As I write this, the coronavirus pandemic is shining an unexpected spotlight on charities and non-profit organizations. Canada is reputed to have - in economic terms - one of the largest and most dynamic voluntary sectors in the world. It is estimated to account for more than two million jobs and to contribute tens of billions of dollars to Canada's Gross National Product. Volunteers are estimated to provide almost two billion hours of time annually - the equivalent of about two million full-time jobs.
But the frontline efforts needed to deal with the fallout from COVID-19 remind us that the sector's contribution to the country's quality of life far exceeds the raw economic numbers.
The pandemic and the accompanying economic disruption have thrown into sharp relief those sector groups that serve and support vulnerable or disadvantaged Canadians. Both federal and provincial initiatives have been put in place to bolster the resources these organizations have to meet the needs of the individuals and communities with which they work. That's the good news. Another positive note has been the inclusion of voluntary sector groups in most government relief initiatives. Eligibility for these programs was opened to charities and non-profit organizations having had to temporarily shutter operations or suffering economic hardship as a result of "social distancing".
These and other responses to the crisis were again a reminder, however, of the blind spots and challenges governments have in dealing with voluntary sector organizations.
Ironically, as was noted by the Prime Minister, some low-wage employees in crucial jobs - both in the voluntary sector and in other parts of the economy - faced a dilemma of potentially being better off leaving their positions and accessing government relief payments. Adjustments to programs were made to try to correct this anomaly. More broadly, this incongruity is a reminder of the reliance by governments on using sector groups to economize on the cost of delivering services.
Among other shortcomings - sometimes more evident at the provincial level, as that is the point of delivery for many services - were governments proposing programs providing "80-cent dollars". This practice, which is not limited to pandemic emergency measures, entails funding client services or other program activities but not providing resources for infrastructure and other overhead needed to support frontline work. Given the fraught state of...