Behind the Scenes
It began as the charitable sector. But, as society changed, the idea of charity, rooted in religion and noblesse oblige, fell out of favour. So, it became the voluntary sector. But, as volunteers and small donations were replaced by paid staff and government funding, that no longer fit.
So, it became the non-profit sector. But, as charities resorted to profit-making activities to survive in an era of government cutbacks, that designation became uncomfortable.
Now, it is testing new labels: the social benefit sector, the third sector and the civil society sector.
What hasn’t changed, through all these makeovers, is that Canadians who work for the public good – for free or for pay, in grassroots groups or large national organizations – feel overlooked and undervalued.
Recently, 100 representatives of this vital, but largely invisible, network gathered in Toronto to talk about how to get their message out and how to convince policy-makers to treat them as problem solvers, not alms collectors.
Their yearning was palpable. So, unfortunately, were their problems.
Helen Burstyn, chairwoman of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, which provides grants to thousands of community organizations, social service agencies, sports teams, environmental groups and cultural projects, offered this overview of the sector: “It is fragmented, often poorly organized and under-represented in the halls of government.”
She would know. She worked in Premier Dalton McGuinty’s office for a year and the senior echelons of the public service for 15 years before taking the reins of the Trillium Foundation.
Burstyn urged delegates to pull together and brush up on their advocacy skills. “The sector will not be as successful as it should be without being better at capturing and holding the attention of the government,” she said. “If we lose sight of this aspect of our work, we will one day see it as a strategic error that undermined and eroded our effectiveness.”
She pointed out that non-profit organizations have the economic clout to play a larger role. They account for 6.8 percent of Canada’s gross domestic product, whereas the auto industry accounts for 2.1 percent of the GDP.
Yet the car makers have convinced political leaders they’re too big to fail and secured roughly $13 billion in [Canadian] government support, while charities continue to inundate legislators with earnest briefs.
“The non-profit sector is big, it’s important and it’s vital to the health of our society and economy.”
Lynn Eakin, a social policy researcher who advises non-profit organizations, agreed the sector couldn’t afford to muddle along without a clear set of priorities and a strong collective identity. “Big (government) cuts are coming and they’ll be coming out of our sector,” she warned.
It is unrealistic to think wealthy philanthropists or individual donors will fill the gap, Eakin added.
What this means is that non-profit organizations will have to shed their squeamishness about making money, learn about entrepreneurship and lobby Ottawa to change its tax rules so they can subsidize their community services with their earned income.
However, crises create opportunity, Eakin stressed.
“For 20 years, the market economy has been dominant. We have a chance to rebalance how our society works. Our communities need us. The public trusts us, and we won’t walk away. We’re the sector that never gives up.”
It was a ringing call to arms, but uniting thousands of disparate organizations – each passionate about its cause and each jockeying for dollars – will require more discipline and solidarity than the sector has ever shown.
It has reinvented its name, its funding model, its procedures and policies.
However, it has never developed a clear voice or found a way to make common cause in hard times.