Charities feel pinch as province starves agencies of money

  • December 18, 2006

Michael FullanTORONTO - Catholic Family Services — Peel-Dufferin delivers one of the best bargains the Ontario taxpayers ever got.

The agency deals with family breakdown, the after-effects of child abuse, violence against women and more among 1.2 million people living west and northwest of Toronto. For the region's adult survivors of child abuse, the agency collects $53,000 of provincial government funding and magically transforms it into $250,000 in front-line counselling services to some of the most tragically damaged people in our midst.

It's a great trick, but executive director Mark Creedon says it's being done on the backs of overworked and underpaid staff, in overcrowded offices and it's turning basic social services into a charity case. In the end, like any magic trick, it just can't last.

"We're not magicians. We get money from Catholic Charities, which ultimately comes from ShareLife. We get money from Peel Region. We take money that was raised through our individual, couple and family program and roll it over from there and put it into this. And we do our own fund-raising," said Creedon.

Even the $250,000 Creedon's agency spends on counselling child abuse survivors isn't enough, he said.

Without counselling these clients often spiral into depression, mask their problems with alcohol, take their fears and frustrations out on their families. It's an instance where timely counselling does more than keep marriages together. It also keeps people out of the criminal justice system, out of the detox centres and mental health wards of hospitals.

Responding to this particular need is starving Creedon's agency of money it needs to pay decent, competitive salaries and benefits to staff. It's robbing the agency of money it needs to plan for the future, or even to acquire enough office space so all the employees can have a desk and a filing cabinet.

"From a business point of view, the best thing would be to tell the provincial government, 'Keep your $53,000,' " Creedon told The Catholic Register. "It's only because of our values — to reach out to the poor and the marginalized — that's why we're there."

Creedon's story is as common as dirt among the 28 non-profit agencies which received $6.9 million from Catholic Charities of the archdiocese of Toronto in 2006. Catholic Charities is going to bat for Creedon and the other agencies by knocking on doors at Queen's Park and telling politicians about the underfunding before the next provincial budget is written.

"Previous governments have talked about the need for the churches to do more," said Catholic Charities executive director Michael Fullan. "You know what? We are doing more. All of our agencies are doing more, and we've invested more money. But that doesn't mean that governments don't have to invest more money as well. They do."

Not-for-profit sector consultant Lynn Eakin argues that the provincial government is allowing the voluntary contributions of Ontarians to pay for basics that should be covered by tax dollars.

"The dollars that citizens give over and above their tax dollars — their charitable dollars — should go to making Ontario a better place for everybody," Eakin said.

Eakin has surveyed the whole charitable service sector and found that agencies are providing, on average, $1.14 worth of service for every dollar of government funding. In fact, since the early 1990s, governments have gotten used to taking a free ride off charitable dollars, claiming to fund community services that are in fact being subsidized by churches and other charities.

"If they (social services) are so important that (governments) fund them, then they should fund the full costs," said Eakin. "What we know is, they're not."

Charities aren't alone in subsidizing the work governments claim to be paying for. The agencies are also subsidized by their own employees, who work for uncompetitive salaries with few or no benefits, said Caroline Davis, Catholic Cross Cultural Services of Scarborough executive director.

With no pension plan and a below-par dental plan, Cross Cultural Services salaries range from $5,000 to $8,000 below what similarly qualified people make in the health care system, said Davis. That makes it hard to keep good people.

"Our staff are becoming increasingly attractive to other employers, especially since other employers are struggling with how to provide services to newcomers," she said.

Not-for-profit staffers also find themselves doing the extra, administrative work of employees their agencies can't afford to hire.

"Staff do more with less," said Davis. "We use a lot of our Catholic Charities' grant to fill in the holes, which is unfair to Catholic Charities. We would love to use that money to do other value-added things, but we can't."

Creedon says he's paying people with Master of Social Work degrees and five years experience $53,000, about 15 per cent less than they would make in less demanding jobs with the school board. He recently had a senior supervisor leave for a lower-level counselling job with the school board because it paid better and required less in terms of working hours, responsibility and stress.

Fullan wants Finance Minister Greg Sorbara to realize how the province is underfunding the glue that keeps society together.

"Charities can't ever pick up that whole role. Governments have to make a strategic investment as well," he said.

Fullan will be among the speakers invited to give the government advice on the budget when it begins pre-budget hearings in February.

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