COVID Stories: A Conversation with Social Planning Toronto

By: Eliana Trinaistic, Social Impact Manager

Social Planning Toronto is a non-profit, charitable community organization that has been working on improving equity, social justice and quality of life in Toronto through community capacity building, education and advocacy, policy research and analysis, and social reporting. The organization is committed to building a “civic society,” one in which diversity, equity, social and economic justice, interdependence, and active civic participation are central to all aspects of life. As part of our COVID Stories series that features organizations benefiting from the support of MCIS’ COVID-19 Fund, we had a chance to chat with Social Planning Toronto Executive Director, Devika Shah, about their pandemic response, rebuilding and the COVIDhelpTO project.

Devika, a passionate advocate for Toronto civic society, has an interdisciplinary background and experience in the environmental sector that has strengthened her commitment to advancing grassroots, community-led, multi-stakeholder solutions, which she views as the most powerful lever for achieving system change. Through past positions with World Wildlife Fund Canada, the Pembina Institute, York University and KCI Philanthropy, Devika has strengthened organizational capacity in the areas of public engagement, strategic integration and planning, fundraising, and operations management.

What is Social Planning Toronto all about?

Social Planning Toronto (SPT) is a 63-year-old non-profit organization. The role of the organization has always been the same: to advance social justice in Toronto and create a more equitable and inclusive society for all residents. By working collaboratively with a diverse range of organizations, our role is to create a voice and buy-in for the particular system change outcomes we are hoping to achieve. There are many groups that specialize in various issues and have in-depth expertise that we don’t need to replicate. Where we need to focus is on system-wide sector coordination and planning, in addition to advocacy, for more cohesive, cross-sectoral, citywide solutions.

Our work serves various equity-seeking groups and vulnerable populations including racialized people, people experiencing homelessness, low-income people, youth, seniors, immigrants, refugees and migrant workers, and we are doing this by focusing on four pillars. One of the pillars is community research and policy analysis and social reporting. Another way is through the sector capacity-building and convening. An example of capacity-building in the pandemic would be the website that was translated to additional languages with help from MCIS’ COVID-19 Fund. Additionally, we are also working on convening many different agencies within our sector to help create a joint voice on what Toronto’s post-pandemic recovery and rebuild should look like. The other thing we do is direct advocacy and government engagement, such as deputation meetings with councillors and other people in power. The fourth pillar is working with frontline agencies and grassroots groups by creating opportunities for joint advocacy coalitions on city-wide issues and mobilizing community knowledge. Our work is a bit unique, and because of its nature, we are more effective when we provide better language access.

For how long have you been in this role?

It’s been a very steep learning curve for me being in this role for the past year and a half, and I’m still on that curve. A big part of my learning is trying to figure out, in this new day and age when so many organizations in the civil society space are working on similar tasks, how can we best add the value in a way that’s not redundant but complementary, and how we get the organization more focused on fewer objectives and do them well. I came from the environmental sector, and although a lot of the issues are different, the tools for bringing about change, root causes and strategic challenges are similar.

Despite SPT not being a direct services organization, an interruption to business as usual has made us all even more aware of the service and sector gaps and vulnerabilities. What are the specific challenges SPT is facing within the context of the post-COVID economic recovery?

I think, like everybody else, we are already seeing the economic impacts of the pandemic. We anticipate ripple effects in terms of the amount of funding available to our sector. Here I see two particular issues: one is that our sector is not valued for its economic contributions, but seen as constantly asking for funds. The fact is, however, that we are the key in how to design better, more feasible and more sustainable economic recovery solutions. For example, we can see that public housing, in particular, is becoming a much more significant part of our recovery in the post-pandemic world. And our sector, in particular, could have an important role to play here in advocating for resources for the non-profit sector to get into the real estate market, acquire properties and turn them into sustainable social purpose real estate. That’s not something that SPT would directly do, but it’s definitely one of the examples of what our sector can do well. That kind of shift is happening sometimes within the sector, but it hasn’t yet registered for government decision-makers. For that reason, we’re still finding ourselves having to work with outdated perceptions and constantly advocating for funding, instead of being viewed as job creators and value creators.

Can you share a bit about the project MCIS has supported, how it came about and how language access was planned?

When the pandemic hit, the City of Toronto and United Way joined together to respond to urgent needs and coordinate emerging solutions quickly. They divided the city into team clusters, and each cluster was assigned dedicated staff from the City and from United Way, convening from service delivery agencies most intensively involved with emergency responses in each of the cluster geographic regions. Initially, there were daily meetings focused on urgent issues such as people experiencing homelessness being unable to access showers and toilets, because public spaces like libraries had been shut down. Some issues were escalated to the City level, and, in fact, a lot of what you saw coming from the City in terms of daily updates was informed through these structures.

As the process went on, some emerging needs that required longer-term solutions fed into a ‘coordinating table’, of which SPT was a part. One of the needs identified multiple times by frontline staff at community agencies was support to answer questions about income support and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Staff who have no background or particular knowledge in this area – the receptionist at the front desk of a community centre – are now working from home and having to respond to these kinds of questions. So we put together a website for the frontline agency workers with clear, quickly accessible answers, so that when someone phones and asks a question, not only can the answer be looked up quickly, but these callers can be connected to other types of supports such as the five financial empowerment clinics providing one-on-one financial support to individuals and 211.org. So that’s how it all came together; how COVIDhelpTO came to life.

However, because our city is so diverse, having those resources in different languages was really the key for us to be able to reduce some of the equity barriers. To make decisions about what our language needs were, we first looked at a bunch of census and internal data, and based on the funding that we had available, we understood how many languages we could afford. After we exhausted our funds, we approached MCIS and you generously provided us with additional support to have resources translated into 15 languages, to date.

What are you working on right now or planning to do in the near future?

We were about to release our strategic plan when the pandemic hit, and now we have to re-evaluate those priorities. We know that we will be working to ensure that all voices are heard, and that we rebuild our city through an equity lens. We also know that the degree of influence the average Torontonian has on the process of city planning is rapidly declining as cities are becoming less consultative. When you consider that the number of councillors is almost half of what it used to be, it means that you invariably end up with having less of a voice and less access to your councillor. And so, these different trends that are underway are causing our city to become less democratic, and less equitable in terms of whose voices get heard. I think this is going to be one big focus for us – to help with civic engagement infrastructure, to regain some of the democracy that we’ve been losing, to particularly focus on how it affects housing, renters’ rights and homelessness.

We have just taken on a contract with the City of Toronto, to work with grassroots leaders and agencies to train, equip and resource individuals to go out and talk to residents about how the City’s recovery consultation process should be run. We are collecting, coding and submitting the data back to the City to inform the final recommendations that they’re putting forward in September.

What kind of support would you like to see from agencies and individuals engaging with your work?

Obviously, further support with language services would be helpful. In terms of the general support, for us, it is always important to have more people engaged with our efforts, and following and sharing our work. The more tentacles that we have out in communities, especially the most marginalized segments of those communities, the more effective we are. We can’t do what we do if we’re not collaborating with this vast network of organizations, leaders and communities who, by virtue of being on the ground, have the best sense of what the real needs and real struggles are.


To get answers to most basic questions around financial and housing supports, such as eligibility requirements for CERB, or what help is available for people having trouble paying their rent, please visit COVIDhelpTO. (Content available in 15 languages).

To find more about how YOU can contribute to the Toronto recovery consultations, please visit: https://www.socialplanningtoronto.org/torr_consults.

To learn more about the SPT’s Interactive Toronto Languages Map: https://www.socialplanningtoronto.org/languages_map