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7 min

LGBT charities still need help

Queer-run charities are as vital as ever for youth and families

Credit: Illustration by Paul Dotey

Empowerment. Community. Hope.

Those are the kinds of uplifting words that come to mind when we think of the work LGBT charities do, but less lofty words like “money” and “funding” are essential to a charity’s success and its very existence.

“I think Jer’s Vision, PTS and Ten Oaks . . . we look like we’re really strong and really professional and really well-established, when really it’s always a struggle to pay bills, hire on new staff and meet the demands of our community,” says Jeremy Dias, founder and executive director of Jer’s Vision. “I think donors don’t always realize how much need there is out there.”

Because of the great strides made in LGBT rights over the past few decades, Dias says, many community members are under the impression that life is pretty good for queer people these days — and while it might be for some, others need support services more than ever.

Since the late 1970s, there have been considerable gains for LGBT rights in Canada. Beginning in 1977 in Quebec, nationally in 1996 and finally in Alberta in 1998, sexual orientation was added to provincial human rights codes and the Canadian Human Rights Act to provide legislative protection from discrimination. In 2005, same-sex marriage became legal in Canada. From Calgary-born pop stars Tegan and Sara to trans superstar Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine, LGBT celebrities talk about their identities with pride. While LGBT people have achieved great success in diverse fields, huge obstacles remain for queer and trans people, particularly youth.

Bill C-279, which would provide trans Canadians legislative protection from discrimination, passed in the House of Commons last year but is still languishing in the Senate. According to Egale’s 2011 national report “Every Class in Every School,” 70 percent of all participating students reported hearing homophobic comments daily in school. More than one in five LGBT students reported being physically harassed or assaulted because of their sexual orientation. Among trans students, 49 percent reported being sexually harassed and 74 percent were verbally harassed about their gender expression.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 34, with disproportionately higher numbers among queer and trans youth. According to Statistics Canada, two-thirds of hate crimes reported in 2012 that were motivated by homophobia were violent.

It’s against this backdrop of homophobia, transphobia, violence and inequity that Jer’s Vision, PTS and Ten Oaks offer support for LGBT people and their families while also endeavouring to inspire change. Jer’s Vision provides anti-bullying workshops for schools and community organizations. PTS, which was founded in 1984 and was the first registered gay charity to gain tax-exempt status in Canada, has LGBT support services and social groups and is campaigning to end youth homelessness. Ten Oaks offers summer camp programs for children and youth from LGBT families.

Funding these charities is no small feat. Jer’s Vision receives about a third of its funding from the provincial and federal governments, a third from corporate donors and a third from community members, Dias says.

When it comes to municipal funding, Capital Pride received $34,500 in 2013 under the City of Ottawa’s cultural and festival funding. PTS, which began its current three-year contract with the city in July, received $118,899.84 in renewable community funding from the city in 2013.

PTS has some financial stability thanks to municipal funding. However, lack of adequate funding from other sources led to Claudia Van den Heuvel, the organization’s executive director, taking a voluntary layoff in May.

“We are the only for-queer, by-queer organization in Ottawa that serves queer people of all ages, and I chose to put the need for our programming and to maintain staff over my own needs,” Van den Heuvel told Xtra at the time.

She returned to help PTS prepare funding applications, but in November the organization announced her permanent departure as executive director.

“PTS has been a family to me, so it’s sad that financial circumstances have made it necessary for me to move on to a new phase in my professional life,” Van den Heuvel said in a statement, adding she plans to do volunteer work for PTS.

Seeing PTS struggle raises the question: if you’re queer, do you have an obligation to support queer organizations?

“I think obligation is a strong word, but I think there’s a missed opportunity when we don’t give back to our community,” Dias says.

Holly Wagg, co-founder of Ten Oaks and co-chair of the organization’s development committee, has a different perspective.

“A lot of queer organizations think that queers should fund them just simply because they’re a queer organization,” Wagg says. “You need to move past that in your fundraising. Nobody is going to fund you simply because you’re a queer organization.”

Community members support PTS, Jer’s Vision and Ten Oaks by volunteering, giving donations and attending fundraisers. Van den Heuvel stresses that community members are doing their part and PTS has to pull in more money from grants and foundations.

“I believe that funding organizations, which often have a mandate to support marginalized communities, need to take a look at their mandates compared to the amount of funds they are providing,” she says. “It seems contradictory to say that the LGBTQ community is a significantly marginalized group and then provide such a small amount of funding.”

As Canada nears the 10th anniversary of legalizing same-sex marriage, Dias says many people have the perception that the biggest battles have been fought and won in the LGBT community, leading to a decrease in funding.

“The highest point of donations to queer organizations was pre-same-sex marriage, and since then we’ve seen [donations] slipping because there’s this attitude that things get better, when really things don’t get better for a lot of people,” he says. “I think organizations like Jer’s Vision, PTS and Ten Oaks are expected to do the work of mainstream organizations for a fraction of the cost and with less support.”

Wagg, whose day job as a fundraising consultant with Good Works means she “lives, eats, breathes and sleeps raising money for charity,” doesn’t see it that way. Although she acknowledges fundraising is an ongoing challenge, she says it’s actually a good time for LGBT charities.

“The LGBTQ community, by many funding organizations, has been identified as a priority community, which means now there’s actually, in our experience at Ten Oaks, more money available to us simply because of the population that we serve than there was 10 years ago,” she says.

That said, although the money is out there, whether your organization gets some of it is a different story, she says. Convincing donors to give you grants takes time and expertise, and charities don’t always have the resources to do their best fundraising.

The “conundrum of every small charity in Canada” is choosing how much time you put into your programming versus your fundraising, she says.

Dias agrees it’s difficult to find time to focus on fundraising. “We invest so much time and energy into programming that sometimes we forget how to cultivate a donor,” he says. “Not being a mega charity like others, we don’t have that machine to get our message out there.”

Wagg says it’s crucial that charities don’t underestimate the time and expertise required to attract and maintain secure funding. Still, even when the need is identified, charities often don’t have the resources to do adequate fund-raising, she says.

“They don’t have the money to hire a professional fundraiser or even somebody just to have oversight of the fundraising program, which creates a chicken-and-egg problem,” she says. “If you don’t have the money to hire the fundraiser, you can never grow your fundraising dollars in order to be able to hire the fundraiser in the first place.”

Diversification is your friend when it comes to securing stable funding, she adds. “You need to make sure that you’re pulling in money from a variety of different sources so that if one of those sources dries up you can pull from somewhere else,” she says. “We’ve always had a very diverse funding structure. We have individual donors, major donors, event-based fundraising. We do grants.”

PTS is working to diversify its funding. Still, municipal funding to queer organizations remains important, says Catherine McKenney, who was elected city councillor for Somerset Ward in October following Diane Holmes’s retirement.

“We need to consider the funding of LGBTQ organizations and assess if the support they currently receive is sufficient,” McKenney says. “PTS, together with other organizations like the Ten Oaks Project, Around the Rainbow at Family Services Ottawa and Youth Services Bureau, are crucial in our community as they are often the first point of resources for many — including young queers and those who are new to the community — and they need our support.”

While Youth Services Bureau, along with Centretown Community Health Centre, offers support services to LGBT community members, Van den Heuvel says it’s not the same thing as accessing support from a queer-run organization.

“There is a need for LGBT services to be provided by LGBT community members,” she says. “Our community comes to these services in times of need, when they are coming out or at the beginning of transition, and that extra amount of sensitivity is needed. Oftentimes, community members want a place where they can be assured that their identity or orientation will be supported, respected, [and they’re] provided a safe space in which to explore and have other people who identify similarly to them to provide some mentorship around resources and experiences.”

Wagg agrees it’s valuable for LGBT people or people from LGBT families to receive support services and programming from LGBT organizations.

“Our program exists because there’s a need in the community, and it continues to grow every year because there’s a need in the community,” she says. “For children of LGBTQ families, meeting somebody who has a family structure like theirs . . . You should see the power when those kids connect for the first time and realize that they’re not alone.”

For Dias, there is no substitute for the effectiveness of support services offered to LGBT people by LGBT people.

“There’s a real need to support queer-run services,” he says. “You would never tell a Jewish organization that their drop-in services should be run by the Catholic Church. In that same vein, queer organizations shouldn’t just be expected to fold into mainstream services. We should have our own support, and we should have our own strengthened community.”

Wagg adds that whether your donors are queer or allied, what’s key is connecting with their emotions, to make the suffering of others real to them, and then demonstrate how your charity is helping to alleviate that suffering while effecting positive change.