The Union Gospel Mission has been feeding the hungry in the Downtown Eastside for 50 years, and demand is only growing.

It’s been a tough couple of years 
for charities across the 
Lower Mainland. But for some 
local organizations that have bucked 
the trend, the key to success 
is simple: belief in a
 higher power.

On a miserably rainy Thursday evening, two lines stretch out from the Union Gospel Mission (UGM) in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside: one heading east down Cordova Street, another going south down Princess Avenue. The Princess line is for the evening’s hot meal, preceded by a chapel service; the Cordova file is a genuine, old-school breadline. People step up to the window for a loaf of day-old Safeway bread, a bag full of fruits and veggies, and a choice of the day’s random grab bag of donations – baby food, bags of fruit chips, and lots and lots of cakes. One woman scores an entire frosted birthday special, while a nearby volunteer frets over the box of fruit chips: “We can’t give these away!”

Back in the UGM kitchen, volunteers are cooking up tonight’s special: breaded beef liver. Up-front shelter residents work the breadline window. One winds into a story of the old days, pre-UGM: “Used to get into these street fights in Toronto. There’d be like 30 Filipinos squaring off against you. One little guy comes bouncing up – boing, boing, boing – and delivers this roundhouse kick to my head. I come to with my heels going click, click, click on the pavement as my friends dragged me away. I got knocked out by this guy with the most perfect technique I’ve ever seen. I mean, I’d like to meet that guy.”


"We have seen in both the United States and the United Kingdom a growing use of the private sector, including the not-for-profit and so-called faith-based charities, for the delivery of social services." – Brian Crowley

Outside a grey-haired, heavy-set man named Emery waits his turn under a large umbrella. “I got my forklift licence recently,” he says. “But I’ve got a criminal record. It’s tough to get hired. Sometimes I’m here every night for two weeks at a time.”

These ought to be hard times for charitable groups of every stripe. The financial shocks of 2008-09 brought many a portfolio tumbling down, and the effects have trickled down to charities; one of the largest, United Way of the Lower Mainland, reported a 10 per cent drop last year. 

The UGM has had its troubles too. Increased demand, for one. “Expenses for programs – that’s outreach, the shelter, education programs, addiction recovery, anything that isn’t administration, fund-raising or maintenance – were up by about two per cent in 2009 over 2008,” Derek Weiss, senior public-relations officer at the UGM, tells me. “The number of meals is up. We’re averaging, oh, about 200-and-some per day; on Sunday almost 300. That’s an increase of about 10 to 20 per cent. Our daily breadline doubled over the course of 2009. We’re seeing the working poor: people with lunch pails, hard hats.”

Now the good, or at least not-so-bad, news: Weiss says donations to the UGM were up “a couple of percentage points” in 2009. “What we’ve seen is a drop in the number of givers. Even though we’re pulling in the same amount of revenue, we’ve seen a drop of about 10 per cent in the number of donors. Most of those donors have been in the $200-and-under class. And we’ve seen middle-class donors step up and start giving more per gift. We’ve also seen an increase in giving from postal code areas that are more affluent.”


BC-charities-3-2.jpgAbout 100 full- and part-time staff keep the Union Gospel Mission's downtown facility running, cranking out hot meals 365 days a year.

Although charities of every type struggled through the recent recession, political trends seem to be inclining toward private and, in particular, faith-based groups. The Harper government signalled its support for faith-based groups in the 2010 throne speech, calling for “innovative charities and forward-thinking private-sector companies to partner on new approaches to many social challenges.” In his new book Fearful Symmetry: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Founding Values, Brian Crowley predicts more of the same for Canada, writing, “[W]e have seen in both the United States and the United Kingdom a growing use of the private sector, including the not-for-profit and so-called faith-based charities, for the delivery of social services.”

There is a perception among charitable organizations that faith-based charities may have a particular advantage over their secular counterparts. The theory is explained by Rick O’Brien, deputy executive director of the BC/Yukon region of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada: “Religious organizations are the most successful of all not-for-profits. Why? Because they have the courage to ask 52 times a year, every week.”

One of the central problems faced by charities is that when times get tough, occasional givers drop off the map. O’Brien says the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society gets about 20 per cent of its funding from regular long-term donors, and that, overall, 2009 donations lagged five per cent behind the 2008 pace. “We’re at 64 per cent of our fiscal year target as of this February 28,” O’Brien says, “but last February 28 we were at 70.4 per cent.”

At the UGM, where donations are running ahead of target, the percentage of funding from regular long-term donors is 35. “That 35 per cent gave us $4.16 million last year,” Weiss says. “Monthly contributions are very important for charities. They provide stability. People who are used to giving in church every week or every month are comfortable with the habit of regular donation.”


City in Focus president Tom Cooper says religious charities that have proven to be effective have maintained support from non-believers.

The question, given the relative success of the UGM and other faith-based charities, is whether charitable motives are more durable when backed by reli-gious conviction or organizational pressure. According to Pastor Tom Cooper, a church connection is no cure-all. “We’re not immune,” Cooper says. “The organizations we work with have felt the effects. A friend of mine, who is one of the most successful fundraisers at a private school, told me last year it took twice the donors and twice the time to raise the same amount of money.”

Cooper runs City in Focus (CIF), a Vancouver umbrella organization that provides logistical support for more than 100 of the city’s faith-based charitable groups. For the past 22 years, Cooper and his organization have handled what he calls their “back-end” support: the nuts and bolts of accounting and regulatory compliance. “City in Focus is an orthodox umbrella organization for interdenominational ministry,” Cooper explains. “We work with every conceivable denomination. From sex-trafficking issues to evangelism. If you can buy into the Apostles’ Creed, then come and join us.”

Cooper is the closest thing Vancouver has to an official civic pastor, a chaplain to the business community. It’s a role that brings him into contact with the Howe Street elite, many of whom turn out for his annual B.C. Leadership Prayer Breakfast alongside political notables such as Premier Campbell and Mayor Robertson. Cooper believes that tough economic times have given people permission to say no. “It’s given them cover. Because if you’re raising money for kids baseball or whatever charity you like, if you call someone who says, ‘It’s been a rough year,’ your immediate reaction will be, ‘Yeah, I know.’ If you’d called two years earlier they couldn’t say it. Part of it is reality, and part is nervousness. You don’t know what the future holds.” 

Still, Cooper believes that charities providing for basic human needs tend to fare better in recessions: “During tough times, food-bank giving goes up a bit. It’s about what people perceive as essential.”


BC-charities-3-5(1).jpgCooper says events such as January's Haiti earthquake can highlight the strengths of religious charities: "The Vancouver Catholic archdiocese raised a million dollars for Haiti. If any organization has boots on the ground – nuns and priests – it's them. Catholic charities are just incredibly effective. People know that."

  It doesn’t get much more essential than a breadline. The UGM was launched in 1940 on Powell Street and has been supported over the years by a coalition of Protestant churches. Right behind the current Cordova Street facility, a new six-storey building is under construction at Hastings and Princess, just the latest step in a story of growth. “We have 108 full-time staff and 25 part-time staff across our eight facilities,” UGM’s Weiss says. “About 100 work at the Cordova Street location, and about 30 work at our satellites: the New West and Mission drop-in centres, our two thrift stores, our supportive housing facilities and our Women’s Addiction Recovery Centre. We had approximately 4,500 volunteers last year, who put in over 38,000 volunteer hours.”

The UGM offers hot meals 365 days a year – lunch at 2, dinner at 7. Meals are preceded by 20-minute chapel services. If it looks like the old soup-for-salvation model so often scorned by secular groups, Weiss insists it is not the case. “Attendance is not mandatory,” he says. “It’s a Christian religious service, but guests are not required to attend.”

Weiss points out that UGM volunteers are by no means exclusively Christian, nor are the donors. “UGM isn’t a church. We’re an urban relief organization founded in the Christian faith. People give to us because our values line up with their values. While at our core we’re a Christian organization, the way we express that Christianity is through compassion and service. We don’t ask whether our volunteers have religious affiliation.”

But what about secular resistance? Are religious charities handicapped by the perception that, one way or another, it’s all about saving souls? Tom Cooper thinks not.

“In terms of secular support,” Cooper says, “the most successful religious charity is the Salvation Army. They are a hard-core evangelical organization. But they attract more secular money than any other religious group. It’s because they have established their reputation as an organization that gets things done. People know when they give to the Sally Ann that the money will be put to good use, and used efficiently. So it doesn’t really matter what views your organization represents. If you have a good reputation, people will donate.”


BC-charities-3-7.jpg"Monthly contributions are very important for charities. They provide stability. People who are used to giving in church every week or every month are comfortable with the habit of regular donation." – Derek Weiss, public relations, UGM

Part of that is establishing a reputation for efficiency. The CIF’s last audit showed a budget of $1.6 million, raised mostly through donations from the local business community. Cooper divides the CIF’s spending into four categories: events (including the prayer breakfast and the Wallet Open, a golf tournament to help inner-city kids to go to camp), Samaritan money (direct charity operations), associate money (independently run satellite charity operations that the CIF helps administer) and operations (the CIF office, chaplaincy and ministry), which Coopers pegs at about $300,000. 

“The donors are looking all the time and saying, What’s your overhead? as opposed to what you’re doing,” says Cooper. 

The CIF’s nondescript Mount Pleasant office is full of cubicles, most belonging to local groups borrowing floor space. It’s clear when I visit that no one in this non-profit organization, with a staff of five full- and part-time employees, is blowing charitable contributions on leather upholstery or pricey art. “We cut our budget back this year,” says Cooper to underline the point. “We have one less staff person. One purpose: we want to send a signal that we get it.”

Once donors are convinced to give, they must be kept. Regular donations allow for sustainable, predictable budgets. Every charitable organization craves predictability, and monthly subscriptions are the charitable equivalent of bran cereal. On the other hand large, single donations – sudden windfalls, in effect – can be unsettling. Thus, Cooper employs a somewhat surprising strategy: “I limit the maximum people can give CIF. Even if someone is very wealthy, I get to one number, $22,000, and I stop, so that I have less to worry about if they have a bad day. You don’t want to be overly dependent. What if a wealthy donor walks?

“I always say [to donors], ‘I’d love you to pick a number that you’re comfortable with every year. I don’t want you to give so much that you resent it the following year.’ You have to find that comfort zone. If you go outside it, then the next year you may get nothing or at least get less.”

Cooper says events such as January’s Haiti earthquake can highlight the strengths of religious charities. “The Vancouver Catholic archdiocese raised a million dollars for Haiti,” Cooper points out. “If any organization has boots on the ground – nuns and priests – it’s them. Catholic charities are just incredibly effective. People know that.”


BC-charities-3-8.jpgIn a recession, faith seems to be more help than hurdle for charities. The UGM received $4.6 million last year from its regular donors.

But the visibility of religious organizations can also inspire suspicion. The Harper government drew criticism with its recent $3.2-million grant to Winnipeg-based charity Youth for Christ Canada – support which Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin called “taxpayer-funded proselytization.” 

“I have no objection to faith-based organizations providing services,” Martin told the Winnipeg Free Press in February. “The Salvation Army and others have been doing a great job for years. But these people are evangelical fundamentalists. Offering much-needed sports opportunities is just their way of luring in young prospects. . . . Would the federal government be so willing to give them $3 million if they were called Youth for Allah?”

Cooper doesn’t feel that the public at large is suspicious of faith-based groups. “I think you have to be predisposed to think that way. [If I don’t like someone] I’ll believe whatever you tell me about them. Just tell me, even if it’s a lie. I just don’t like ’em.” Still, he appreciates the tricky balance between evangelism and charitable work and says he personally leans toward the practical kind – in effect, evangelism by good example. “My theology of witness is – someone said years ago, ‘Preach the Gospel always and when absolutely necessary use words.’ If we’re really amongst society, in the right sense, people are going to tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘What makes you tick?’”

It’s a debate that goes to the heart of the faith-based charitable movement. Is the goal of faith-based charities to help the disadvantaged in accordance with religious principles? Or is it to use good works as an alternative route to finding new converts?

“Definitely the former,” says Weiss. “At UGM our business is not ultimately conversion but to care for the poor and marginalized in the name of Christ. We are unashamedly Christian and encourage people to explore the Christian faith in our chapel services and throughout our programs because we see the incredible difference it can make in their lives, but our primary goal is to care for others.”


BC-charities-3-10.jpgWhile openly Christian, UGM puts helping before preaching. And as it prepares to expand into a new six-storey facility, its work will only grow.

He cites the example of the UGM’s alcohol and drug recovery program: “We may connect with someone who comes to meals or shelter and is using drugs or alcohol in a destructive way, and there is a point where we can say, in a spirit of love for that person, ‘Hey, we’re here with open arms, ready to receive you into our community and our recovery program, whenever you decide you need to change.’ In that case, we need to use words to communicate that offer of help. Also, many of the speakers at our chapels are recovered addicts who have gone through the program themselves. They are not shy about inviting people to leave a life of addiction, which is part of ‘preaching the Gospel’ with words.”

Going forward, CIF’s Cooper foresees something akin to the dream of Pharaoh, recounted in the Book of Genesis: seven famished cows devour seven fat cows, a sign of hard times ahead. “People coming out of college are making less,” Cooper points out. “There are no more property values that are going to double or triple. That dance is over. It may take years to recover from this. It’s just going to be tighter for everyone.

“But my strategy doesn’t change. Maybe widen the net. One of the things we want to do this year is double up the donors. We hope to have some of our ongoing database folks add CIF to their annual strategy; we’re also having one of our staff work part time on nurturing new donors. Many hands make light the work.”

Down at the UGM, a resident is at the chapel organ, jamming away on “Take the Long Way Home” and “Band on the Run.” The hot-meal lineup is finally getting out of the rain, filing past UGM worker Fari Ghaem-maghami. “Johnny! What happened to your other wheelchair? Hey, Frank! Kevin!”

Outreach worker James Whitman looks over the tables of donated food. The UGM, like food banks, depends on non-financial donations too. Thirty per cent of the food distributed at the UGM is donated from businesses such as Safeway Inc., Starbucks Corp. and Liberté Inc. But sometimes it can be like waiting to see what washes ashore from a shipwreck, Whitman says. “A little while ago, we got six pallets of bananas. Once we got a box of left shoes. All left, no right.” 

He shrugs. “I guess someone figured it might help.”

At the window, a weathered, gap-toothed man in a blue parka points at his choices – two fat slices of cake with little icing flowers on top. He grins at the volunteer and heads out into the rain.