As a charity with a limited ad budget, CanadaHelps’ primarily markets its funds through social channels and an email database of almost 600,000 Canadians. And while part of CanadaHelps’ mandate is consumer-facing, it also works in a B2B capacity with its members. A core part of its mandate is offering online fundraising tools enabling small and medium-sized charities to collect online donations when they might otherwise not have the resources to do so – collecting 1.8% of revenues to fund its own operations.

It also provides educational resources, such as webinars to help charities be more effective online marketers, whether the organization is “dipping [its] toes” into digital marketing for the first time, or looking to take its existing strategy to the next level, says Kostenko. “This period of physical distancing and social distancing has forced a lot of charities that were maybe a little hesitant or hadn’t fully doubled down to jump in with both feet.”

“I don’t want to paint the picture that charities are completely behind in terms of all of their marketing and fundraising,” she adds. “But I’ve seen a lot of charities investing a lot more in things like their websites. I’m seeing charities use a lot more video; I’m seeing them be a lot more creative at finding ways to connect with their donors.”

That shift has forced some charities to look outside their traditional donor bases for new sources of revenue, which is why Kostenko believes the work being done now, while born out of necessity, will have long-term benefits for the charitable sector.

Photos by Joel Muniz via Unsplash.