Image from the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology, one of SMOs captured in the report

As Canada marks National Volunteer Week, a new report by University of Guelph researchers says Canadian international development groups have found ways to continue supporting development and humanitarian projects abroad despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Completed under a new collaboration involving U of G and professionals from Canada’s international development sector, the report highlights how small and medium-sized organizations (SMOs) in Canada have found innovative ways to maintain and even improve projects and services in the past year.

The report offers the first comprehensive look at how international development SMOs have fared in Canada under COVID-19, an important topic for many Canadians, said Dr. Andrea Paras, a professor in the Department of Political Science.

“Canada and Canadians pride themselves on being good global citizens,” said Paras. “The economic impact of the pandemic has been significant and has had a significant trickle-down effect on the bottom line of non-governmental organizations, many of whom rely heavily on donations.”

She worked on the study with undergraduate student Jenine Otto and master’s student Asa Coleman, in collaboration with Spur Change. Researchers surveyed organizations and received responses from 128 SMOs. The team also interviewed 22 selected organizations.

More than 800 humanitarian and development non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are based in Canada; most are SMOs with annual revenue ranging from less than $1 million (small) to between $1 million and $10 million (medium).

Between 2011 and 2015, the 600 smallest organizations raised a combined $30 million a year from private sources. Many are niche players focused on specialized areas.

Paras completed the report for Spur Change, a five-year program launched to increase the engagement of SMOs and Canadians in international development. The program is also intended to support Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Launched two years ago, Spur Change is funded by Global Affairs Canada and run by the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation for the Inter-Council Network. The ICN brings together eight Provincial and Regional Councils for International Cooperation.

Commissioned by Spur Change, the new report gives NGOs and government agencies a snapshot of how SMOs have fared and thrived during the past year.

The report, called “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on SMO Adaptation and Resilience,” was recently posted on the Spur Change website.

Dr. Andrea Paras
Dr. Andrea Paras

Spur Change contacted Paras early last fall to survey SMOs and produce its report. The new report found that SMOs have shown resilience and adaptability in delivering programs abroad.

“I looked for organizations that had gone under or merged, and I couldn’t find anybody,” said Paras. “The hopeful story is that these organizations do have resilience.”

Compared with larger groups, “small organizations might lack capacity, but they’re more nimble and flexible. There’s hope for the continued vibrancy of Canadian civil society.”

While many SMOs have seen cuts in charitable donations and declines in overall funding, organizations have responded by shifting to online fundraising and looking for other income sources, including so-called social impact investors.

Others have reconsidered their reliance on sending volunteer brigades overseas – a change prompted not just by cost but also by a desire to reduce climate impacts of international travel. Also, SMOs working in gender equality and maternal health have looked to adapt existing gender equality programs rather than begin new ones.

Many Canadian SMOs work with local staff or partners in other countries. During the pandemic, online tools have enabled those local groups to maintain connections with Canadian partners.

“With meetings now online, staff in other countries can now participate and are more involved in daily decision-making,” she said.

At the same time, limited international mobility under COVID restrictions remains a problem.

Pandemic impacts vary with size and location, with smaller organizations facing greater financial challenges than medium-sized ones. During COVID, regional SMOs outside of central Canada have been able to connect online with national networks.

“Things have become more accessible and inclusive,” said Paras. “We heard from organizations in British Columbia that they feel much more connected with the broader sector, which tends to be concentrated in central Canada.”

She said recommendations for Spur Change included the following:

  • Help small organizations with capacity-building, especially in funding applications and developing alternative funding models
  • Improve accessibility and inclusivity in the sector
  • Promote and support localization


Dr. Andrea Paras