In this final instalment of our United Way of Calgary and Area series on the affordability crisis, we look across our city for solutions to make our sector stronger. We recognize and thank our agency partners who lent their time, expertise and voices to this series. United, we can accomplish so much.

Calgarians in all communities in our city are feeling the crush of an affordability crisis. Inflation and the high cost of housing are impacting individuals and families like never before. In difficult times, many in our communities rely on non-profit organizations to help those in need cope with or overcome the challenges they face on a daily basis face. Yet, this affordability crisis affects our social sector just as much as it affects individuals and families.

Recent surveys of the social sector, such as Canada Helps’ The Giving Report and CCVO’s Too Essential to Fail, point to dramatically increasing demand mixed with lower or stagnant funding. In Calgary, our local non-profit leaders are struggling with difficult decisions about how to serve Calgarians without having to cut back on services or dedicated and talented staff.

“This is an exceptionally challenging time for our social sector,” says Karen Young, president and CEO of United Way of Calgary and Area. “I worry if the pressure will be too much and what that might mean for the critical community safety net we’ve created together.”

“We’ve navigated through crises in the past, emerging stronger each time,” she affirms. “Just as we did during the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic, this presents another opportunity for us to unite with shared solutions. It is this collective resilience that fuels my optimism”.

At United Way of Calgary and Area, there are a variety of short- and long-term solutions for a stronger social sector. Here are some of them:

Short- and long-term funding

In any crisis, resources help. Having short-term financial capacity to meet short-term increases in demand is incredibly valuable.

United Way’s Community Impact Fund is one solution for individuals who want to give now. It is designed to help Calgarians make an impact when adaptability and urgent response is critical. Through the Community Impact Fund, United Way is funding agencies and programming in four interconnected focus areas: socioeconomic well-being, mental health, social inclusion and healthy relationships.

Aside from urgent funding needs, major gifts and significant structural changes to how non-profit organizations are funded by governments will create some of the lasting changes the social sector needs to thrive. United Way continues to advocate for sustainable funding for the sector and we celebrate the philanthropic champions that support game-changing initiatives like Planet Youth Calgary (below).

Building capacity

New thinking and agile strategies are necessary for strengthening non-profit organizations that serve our community. United Way’s GAIN team gives agencies access to a team of more than 50 highly skilled private and public sector leaders across our city who will support the agency as it adapts to the challenges of the affordability crisis and beyond. A customized team of volunteers can partner with agencies to provide short-term urgent advice and longer-term restructuring and capacity building.

Signature initiatives

United Way’s signature initiatives such as Planet Youth Calgary, All In for Youth, Community Hubs and Healthy Aging Alberta bring together the whole community under common goals to achieve large-scale social change. Initiatives like these realize the aspiration of social agencies working together to improve life for all Calgarians.

Planet Youth, for example, is the largest undertaking in the history of United Way of Calgary and Area. It is a proven, data-driven and evidence-based model to make our community the best place on the planet to be a kid. Foundational partners such as Miskanawah, Trellis Society and YMCA Calgary are just the beginning of a growing list of social sector leaders across the city committed to our common goal. Planet Youth is also supported by multimillion-dollar, generational investments by private donors, corporations and government.

“Signature initiatives like Planet Youth,” says Young, “are a glimpse into the future of a better community supported by a stronger social sector. When United Way serves as a catalyst and facilitator for major projects like this, we further tighten the bonds that make the social sector resilient.”

Collaboration for a common cause

A stronger social sector can come through partnerships that share information, coordinate resources and simplify service access for Calgarians.

One example is the Gateway initiative. Developed by Immigrant Services Calgary in collaboration with many sector partners, including United Way, Gateway is designed to be a centralized, one-stop shop for newcomers to help them access services they need. The Gateway system has partners providing over 2,000 programs and services and has facilitated more than 40,000 referrals since it went live in the fall of 2021. United Way also serves as an advisory partner on the project by providing expert input and feedback as Gateway continues to develop.

Another example is the Community Information Exchange (CIE). Under development by Distress Centre, in partnership with United Way and other community partners, CIE aims to seamlessly connect a full web of social services in Calgary to create a system of support that truly wraps around a person or family in need. While still in development, it illustrates the willingness by organizations to collaborate and share.

Developments like CEI create a sense of optimism for leaders in the social sector. Robyn Romano, CEO of Distress Centre, sees this as an example of how the social services sector can change to become more resilient and help more Calgarians.

“Yes, things feel dark in our community and in the social sector,” says Romano, “but we are all working more collectively and collaboratively than ever before, and we are going to serve Calgarians better because of it.”

“We can do things differently and better, but we can’t do that on our own.”

Big changes for better results

Some organizations are seeking ways to improve their own processes and systems to better serve citizens, while also finding efficiencies and savings.

While Calgary Counselling Centre (CCC) was considering a digital transformation of its service delivery and internal administration, the pandemic dramatically accelerated its complete changeover. Currently, 95 per cent of the organization’s services are conducted online and CCC’s entire administration system is digital.

“While we have saved money in some areas, the two most significant benefits are for our clients and our business,” says Dr. Robbie Babins-Wagner, CEO of CCC. “Our clients love easy and accessible online services, and our staff adapted quickly because it is fast and equally easy for them to use. By being entirely digital on the business side, we are not just more efficient—we are able to capture valuable metrics that help us better serve Calgarians.”

Stronger together

As the social sector becomes more collaborative, many agencies are realizing that their combined strengths have a greater community impact than when they work independently. One example of this in action is the Calgary Newcomers Collaborative (CNC) powered by Gateway. The first of its kind in Canada, CNC is a formal, cross-sector partnership between newcomer-serving agencies. Together, the collaborators welcome newcomers and support them with all needs through the group’s collective free services.

“We have done remarkable work together,” says Anila Umar Lee Yuen, president and CEO of the Centre for Newcomers and co-chair of the CNC. “By collaborating as peers and partners, we are serving newcomers better at a time when we are welcoming even more people to our city.”

Mergers for good

A merger of one or more agencies may be the right way forward as some organizations assess their opportunities within periods of strain.

In late 2020, Trellis Society was born when Boys & Girls Clubs of Calgary and Aspen Family & Community Network Society joined forces. Trellis, funded in part by United Way, works to grow a community where everyone can flourish by supporting economic stability, mental health and well-being, and belonging and connection. It is focused on making generational impact through ending youth and family homelessness, providing safe home environments, education and employment opportunities, and spaces for communities to come together.

Merging in the non-profit space is rare and challenging. However, from CEO Jeff Dyer’s perspective, it was the catalyst that allowed Trellis to thrive during uncertain economic conditions.

“We looked at the external landscape and decided that, by being bold and focusing on better services for the community, we could exponentially increase our impact for those we serve,” says Dyer. “The secondary result was that we could re-invest efficiencies gained through the merger back into our staff and our services during a time when others were deciding how to scale back, pause, or even close programs.

“For us, the merge meant that, even in a pandemic and economic downturn, no services were closed. in fact, most expanded. Instead of having to protect the status quo, we could welcome the challenge and allow it to help improve what we were delivering.”

The success of this merger makes it a case study for other organizations considering their own strategic amalgamations. In a report produced by James Stauch and Cordelia Snowdon of the Institute for Community Prosperity at Mount Royal University, the authors write: “Successful amalgamations… are a means to a higher-purpose end, which may be, for example, better client service, better geographic reach, greater capacity to evaluate impact, or more visibility and accessibility in the community.”

"I've repeatedly witnessed the incredible and inspiring power of Calgarians to make our community stronger. We have the capacity to do great things. Together, we will be there for Calgarians when they need us." - Karen Young, President and CEO, United Way of Calgary and Area

As Karen Young speaks with her leadership peers, it is clear that, under the threat of an affordability crisis, there is room for optimism for a brighter future for both individuals and our social services sector.

“Throughout my career in public service, I’ve repeatedly witnessed the incredible and inspiring power of Calgarians to make our community stronger,” says Young. “We have the capacity to do great things. That includes working together on the solutions to the problems surfaced by the pressures of our affordability crisis.

“Together, we will be there for Calgarians when they need us.”

The affordability crisis is causing a ripple throughout our social sector. In part 1, we examined the struggles facing frontline agencies. In part 2, we explored the toll on mental health supports. In part 3, we examined the challenges facing the agencies that are here to support newcomers.