How well are we connected?


How well are we connected

Reflections from Sharon Avery, President and CEO, Toronto Foundation

This important report asks the question: How well are we connected? 

In light of our collective experience of the past 2.5 years – a global pandemic that forced us all into protective isolation, this question is – and should be – fundamental. Our relationships with one another are the glue that binds us together as a society. 

The short answer is that we are not as well connected as we once were. This is not surprising but we didn’t really know for certain. And now we have the evidence, with all its nuances, thanks to a survey of more than 4,000 Torontonians – the largest of its kind. 

We issued the first social capital survey back in 2018, well before the pandemic took root. And while we cannot definitively attribute all the new findings directly to COVID-19 we cannot deny the role it has played in the reduced strength of our relationships, both informal and formal, and our sense of trust. 

With this in mind I ask a second question: How well have you fared during the pandemic? 

If you’re like me, you have most certainly been changed in small ways and big. But you may even be able to point to some positive impacts. If you were fortunate enough to not fall seriously ill or lose any loved ones, you may be counting your blessings. Maybe the time at home has brought your family closer together. Maybe the experience has inspired you to explore something new, take a leap you might otherwise have been afraid to pursue. Perhaps working from home has given you back the time and control to re-evaluate your priorities and balance all the elements in your life. 

Not so much for thousands of our fellow Torontonians. When we first tracked social capital five years ago we learned that 6% of city residents had no close family to rely on and the same amount had no close friends. Today, that number in each case has grown to 8% of the population or about 200,000 people who lack this basic form of social support. Perhaps even more startling,12% of Torontonians, that’s almost 300,000 people, rarely or never feel they have someone to depend on when they really need it. We cannot ignore these glaring facts.  

How can a city with so much also be home to so many with so little? 

In our world of philanthropy this matters a lot. We exist to mobilize people and organizations with resources, to tackle the big, intractable issues. We direct our support to community organizations working on the frontlines of poverty, inequality, justice. They serve the most marginalized among us and yet our report also makes clear that the organizations themselves are under serious threat too. 

Charitable donations and volunteering have taken a massive hit, and donations fell the most among those earning more than $100,000. All told, we see 300,000 fewer donors in the city, a potential loss of more than $180 million in donations over the past year, along with 36 million fewer volunteer hours, or approximately 20,000 full-time equivalent hours. This was confirmed in our research, reinforcing the findings of multiple previous reports. It is not just a temporary blip either but accelerates a long-term trend. At the same time, we know from our Toronto Nonprofit Survey as well as reports from the Ontario Nonprofit Network and Imagine Canada that staff and volunteer burnout in the sector is severe following massive surges in demand for services. These things combined paint an alarming picture, particularly when we consider those most in need of support, the hundreds of thousands who lack the basic social supports most of us take for granted.  

What’s more, our research underlines how community organizations are the backbone of a healthy society. We learned that there is a strong correlation between involvement in groups like charities, arts, sports and faith-based organizations and high levels of social capital overall. As well, we learned that this kind of engagement is also a key factor in overall health and wellbeing. This, at a time when mental health indicators have taken a nose dive with thirteen per cent of the population or more than 300,000 people saying they rarely or never feel they have something to look forward to. 

But still, things could be worse. Overall, social capital in Toronto appears to be an asset, that if not for the strength of our relationships we would be a lot worse off. Increased polarization, for example, is not a reality here despite assumptions to the contrary. We also learned that Toronto is not the cold, indifferent place we are sometimes accused of being. Levels of social connection in the big city are in fact higher than in the country at large. A companion social capital survey of 2,000 Canadians confirms this. 

We are no doubt living in very complex times. Crisis feels like the new normal. Withdrawing and cutting ties is an understandable response. 

But I am here to say that things don’t have to be that way. We can keep it simple and we can do something that makes a difference. Today. 

Show up. Join a group in your community. Just by taking part you can help strengthen the ties that make our city a welcoming place. Support community organizations to create safe spaces where people can gather without jeopardizing their health, where those most isolated don’t have to be alone. 

Don’t be a stranger. Reach out to someone you see on the street, or in the grocery store, at the park, on the subway. Look them in the eye. Say hello. Yes, I’m talking in-person. Live. I can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. Face-to-face matters. It is not always possible but we must remember that some of us don’t have a smiling face at home to greet us or the comfort of human touch.  

We began the pandemic firmly believing that we were “all in it together.” It was a good slogan then and it’s time to make good on it now. The stakes are high but the cost to each of us is low. Let’s remember our shared humanity. 


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