The arrival of COVID-19 early this year sent an economic shock wave across the province. The closure of retail stores, restaurants, and many other businesses resulted in 132,000 lost jobs in B.C. in March. Another 264,100 jobs vanished in April, lifting the provincial unemployment rate to 11.5 percent.
“Every sector of the B.C. economy has been hit and many B.C. families are reeling,” Finance Minister Carole James said at the time.
The magnitude of the crisis prompted an unprecedented response from Canada’s largest community foundation. Only a week after the World Health Organization declared on March 11 that the COVID-19 outbreak was a pandemic, the Vancouver Foundation sprang into action, launching the Community Response Fund. With support from Vancity, the United Way of the Lower Mainland, and the City of Vancouver, the CRF distributed more than $19.2 million to various charities in three months.
Vancouver Foundation president and CEO Kevin McCort told the Straight by phone that his organization had never given away so much money on an emergency initiative in such a short period of time.
“We were well prepared in terms of financial resources and well prepared in terms of knowledge to be able to deploy the money—and then really fortunate there are so many great charities on the front lines doing really important work,” McCort said. “So we had no shortage of good options in terms of who to give the money to.”
The CRF was fully operational three weeks before the federal government announced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
“A lot of that funding went into the charitable sector before many of the other federal supports got into place,” McCort pointed out.
The CERB provides $2,000 per month to people who have lost income due to the pandemic. It was followed by rent-support, wage-support, and other programs.
The Vancouver Foundation was assisted by advisers in the community who read proposals and provided recommendations. They included WISH Drop-In Centre executive director Mebrat Beyene, Eastside Culture Crawl Society artistic and executive director Esther Rausenberg, SFU director of community engagement Am Johal, and Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance executive director Kenji Maeda. That was in addition to representatives from the City of Vancouver, the United Way of the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Coastal Health, and their organizations.
“We often work in partnership and collaboration—it’s our preferred way of working,” McCort said. “The partners change depending on what the event is.”
Disasters changed foundation's mindset
Traditionally, the Vancouver Foundation provided stable and predictable long-term funding to registered charities. McCort acknowledged that when he was appointed president and CEO in 2013, the organization didn’t view itself as an “emergency-response actor”.
However, that started to change when major wildfires broke out in the B.C. Interior in subsequent years. That’s when the Vancouver Foundation’s board of directors and senior executives realized that they could play a role when disaster strikes.
“That picked up even more when the opioid crisis was declared a public-health emergency,” McCort noted. “More people started saying there is a role for us.
“We’re not just a funder of long-term and stable programs,” he continued. “We can actually get involved in emergency response.”
So by the time the pandemic struck B.C., the mindset of the foundation had changed dramatically from seven years earlier.
“We know who all these charities are that are involved in the response,” McCort said. “A lot of people don’t have that knowledge.”
He pointed out that registered charities, including foundations, are playing key roles in promoting good public policies in a number of areas. As examples, he cited the United Way’s efforts on behalf of seniors as well as environmental charities’ insights into ecological issues. In addition, McCort added that international-development charities have done important work regarding gender equality in developing countries.
“The charities that we’re funding know firsthand what’s happening for people with disabilities or with the elderly or with children,” he said. “They’re serving this population and they know, but their knowledge isn’t always tapped into by policymakers and used effectively to bring the voice of the front lines into policy.”
McCort hopes that the B.C. government exerts more effort to bring this knowledge from the community into its policymaking processes. Plus, he wants the Vancouver Foundation to be in a position to help arts and cultural groups bounce back quickly from the recent downturn.
When asked about the best way to offer financial help to the less fortunate, McCort had a simple response.
“Our first advice to people is if you know and love the charity in your community, give directly to them,” he added. “If you maybe don’t know and you want to rely on our knowledge and our systems, we’re happy to accept those gifts. And our gifts will be directed by community knowledge that our volunteer advisers bring to us.”