Skip to main content

BCE Inc. boosted funding for its Bell Let’s Talk Initiative by 36 per cent over last year, which included an additional $5-million to five organizations that promote mental health.MARTA IWANEK/The Canadian Press

Corporate Canada stepped up in all kinds of ways to help ease the damage caused by the pandemic – cutting cheques, donating supplies to health care providers and, in some cases, retooling operations to make personal protective equipment. Companies changed the way they deal with charities, and even corporations that saw revenues plunge found ways to contribute.

While the data on corporate philanthropy in Canada is not comprehensive, some companies increased their charitable donations. Royal Bank of Canada spent $11-million on COVID-19 relief measures, such as food security and mental-health programs, on top of the roughly $130-million it donated to community organizations and causes. Likewise, BCE Inc. boosted funding for its Bell Let’s Talk Initiative by 36 per cent over last year, which included an additional $5-million to five organizations that promote mental health. Intact Financial Corp. spent $4-million to help vulnerable groups affected by the pandemic in addition to its planned $5-million donation budget.

Companies proved much more flexible when donating money this year. Corporate funding is typically allocated to specific initiatives, but donors removed some restrictions to let charities respond faster and decide how best to spend donations. RBC typically allows 10 per cent of its funding to go to operational expenses, but after staff reached out to charitable partners in March, the bank let organizations use as much as 50 per cent just to help keep the doors open.

”We became acutely aware of the fact that not only would they not be able to deliver programs, but in many cases, many of them would not be able to keep their lights on,” said Mark Beckles, RBC’s senior director of youth strategy and innovation. In some cases, the bank allowed organizations even greater funding flexibility, and Mr. Beckles said it will respond on a case-by-case basis next year. “We recognize it is in the long-term interest of Canada for the charitable sector to sustain itself,” he said.

Bell Let’s Talk is also providing discretionary funding for the first time with its new $5-million diversity fund, launched this year in an effort to boost mental health care services in racialized communities. “We are adapting our processes in order to make it possible for organizations to apply that might not otherwise have been able to,” said Mary Deacon, chair of Bell Let’s Talk. Applicants need to be community organizations but are not required to have charitable status. They can also make oral applications, another first for Bell.

Early in the pandemic, when concerns about shortages of personal protective equipment were heightened, companies donated from their own reserves. CAE Inc. tapped its global supply chain and sent 600,000 N95 masks to Quebec and Manitoba. Suncor Energy Inc. donated 40,000 to Indigenous communities, while PCL Contractors Inc. gave 1,300 masks to health care services – along with some 30,000 litres of disinfectant for front-line workers.

Companies donated their own goods and services, too. Telus Corp. gave more than 14,000 mobile devices and plans, valued at more than $9-million, to various organizations, including long-term care homes. Rogers Communications Inc. provided devices to women and children escaping domestic violence. And BCE’s Bell Canada distributed almost 5,000 smartphones, tablets and SIM cards to health care facilities, shelters and other organizations.

Maple Leaf Foods Inc. gave away an additional $1-million of product, on top of the $1.5-million it donates in a normal year, while IKEA Canada provided $1.7-million worth of goods to vulnerable communities. Ernst & Young partnered with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and CPA Canada to connect small and medium-sized businesses, charities and non-profits with accountants providing free services for a limited time. For organizations struggling to make sense of the raft of government COVID-19 support measures, the service was much needed.

Even modest measures were helpful. In April, a long-term care home got in touch with mall operator Cadillac Fairview to ask about spare food-court trays. Safety protocols required staff to serve residents in their rooms rather than in dining areas, and the home didn’t have enough trays. So Cadillac Fairview ended up lending more than 2,400 trays from its empty food courts to a handful of long-term care homes in Ontario.

Even with so much attention on the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement pushed corporations to address diversity, inclusion and anti-racism efforts this past summer. About 400 organizations have signed the pledge from the BlackNorth Initiative, which includes the goal of having at least 3.5 per cent of Canadian executive and board roles filled by Black executives and directors by 2025. Toronto-Dominion Bank is investing $11.7-million across North America in Black-led and Black-focused organizations, while Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce is directing more than $1-million to Black communities.

But companies that saw severe revenue declines, particularly in the aviation industry, were forced to cut back on philanthropy. CAE in Montreal, which makes flight simulators, cut executive pay and suspended its dividend but even then had to slash its donation and sponsorship budget by more than 50 per cent. However, the company and its employees still managed to raise $1-million for United Way Centraide Canada.

Airline and tour operator Transat AT Inc., which was grounded for four months and furloughed much of its staff, postponed most of its charitable work and had to cancel its annual Flights in Search of Santa. Air Transat and a foundation that grants wishes to critically ill children have flown hundreds of kids and their families on 90-minute plane rides featuring Santa Claus, elves, gifts and music each December. But this is the first time in almost a decade that those planes won’t be flying. “We are trying to not let our partners down, but we are conscious of how little money we have,” said Transat spokesperson Christophe Hennebelle.

The drop in air travel has meant fewer charitable contributions from passengers, who are asked to donate pocket change at the end of each flight. The campaign has raised $6.7-million since 2004 for children’s charities, but according to Mr. Hennebelle, the amount collected this year will be “minimal.” Employee donations have plunged, too.

Indeed, next year looks uncertain for many charities, with much depending on how the Canadian economy performs. In a November report from Imagine Canada, a non-profit that promotes the work of the sector, some executives said their charitable budgets were tightening and that they were concerned about their non-profit partners.

Still, the same report highlighted that employees increasingly want their CEOs to speak out on important social issues. “We’re hopeful the pandemic may increase a desire among Canadian workers to have their CEOs step up,” said Imagine CEO Bruce MacDonald. “For those in the charitable sector, having allies in the corporate community to help us solve complex social issues would be really, really helpful.”

With files from Alexandra Posadzki, James Bradshaw, Clare O’Hara, and Jeffrey Jones

The Yonge Street Mission in Toronto says demand for its food bank and hot meals has risen by 196 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as demanding new measures to protect staff and clients from the coronavirus.

The Globe and Mail

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.