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Disability programs can struggle to attract charitable donations

Less well-known initiatives have a tougher time, especially if they address the needs of a smaller group

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The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been hard on Canadian kids, but for those experiencing neurological and mobility impairments, lockdowns, endless screen time and lack of in-person instruction have been even tougher.

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That’s what Christina Sperling has noticed. The director of community programs and After Stroke for March of Dimes says its conductive education program, which teaches children skills to lead independent lives, had to go virtual in 2020. Suddenly the fun classes, which use repetitive motions to help kids with, say, cerebral palsy, spina bifida or brain injuries, were no longer face-to-face.

“It’s really a type of program that has to be hands on. It’s about the movement and interaction,” says Sperling. “We’re really anxious to get back to in-person and I know our clients and parents are as well.”

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The initiative is only one of a number of disability programs across the country able to continue during challenging times due to financial support provided by private funding and family foundation philanthropy. The causes are important. One in five, or 22 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older, has at least one disability. With so much need, non-profits are always on the lookout for more philanthropic support.

While some high-profile disability organizations, such as the Rick Hansen Foundation, garners funding from the likes of the Stewart and Marilyn Blusson Foundation and the Gordon and Ruth Gooder Charitable Foundation, it can be more challenging for others to entice donors to give to programs for Canadians who are currently experiencing disabilities rather than for health research and bursaries, says Sperling. She points out that charity walks for cures are particularly popular. So is giving to hospitals.

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“People just don’t know what the options are out there,” she says. “These programs are not in our faces in the same way.”

Keith Thomson, managing director of CI Private Wealth in Toronto, is not surprised that some disability initiatives have a tougher time generating larger donations, particularly if they address the needs of a smaller group. Thomson, who helps wealthy clients with their philanthropic goals and has served on a number of charity boards himself, says many people tend to donate to organizations that that touched their lives directly or indirectly through family members or friends.

“There’s nothing wrong with donating for emotional reasons, but I think you want to make sure you’re donating to an organization that is making a difference and has an impact,” he says.

At the Disability Foundation in Vancouver, its six affiliated societies have an impact by inspiring people with disabilities live full, active lives. Volunteer engineers and makers design and create custom assistive devices like wheelchair mounted baby carriers for new moms and a so-called “transformer bike” that switches between a wheelchair and bicycle. Another society runs an accessible recording studio, while others give people the ability to sail, hike, paddle and garden.

The Foundation was originally founded by Sam Sullivan, Vancouver’s former mayor and a member of the legislative assembly, who rebuilt his life following a spinal cord injury that left him a tetraplegic (also known as quadriplegia), as a young man.

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“Our mantra is to reimagine what is possible,” says David Fong, executive director, “We serve people with physical disabilities of all ages that are either underserved, stigmatized or overlooked.”

He acknowledges there is a lot of competition when trying to raise dollars, and due to the nature of whom they are serving, the Foundation’s work can be overlooked, too. “For 30 years people have said, ‘Who? Who are you? We’ve never heard of you,’” he explains. Today there is new focus on getting the word out, particularly through social media. And while there are always philanthropic donations, much funding comes from families who have lost a loved one who was once a Foundation client. Word of mouth rules.

At March of Dimes, its new After Stroke program is still looking for sizable private donations. Launched last year, it helps people who have experienced a stroke navigate care after leaving the hospital. People are connected with a personal After Stroke coordinator who sets goals and find supports to help people do things like learn how to cook a meal again, use the adaptive technology on a smart phone or connect with support groups.

Because so many people are affected by strokes – about 62,000 Canadians each year – Sperling says securing philanthropic funding may come easier as word gets out. Most people know somebody who has had a stroke, after all. Still, in order to encourage donations, the organization has been working hard to show stakeholders and potential funders that the program is already effective. They hired an expert to help them develop systems to measure outcomes effectively.

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“People don’t want to know how many people you’ve served anymore. They want to know it was actually impactful and someone has been able to make strides in their recovery,” she says.

Thomson agrees that she has the right idea. While many families who donate to programs and charities focus on whether the organization has low overhead costs, too much attention to that datapoint can be counterproductive. Instead, a key metric is impact.

“That’s the reason the charity exists in the first place,” he says.

Website Charity Intelligence is putting more focus on those metrics now, he explains. And that is a good place for donors to start researching a charitable organization. Or, for those who plan to give a sizable donation, he suggests just picking up the phone.

“Talk to the executive director or the chair of the organization and say, ‘Look, I want to talk about the work you’re doing. I want you to explain to me how you’re making a difference,’” he says. “Just roll up your sleeves and get involved.”

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