Thoughts on A Sector in the Fog
The recent release of new data from Statistics Canada on giving and volunteering brings to mind some questions that go beyond charity and giving. Why is it that most of what we “know” about our sector is focused on data about philanthropy? Is the so-called charitable sector only about charity and volunteers? What do we really know about who we are in this sector with many names – charitable, non-profit, voluntary, community, social, civil society? How can we even be sure we are talking about the same thing? Are we a sector in the fog?
The answer in my view is yes. Why? Because we lack comprehensive data about ourselves. Even more so, because we don’t have a strong public voice. On the data point, we probably know more about how much cement was manufactured last week than about how many people were working in our sector. Statistics Canada has not been very effective at collecting data on our sector, focusing now almost entirely on those giving and volunteering statistics which continue to put a spotlight on philanthropy, and not on social and economic impact. We don’t have an up to date sectoral database that tells us who we are in terms of numbers of employees, salaries paid or economic benefit generated. And the public focus on charitable giving data leads to misperceptions about which dollars matter most in this sector, and how those charitable dollars should be allocated to best serve the client. Much more attention is paid to so-called administrative or overhead expenses in the non-profit sector than in government or business, where the cost of operating a business and delivering services is not the only or principal measure of value.
More crucially, we don’t have a strong voice to talk to and about ourselves. We have limited capacity on a pan-Canadian basis. We have relatively few umbrella representative bodies and most of these have precarious financial situations, which limit their capacity and voice. The advisory bodies and councils that existed a decade ago to provide the sector with opportunities to convey messages and advice to policy makers at the federal level no longer exist or have been reduced. We no longer have a Human Resources Council for the sector, a National Council of Welfare, a policy advisory committee to the CRA Charities Directorate, a Roundtable on Environment and the Economy, a Canadian Policy Research Network, etc.. Every organization should be able to justify and sustain itself through those who benefit from its work but, as we know, this is not always the case. Without infrastructure, there has been a net loss of capacity to formulate views and advice based on evidence. Add to this a sense that the sector, especially the registered charity sector, is meant to deliver services, not to advocate views on policy, and you have a relatively silent sector, not seen by policy makers or the public, and lacking an identifiable brand other than charity.
This is ironic, given that the public sector, where policy ideas are supposed to be generated, is increasingly looking outside for innovation or creativity around new approaches to complex social challenges, be they in health, education, the urban and green environment, or other areas. Creativity involves risk taking, entrepreneurial thinking and boundary breaking, all of which social sector organizations are quite capable of doing. So there is great potential and need for sector/government interaction in ways that go well beyond the conventional service delivery model. Even in service delivery, there are possibilities for innovation that social sector organizations can and do explore.
Could we have more frequent and more effective collaboration for policy innovation if the sector was less shrouded in fog? Of course we could. We as a sector need to find ways to reveal ourselves, through storytelling and through more efforts to reach out and communicate our strengths and our ideas to policy makers. We are well able to blow some of that fog away with more collaboration amongst ourselves. We have tremendous assets of community knowledge, on the ground experimentation, needs assessment and effective deployment of resources, as well as enormous commitment, to bring to any table. Let’s cast some brighter light and find the best ways to make ourselves more visible in 2015, regardless of the charity lens that others use!