From charity galas to bike rallies, high profile events have been cancelled or moved online as physical distancing efforts due to COVID-19 play havoc with the fundraising calendar. As Canada continues to deal with the pandemic, AIDS service organizations (ASOs), like so many other LGBTQ2 charities across the country, have been forced to develop new ways to fundraise. And for ASOs heavily dependent on fundraising, the pandemic has proven a serious threat—not only to their programs but even to long-term viability.
The Toronto People With AIDS Foundation usually raises a large amount of its annual budget from its Friends for Life Bike Rally, which, in normal times, consists of supporters cycling the 600 km from Toronto to Montreal.
“In 2018, the event raised $1.76 million,” says Michael Reid, manager of philanthropy and sponsorship at People with AIDS (PWA), in an email. “In 2019, it raised $1.65 million. We were originally projecting about the same for 2020. Depending on the year, the Bike Rally provides approximately 40 to 50 percent of PWA’s revenue.”
Money raised from the rally covers 100 percent of the operating budget for financial assistance programs for children, seniors and those with medical disabilities and 75 percent of the budget for a food bank, among other programs.
This year, the ride has switched to a virtual format. “Riders will now participate in the #Rally600 90-Day Challenge,” Reid says. “They’ll set a goal to personally ride or run 600 km, or do 600 minutes of yoga, [whatever they want]. We’ve partnered with a group fitness app called MoveSpring that allows everyone to track their progress, and that integrates into their existing fundraising pages. We will then hold a series of online events during the week of the Rally itself, Aug. 9 to 14.”
Reid says he’s hopeful this year’s virtual rally will maintain previous fundraising levels.
“These are really challenging times but the community response has been overwhelming and fundraising has been quite strong,” he says. “We’ve actually received more registrations since going virtual—many past participants are getting involved to help out in this time of need.”
PWA has partnered with two other ASOs along the original Bike Rally route: HIV/AIDS Regional Services (HARS) in Kingston and AIDS Community Care Montreal (ACCM). According to Reid, net proceeds from funds raised by riders recruited by HARS and ACCM will go to those organizations.
“Partnerships benefit everyone by raising the profile of the event, attracting more participants and adding value for sponsors, Reid says. “If done right, joint fundraising might be a great option for many agencies to help recover after the pandemic.”
But Reid says he’s unsure of what comes next.
“As with everything right now, the future is uncertain. We’ll certainly have to continue with social distancing and disinfecting until there is a vaccine, which has an impact on our service delivery. Although we’ll most likely be able to have a regular Bike Rally in 2021, that isn’t a sure thing.”
According to Imagine Canada, an umbrella group for Canadian charities and non-profits, the problems facing PWA are shared by similar groups across the country. A survey Imagine carried out in May showed that 69 percent of charities were reporting a drop in revenue since the onset of the pandemic, with an average drop in revenue of 31 percent.
The survey also showed charities were losing an average of 72 percent of event-based fundraising revenue and 66 percent of revenue from in-person solicitation. Charities running stores and other enterprises reported a 70 percent average loss of revenue from those outlets and those with membership fees and dues reported losing 64 percent of that revenue.
Imagine is also lobbying the federal government to provide more funding for Canada’s charitable sector. According to the organization, the government has already provided $2.5 billion to charities as part of its Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, but the organization is calling for another $7 billion as part of a stabilization fund to help cover operating costs.
That call is supported by Brian Chittock, the executive director of AIDS Vancouver. Chittock says his organization is mostly government-funded, and only receives about 10 percent of its revenue via fundraising. Nonetheless, he says charities need help.
“Donations are down substantially in the past year, not just since COVID-19,” he says. “I think people are hanging onto their money and, of course, some have lost their jobs. We are probably in better shape than most other organizations, but last year we had a deficit because our donations were way down.”
Chittock says AIDS Vancouver has received $150,000 in funding from three local foundations since the pandemic began, and he estimates that should carry the organization into August. But he says the pandemic has sparked a much higher demand for food among clients, leading AIDS Vancouver to partner with 14 ASOs across B.C. to meet that demand. Governments currently do not provide funds to AIDS organizations for food purchasing, a situation he hopes the epidemic will help to change.
“We’re doubling the amount of food products we give out to clients,” he says. “We’re helping hundreds, maybe even thousands, of clients we wouldn’t normally reach. Food insecurity is generally higher among HIV-positive people even under normal conditions.”
But while Chittock feels AIDS Vancouver is reasonably secure for the near future, other AIDS organizations are entering what could be a period of prolonged uncertainty.
The Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR)—a major source of funding for AIDS research and education—relies completely on donations, says Ryan Joyce, director of communications.
“So far our fundraising efforts for this current fiscal year are on track, but the impact to the budget in our next fiscal year remains unknown,” he says in an email. “In terms of new ways of fundraising, innovative methods for our events and mission recalibration, it’s still early days.”
CANFAR, together with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, has proceeded with the launch of a new initiative called The Positive Effect, aimed at combating the stigma around HIV and AIDS. The website will profile people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as present facts and resources to debunk stereotypes and myths.
Alex Filiatrault, CANFAR’s CEO, says the initiative has been in the works for some time. But its launch during the COVID-19 pandemic raises some interesting parallels that, he says, may actually prove beneficial in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“The public health response to COVID-19 is intricately linked to the past, present and future in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” Filiatrault says. “And the work to put an end to COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS have similar objectives.”
Filiatrault points to a focus on rapid testing, prevention methods, misinformation, government action and research as areas where the approaches to HIV and COVID-19 have something in common. He says the fact that government, media, public health officials and researchers are currently focusing on these areas may make them more open to the importance of addressing HIV.
“This is why the timing of the launch of The Positive Effect is so appropriate,” he says. “Through this initiative, we will shift mindsets, share facts around HIV/AIDS, help guide policy decisions and share how important testing and preventative measures are to end an epidemic or pandemic.”
Despite this glimmer of good news, though, the terrain ahead still looks uncertain for charities, says Chittock. “If donations are to continue to go down, I think governments are going to have to give more,” he says. “But so far, I haven’t heard anything about funding for non-profits.”