Legions begin fundraising to save branches as financial challenges mount

TORONTO — A number of Royal Canadian Legion branches across the country have launched online fundraising efforts to keep their doors open after suffering financial setbacks because of COVID-19.

The head of the national veterans' and community service group said this week that despite ongoing work to help veterans and seniors in their communities during the pandemic, many branches are now turning to fundraising to pay the bills and ensure they can re-open when the crisis ends.

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Dominion President Tom Irvine said branches act as independent small businesses from the national command, but that oversight body has taken a series of actions, including easing fundraising restrictions and releasing $3 million to give struggling branches some cash flow.

But with over 1,300 branches spread across the country, that might not be enough to save every one.

"Our branches are out there still serving their communities," Irvine said. "They're delivering food, groceries, making food, but they're still closed. They are hurting because the revenue is not coming in."

Legion branches operate under strict rules concerning how they can spend the money they raise. Cash raised each year from the Poppy Fund must be spent locally on veterans.

Branches fund their operations by renting their halls and running bars and restaurants. But with those operations closed because of the pandemic, paying the bills has quickly become a problem that could result in branches closing, Irvine said.

Last week, the legion executive waived local fundraising restrictions and gave branches permission to set up online fundraising efforts on sites such as GoFundMe.

"This is a way for the branches to raise funds locally to help them offset what they're going through," Irvine said. "This is just another tool to help them raise money."

A series of online campaigns have started to spring up, with branches asking for anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000 to keep their operations solvent.

The president of a branch in Salmon Arm, B.C., said they have no option but to ask the community for help. The sudden onset of the pandemic closures meant his branch, like many, had no time to prepare financially.

"I just don't want to come out on the other end of this thing and find we can't get started again," Matt Fowler said.

Fowler said the branch is also making calls locally and hoping a series of small donations from community members will help them stay afloat.

"I felt bad asking at all. I know people are having a tough time getting food for themselves and paying their bills, but this isn't a normal thing. We can't lose this place," he said.

Irvine reiterated that even in the face of financial challenges, branches continue to serve their communities.

"I'm praying that when this is all over, that the Canadian public will see that the legion was out there throughout the entire time.... Maybe they might want to come in and help us continue down the line"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2020.

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