Research fuels funding for United Way
Organization's reports aim to provide practical policy solutions to problems of inequality.
RENE JOHNSTON / TORONTO STAR
Lee Soda, director of Agincourt Community Services is seen in the ACSA food bank.
In its mission to improve the lives of the city’s less fortunate, United Way Toronto & York Region has many tools at its disposal.
The agency is the largest non-governmental supporter of social services in the GTA. Last year it invested more than $80 million in Toronto-area communities, money that went towards funding 764 programs delivered in partnership with 200 community agencies.
But in a sprawling city of 2.8 million people, divided into dozens of neigbourhoods each with different demographics and social needs, how does the agency decide how to allocate those resources? The answer is arguably the United Way’s most powerful tool: research.
“Evidence is very important to what we do,” said Michelynn Laflèche, head of research, public policy and evaluation for United Way Toronto & York Region. The studies the agency carries out determine “how we make decisions about what we’re going to support and what we think the big issues are that are facing the city.”
United Way Toronto & York Region is unique among non-profits in terms of the amount and quality of research that it produces. Katherine Scott, vice-president, research and policy at the Canadian Council on Social Development, said the United Way has played a “leadership role” in publishing studies that inform effective social policy.
While many non-profits do their own research into the communities they serve, Scott said that the size of Toronto’s United Way allows it to devote more resources to data collection. And unlike purely academic studies, the United Way’s reports aim to provide practical policy solutions to problems of inequality. “They’re looking at research that will translate into real change in people’s lives on the ground,” said Scott, whose organization has collaborated with the United Way on research projects.
Since 2002, the Toronto chapter of United Way, often in partnership with universities and government, has published a dozen reports on issues like precarious employment, income inequality, and youth homeless.
None of them have been more influential than 2004’s Poverty by Postal Code, a landmark study that examined the geography of inequality in Toronto. The report found “a dramatic intensification of neighbourhood poverty” in the inner suburbs, and has guided the agency’s funding strategy ever since.
In the decade following the report, the United Way directed $269 million to programs in Toronto’s inner suburbs. In addition to funding existing agencies, some of the money went to establish new community hubs in seven underserved areas of the city. Each hub houses multiple social and health services under the single roof of a community space.
In western Scarborough, the strategy appears to be working. Operating out of a Kennedy Rd. strip mall, the Dorset Park Community Hub opened its doors in 2012. It offers a wide array of programming including newcomer and settlement services, healthy cooking classes, a food bank, employment assistance, seniors’ outreach, and mental health programs.
It’s a one-stop shop for residents in the area, many of whom are immigrants at risk of being economically and socially marginalized.
The Poverty by Postal Code report “has been the real catalyst for a lot of the work that has gone on in the suburbs,” said Lee Soda, executive director of the Agincourt Community Services Association, which is the lead agency at the Dorset Park hub. ACSA had been active since 1974, but in the wake of the report Lee said the United Way increased funding for her organization. Last year ACSA received almost $900,000 from the agency.
Poverty by Postal Code, which was based largely on Canadian census data, also provided data that allowed ACSA to tailor its services to the specific needs of the local population.
“The programs that run out of our hub are, again, directly co-relational to the needs of the larger community,” Soda said. “And it was because of the work that came out of Poverty by Postal Code.”
According to Soda, about 40,000 people now use the Dorset Park facility’s services each year.
Like many non-profits, businesses, and academics, the United Way’s ability to understand the population it serves has been hindered by the federal government’s decision in 2010 to scrap the mandatory long-form census.
The new Liberal government has revived the census, however, and according to Statistics Canada, the survey will be sent out in May. The federal agency will start releasing data from it in 2017.
John Shields, a Ryerson University professor of politics and public administration, described the reinstatement of the census as “extremely important” for the United Way.
“The thing about the census data is it allows us to have more (granular) analysis,” said Shields, who worked with the United Way on a 2013 precarious employment study. “We’re interested in what’s happening in particular kinds of communities. And really only the census data, because of its size, is going to allow us to get to that kind of information.”