Few areas of Canadian society highlight the effects of the government’s austerity movement like the voluntary sector. From fundraising to governance oversight and front-line service delivery, there is a trend to push charitable organizations to do more with less. Canadians have come to rely on the voluntary sector to play an enormous role in their day-to-day lives—in fundraising for the neighbourhood soccer team, language and cultural exchanges abroad for young students, meal services for vulnerable seniors and so much more. But without changes to the way we see and fund voluntary activities, it will be hard to sustain that degree of involvment in the lives of the next generation of Canadians.

The voluntary sector has had to step into the shoes of a government retreating from offering public services. As services have been downloaded across all levels of government to the staff and volunteers of nonprofits, the sector has been burdened with providing a wider array of social services to meet a greater complexity of needs. A 2009 Imagine Canada study found that the voluntary sector contributed 8.5 percent to Canada’s overall GDP, employing 9 percent of the workforce. That’s roughly the same as the proportion employed in manufacturing and more than that in education.

Why has the voluntary sector assumed this burden? It comes from the clear misalignment between how social services are currently funded and the expectations of Canadians for the quality and quantity of these services. We want greater services but in the context of less government. We want more personalized responses; greater intervention in high-need, high-risk populations; and coordinated strategies between cross-sectoral institutions. Yet we elect governments that promise tax cuts or at best “status quo” taxation policies that will clearly have an impact on the safety net that Canadians have so long held dear.

In this context, here are three suggestions for policy-makers and influencers on best practices for enhancing the capacity of the voluntary sector to respond to the growing social service needs of Canadians.

Bigger is not always better. As part of the challenge of doing more with less, nonprofit organizations have responded by merging with each other. Driven by shrinking resources and the fact that many small organizations do not have the funds to maintain integral infrastructure processes (human resources, accounting, professional development training), the trend has seen larger, more established organizations grow into $50-million-plus organizations with staffs in the hundreds, and in some cases thousands.

And while I have been a proponent of local mergers in cases where services overlap, the voluntary sector requires a diversity of organizations to serve the complexity of Canadians’ needs. Large organizations are often very skilled in providing traditional, tried and tested models of service delivery but are less likely to be able to offer creative engagement on emerging problems in communities—those that require a focused, specialized set of problem-solving skills. Innovation often starts from the ground up. Connecting the social entrepreneur with the big idea to larger and interconnected institutions that can support the scaling-up of systems solutions allows for collaboration across organizations and processes, while recognizing that problem solving is often local.


Take the example of Ashoka, a global organization of social entrepreneurs. Ashoka recognizes that systems-changing solutions are often driven by a single idea. It funds selected social entrepreneurs with proven solutions to work on further developing their ideas and creating connections. This model has been highly successful. In Canada, Ashoka fellows have included John Mighton, founder of JUMP Math, a literacy numeracy program that is changing how students and educators understand and engage math, and Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, which is leading a global movement to teach empathy to the youngest of children as a method of violence prevention. The co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, Kailash Satyarthi, was elected as an Ashoka fellow in 1993.

Funding must be long-term and sustainable. Successful ideas don’t emerge overnight. Funding cycles across the sector are generally defined in three-year periods: organizations that apply for funding, if successful, receive it for three years (although in many cases it may be only one year). They must then either reapply, usually with a new project idea (as the same project will not be funded by the same funding stream twice), or look for funding for that same project through another source. If you have been funded by the government, this generally means that you’ll need to look to a private foundation to continue the program. But too often, the result is that the organization is forced to abandon the project idea and start anew with another project concept.

This funding cycle is highly inefficient and counterproductive. If we have a proven good idea, why not keep funding it? Realistically, the success of an initiative that aims to upend societal problems may take years to come to fruition. If we agree that transformative change to society’s lasting problems is the goal, then the solution needs to be thought of in 20-year lifespans and adequately funded. Pathways to Education Canada, which is currently reducing drop-out rates in targeted neighbourhoods by as much as 70 percent, was started in 2001, and was able to demonstrate quantifiable success at scale after almost a decade in the field. Its expansion from a few neighbourhoods in Toronto to across Canada has been made possible by federal government funding (regardless of the fact that it is often upheld of an example of private sector investment in the charitable sector, government is by far its largest funder). Pathways is one of the most effective organizations working to graduate high-risk students in the world.

Present a coordinated ask. Both the voluntary sector and government bodies need to get on the same page in defining needs and how to best support them. Organizations must come together to make sure that policy and funding requests are aligned across the sector (Imagine Canada plays this role to a certain extent on the policy side). Government bodies should commit to the long-term needs that are clearly trending across the country, and support the sector. There must be financial incentives to work collaboratively and share resources when feasible and practical, without squeezing out the ability of individual organizations to respond to local issues.

Following these three simple but vital axioms would offer a chance to meet the needs and expectations of Canadians in a time of tighter public spending, and it will be essential for a sector that is increasingly central to our lives.

Photo: Shutterstock

Michelle Dagnino (Loran '98) is a director of the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre, a multiservice agency in Toronto, and a long-term advocate for the nonprofit sector in Canada.

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