A challenge and an opportunity: How the Canadian nonprofit sector is welcoming Syrian refugees

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Soon after the 2015 federal election, it became clear that it was no longer a question of if Syrian refugees would be coming to Canada, but when and how many. The fact that this would be the largest refugee resettlement plan since 1980, and that it would happen at an extremely accelerated pace, meant that a wide variety of nonprofits were paying close attention to government announcements and scrambling to set plans in motion to prepare for this sudden influx.

While the rate at which Syrian refugees are arriving in Canada has been decelerated from initial plans, the reality is that the nonprofit and public sectors are in the midst of responding to a significant increase in demand from people in need — something Governor-General David Johnston recently called “both a challenge and opportunity for Canada.”

CharityVillage talked with some of the many people and organizations involved in this process to understand what this scaling up of their work meant for them, both in terms of challenges and opportunities. What they had to say is instructive to anyone in the sector who may be faced with a literal or figurative tsunami and who then has to stretch their resources to accommodate a sudden pressing need.

Surge capacity

While it is easy to forget that this is not the first time Canada has welcomed refugees (we accept 200,000 to 250,000 newcomers annually, ten percent of whom are refugees, and welcomed some 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees in 1979-80), it's also true that the volume and speed of this situation is relatively dramatic for agencies —requiring what’s known as surge capacity.

Surge capacity is a term borrowed from the emergency response sector. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says, “Surge capacity is used when there are unforeseen emergencies and disasters, when a crisis deteriorates, or when a force majeure affects an office.” Paula Speevak, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, gives an example of how demand can outweigh capacity in this situation. “Agencies who have the capacity to engage volunteers in more regular circumstances may not have the surge capacity to deal with the large numbers of generous and highly motivated people who are coming forward to help. A part-time volunteer coordinator may usually be adequate but not under these extraordinary circumstances.”

The challenge is not limited to engaging volunteers either. School boards may have approximate numbers of refugee families coming to their community, but not know the ages of the particular children, making hiring of staff somewhat challenging — something Marlene Hanson, supervisor of Diversity Education for Edmonton Public Schools, describes as “a puzzle which must be done without knowing what the picture will look like, and where the pieces move very quickly”. In communities where there is a lack of affordable housing, finding adequate shelter for refugees can create a challenge. Warehousing generous donations of clothing and furniture for still-to-arrive refugees also poses a problem for agencies that often don’t have budgets or personnel to transport such items. Organizations also need to respond to a huge upswing in media attention and requests for speaking engagements.

Some organizations are better prepared to meet this surge capacity than others, notes Dr. Joe Garcea, a professor of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan who has studied capacity building in the nonprofit sector, with some organizations arguing they are already above their capacity while others are confident they are able to deal with higher demands. Depending on their role, some organizations may have capacity in terms of staffing, for instance, but have to extend counselling or language programming outside usual hours.

The biggest pressure point, however, is the short time frame for the initial processing and settlement of refugees, says Garcea.

So, what will it take for the nonprofit sector to increase its capacity in this situation?

Innovative thinking

“We’re always talking about innovation and creative solutions,” says Garcea. “Crises like this push the boundaries so we utilize existing best practices and invent new ones.” He notes that nonprofit and government organizations now have “greater capacity to adapt rapidly to special and changing circumstances”, attributing this to new technology and improved communications, as well as creative thinking about under-utilized resources.

This kind of thinking can be clearly seen in the approach of the Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSofBC) as it finds housing for refugees in an already-strapped market. In an interview, Chris Friesen of ISSofBC said, “We really have to think outside of the box in order to make this happen...A room in a house, a basement suite that’s being unoccupied at the moment, a property that’s not being used, perhaps a summer cottage that’s not being used.”

Strong human resources

One of the key challenges reported by nonprofits engaged in refugee response is that their staff are being taxed by this effort. In some cases, people are pulled away from important day-to-day work, while in other situations, staff are so busy responding to calls from the general public and media that they don’t even have time to do the necessary work for the refugee response.

At the same time, this overabundance of people interested and willing to get involved in this campaign is a key to the solution — the issue, as Garcea says, is to “coordinate them effectively.” According to Speevak, “It is challenging for organizations to build up the capacity to engage these large groups of generous people. If people who haven’t volunteered before aren’t properly engaged the first time, they may not come forward again.”

Speevak and others are considering innovative approaches to increasing volunteer capacity. She suggests volunteers might be trained to help engage volunteers — noting that one of the challenges of emergency response is that it takes time and resources to screen and interview potential volunteers working with vulnerable people. Another suggestion, says Speevak, would be for other organizations working with vulnerable populations to encourage their already screened and trained volunteers to work with refugee agencies in addition to their existing volunteer commitment. This could mean a distress centre volunteer who already knows how to support someone who has experienced trauma might offer time volunteering with refugees, or someone who drives for Meals on Wheels might drive refugees to appointments. “In no way do we want to jeopardize important services other agencies are carrying out,” says Speevak, “but we need to engage in creative thinking about the human capital that already exists.” Another option would be for nonprofits to work with for-profit companies which could donate employee time to help nonprofits with accounting or database management.

Some organizations are increasing their capacity by hiring more staff. Rick Cober Bauman, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee (Ontario), says his organization is hiring four new staff on nine-month contracts, and will likely hire more. “Our main goal of effective, healthy resettlement wouldn’t be met if we didn’t invest enough resources and time to do this well,” says Cober Bauman, noting that the organization was able to hire the staff thanks to donors who understood the need for infrastructure and resources to support refugees.

Other organizations are seconding staff from one role to another. Edmonton Public Schools, for instance, has ESL reception centres in different quadrants of the city, and will turn one of those into a reception hub for Syrian refugees, stationing a multidisciplinary team there. While the board is looking to hire at least one intercultural consultant and ESL teacher/consultant, they will also be pulling staff from their regular reception centres to work at the hub. “There’s a question of how long the need will be there, both in the short and longer term,” says Hanson, who also notes that depending on where refugee families settle in the city, the schools may also need to hire new teachers this year and adjust their enrollment projections for next year.

Organizations also need to recognize the significant stress on their staff caused by the uncertainty of so much of the work in this surge as well as the tight timeline and the coincidence of the bulk of the work falling at a time of year when many people traditionally take holidays.

Solid fundraising & accounting capacity

For sponsorship-agreement holders like MCC, there are significant added demands in terms of accounting and data management, as well as an increased need for funds to support refugees. Sponsorship-agreement holders hold funds for private sponsorship groups, issuing charitable tax receipts, managing and disbursing funds. Cober Bauman says, “This is a very interesting and high volume piece of work for us. Because we give charitable receipts, we need to ensure on behalf of CRA that funds are being used for charitable purposes.” Sponsorship-agreement holders must supervise reporting from private groups, as well as increase their own reporting to CRA. They also manage increased insurance requirements — such as automobile insurance for groups driving refugees and criminal checks.

What is exciting to many nonprofits is how Canadians are responding to this crisis – Cober Bauman says of donations, “Typically we see this around emergencies like earthquakes or hurricanes. To have these kinds of numbers when the presenting issue is human-caused conflict is unprecedented. Often we don’t get that response in dollars or new donors.”

Another encouragement for the sector in terms of fundraising is that the concern that other nonprofits (or even other programs) will lose funding with dollars going to a popular cause may be largely unfounded. Speevak says, “People who are active donors are stretching to give to their usual causes as well as refugees. And, people who have been less engaged as donors are stepping forward with new donations.” Although it is too soon to be certain that this trend will continue, Cober Bauman remains optimistic. “In the short term, there are some concerns that ongoing work may struggle a bit as funds pour into the response to refugees, but overall we find that the funding base builds up after incidents like this.”

Coordinated efforts

Perhaps the one key to successful capacity building in response to a surge is to coordinate efforts, whether between agencies in the sector or across sectors. Garcea notes that a coordinated effort also needs to be able to authorize resource allocation — that being a group of well-intentioned people is not enough. He observes that someone needs to be willing to bring partners together, and that all players “need to put aside any ego, organizational imperatives or fears that get in the way of doing the right thing as quickly and effectively as possible.”

The Region of Waterloo in Ontario has approached the refugee response with a coordinated approach, led by Immigration Partnership. Its director, Tara Bedard, says that the region is building on the work of its established local immigration partnership and using a locally established framework for coordination, one that the municipal government put in place several years ago in a pandemic planning exercise. “There’s a good planning structure to allow sectors and agencies to work together in coordinated way to make sure services are as ready as possible,” says Bedard. “Our role is to bring all the actors together who want to collaborate to make sure our programs and services are the best they can be.”

While the framework was developed years in advance, as it became clear that there would be a surge of refugees the partner agencies in the region began meeting throughout the fall to plan and coordinate their response, adapting the established municipal response framework for a unique community-wide effort. This coordination avoids chaotic communication, ensuring that a single message is given out to the public through a web portal that directs potential volunteers and donors to the right agencies, as well as a clear path for information sharing between agencies and various levels of government in the region. Bedard observes that coordination also avoids duplication of efforts and unnecessarily repetitive conversations, while allowing creative partnerships.

Collaboration is not limited to sectoral partners either. Speevak says, “This is a multisector effort — much like the collective impact movement or vibrant communities.” Illustrating this point, Cober Bauman tells of a small hotel that has offered all of its rooms for immediate short-term housing for refugees. Garcea believes that nonprofits will need to develop innovative facility-sharing partnerships with municipalities, school boards, etc. to house refugee support programs. Speevak adds, “This is going to be a long process and we will see ripple effects in all parts of the sector and beyond.”

At the recent Governor-General’s forum on welcoming Syrian refugees, Mike Savage, mayor of Halifax, said, “This is an imperfect situation so there is no perfect solution. We just need to act.” It is also, however, an opportunity both for the nation and the nonprofit sector. Garcea says, “As Canadians, we pride ourselves on being good and capable, and now we’re actually being put in a position where we have to show that we can actually do it. To some extent this is also a test on the nonprofit sector to show that it will do its very best. In doing so, it affirms the importance of its existence and sustainability.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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