There is no shortage of evidence that Canadian workplaces — and our workforce — are undergoing a major transformation. Precarious work is on the rise, while pensions and benefits are disappearing. There are also ongoing demographic shifts: the impending baby boom retirement, the rising prominence of millennials in the workforce, high youth under/unemployment and the challenges facing highly skilled immigrants.

In this constantly shifting landscape, workforce tensions are mounting as we seek to reconcile the diversity of generational and demographic perspectives with conflicting employee and employer needs, in an effort to meet emerging expectations.

All of this is true for the nonprofit and charitable sector. Often overlooked in conversations about the changing workforce and the workplaces of the future, the organizations in the nonprofit sector are struggling to identify and adapt to the new realities of work, while also ensuring they provide high quality and responsive services.

Across Canada there are more than 2 million people working for nonprofits and charities – more than 1 million alone in Ontario. And Canadians contribute millions of volunteer hours to the sector. That represents a bigger labour market than those of most industries, including the mining and automotive industries. The bulk of the nonprofit sector is made up of small organizations with fewer than 20 staff, much like the small business community. Our people are the power behind many of the services and programs that Canadians count on – social services, mental health services, housing, food banks, newcomer supports, sports and recreation facilities, arts and culture, education, child care, seniors’ programs, our faith communities, and many more. The workers in the sector are passionate and deeply invested in delivering benefits to their communities. Although Canada is a society that clearly values these services and understands how important they are for healthy and vibrant communities, there needs to be more awareness of how important professional, experienced and dedicated employees are to nonprofits.

Now it seems we in the nonprofit sector may not be able to recruit all the talent we’ll need in the future to meet our missions and serve our communities. There are indications that young people are discouraged from entering or remaining in our sector, despite the creative and meaningful work opportunities we offer, because they are not convinced the sector can provide them with decent work opportunities. The Youth and Philanthropy Initiative recently released a report on attitudes toward nonprofit careers among young Canadians. The results of its survey are alarming: 63 percent of youth would not even consider a career in the nonprofit sector, primarily because they are afraid of “not being able to earn a living.” Our sector relies heavily on the passion of its volunteers but, given the increasingly complex regulatory and economic landscape, nonprofits need to be able to compete for professional talent in the paid labour market. Above all, we want to encourage, rather than discourage, young people who are motivated to give back and make a positive impact on society.

Clearly, our sector is not isolated from the trends sweeping the general workforce. Many of our organizations contribute to the precarity of work by frequently offering only part-time and contract work, and by not investing in the benefits that would grow our workforce and contribute to the economy. The financial ecosystem in which we operate, especially the donations, government grants and contributions, service contracts and program fees on which we depend, has also been shifting. This new environment is putting even greater pressure on our workforce planning. How can we support workforce development, create good jobs, pay decent wages and benefits and reduce precarity in our workforce, when the financial pressures — most of which are beyond our control — continue to mount?

But there is a resolute commitment among many in our sector to do something.

The nonprofit sector can be a major catalyst for a real conversation about decent work and what it could mean for Canada, our communities and the sector itself. Even our prime minister recently acknowledged the value of decent work to our society.

The Ontario Nonprofit Network’s big idea is to mobilize a decent work movement across the Ontario nonprofit sector. This will allow organizations to more effectively achieve their missions because they provide decent work to their employees. The premise? With healthier, happier, and better-supported workers, nonprofits can better meet their missions and deliver their programs and services. Investing in their workforce will save them money and time.

We have a vision: the nonprofit sector as a champion for decent work, leading by example with a well-supported, healthy and vibrant workforce that plays a vital role in the social and economic development of our communities.

To achieve our vision, we cannot rely on individual organizational practices alone. We must change the broader systems that affect our workforce. These include public policy and legislation, funding systems, evaluation systems and the accessibility of pension plans and employee benefits. These systems affect all nonprofits, whether they have one part-time employee or a staff of hundreds. We need better labour market information, we need stronger financial literacy, and we need to have the data to help us think over the longer term. We must take a holistic approach and engage our funders, policy-makers, decision-makers, managers and staff.

Many people in the nonprofit sector understand that decent work principles and practices are critically important to the future of our sector and therefore to the future health of our communities. Yet we have struggled with identifying ways in which decent work could be created, maintained and celebrated.

Through a decent work movement, we can create practical tools that will enable us to develop a shared understanding of what decent work is and how it can be measured. By making it commonplace to have open discussions about decent work practices and processes, we can help shift the environment in which nonprofits work so that policy-makers and funders of the sector better understand their role in supporting nonprofit organizations in this process. Ultimately, we want young people to know that they can have careers with decent work in our sector.

The decent work movement presents an opportunity for the nonprofit sector to be a champion of working conditions and social policies that ensure that work environments are dignified and supportive, thus improving the health and effectiveness of the sector.

The nonprofit sector is at a tipping point. Now it is more important than ever for the sector to continue to deliver innovative and timely services and programs, so we can continue to contribute to the creation of an inclusive and compassionate society. Our communities, our private sector partners and our governments count on it. But we cannot do it without a workforce that is inspired, committed, talented, and also well managed and compensated. We will not be able to compete and recruit the talent of the future if we don’t get it right. And we will not be able to address the changes in the workforce and in our workplaces if we don’t recognize the urgency of this issue. Nonprofits can lead by example by creating decent work or improving on it in their organizations, as well as by advocating for better conditions for all.

This article is part of the The Changing Nature of Work special feature.


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Cathy Taylor
Cathy Taylor is the executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN), an advocacy network for Ontario’s 55,000 nonprofits and charities.

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