January 17, 2022
Guest Blog

Recognizing frontline nonprofit staff: Ontario Legislature moves forward with a week of appreciation

Raksha M. Bhayana, CEO and Michele Fisher, Communications Advisor, Bhayana Family Foundation

“Bringing visibility to the invisible weavers of our social fabric.”

Here in Canada, we are fortunate to have the second largest non-profit sector in the world. Two and a half million people work in our nation’s nonprofits and charities1, doing the miraculous work of caring for some of our most vulnerable citizens, engaging youth in arts and sports, knitting together proud communities, and much more.

At the Bhayana Family Foundation, we have had the privilege of honouring some exceptionally committed frontline workers through our awards program with United Ways/Centraides across Canada.

Ask yourself: in how many professions would you see a part-time seasonal worker personally hire a pink limo to take high school grads with disabilities to their prom? Or a survivor of partner violence who uses cooking as a medium to empower newcomers whose lives have been shattered by violence? Or a young woman who finds housing for recently incarcerated men, helping to prevent recidivism?

But here is the paradox: compared with almost every other profession, recognition for people in our sector is nearly non-existent. While we rightly lavish thanks on the more visible frontlines such as health care workers, nonprofit staff remain invisible champions, toiling tirelessly below society’s radar.

The case for recognizing our invisible champions

In the for-profit sector, formal employee recognition programs are de rigeur, and with good reason. Recognition is one of the most potent tools for motivating employees. In fact, lack of recognition is the main reason Canadian employees are unhappy at work – beating out bad bosses, low pay, and even toxic work cultures. Conversely, according to a survey of 12,000 North American workers, the most cited source of workplace satisfaction was the desire to feel appreciated and a sense of accomplishment. While most nonprofit organizations do their best to recognize performance internally, their resources are more limited, especially during the pandemic.

It is time to do something on a massively public scale. The Ontario Legislature has taken a giant step with its all-party, unanimous passage of Bill 9 – An Act to Proclaim a Week of Appreciation for the Nonprofit Sector.

The inaugural week is February 14-20, 2022.

MPP Daisy Wai has been the passionate champion of the legislation in Ontario. She worked tirelessly to ensure the unanimous passage of the bill because, in her words: “A Nonprofit Appreciation Week will provide Ontarians with a week-long opportunity to express their gratitude and encouragement to the nonprofit workers who play a vital role in building our communities.”

United Way Greater Toronto and the Ontario Nonprofit Network have been the Bhayana Family Foundation’s long-standing partners to see this legislation through.

Closing the recognition gap

A few facts about the nonprofit sector that not many people know…

  • The majority of nonprofit frontline workers are university and college educated. In fact, they are more highly educated than the rest of the labour force.
  • In Canada, the sector constitutes 11% of our labour force and accounts for 8.7% of Canada’s GDP – more than auto, retail, or manufacturing.
  • Nonprofits are some of the institutions most highly trusted by Canadians.
  • Despite all of this, frontline nonprofit staff are still among the lowest paid and the most undervalued members of our society.

Charities and non-profits have helped to build and shape the Canada we know. For context, Ontario’s nonprofit sector is Canada’s largest – a $50 billion economic driver that collectively employs one million people and engages 5.2 million volunteers. Across Canada, mission-driven organizations and their staff provide a range of essential services and programs that touch all aspects of society: social justice, mental health, safety, human rights, environment, health, sports, faith, arts, culture and more.

Their social contribution is immeasurable; yet the external world is oblivious to the work being done. The sector and its dedicated professionals are overlooked, undervalued and in a word, invisible.

The Bhayana Family Foundation is trying to close this recognition gap. Since 2007, in partnership with United Ways in major cities across the country, we have been recognizing extraordinary performance and staff excellence through awards. BFF Awards recognize achievement in categories as diverse as Leadership, Innovation, Dedication, Team Achievement, Strategic Partnerships and Community Building. During the pandemic, we have focused on awards for innovative programs that respond to client needs. In the last 15 years, we are proud and humbled to have presented awards to more than 1150 individuals from 340 different organizations.

The ingenuity and morale-boosting power of recognition

BFF awards ceremonies are affectionately referred to as the “Oscars” of the nonprofit sector. Even though covid has forced us to fête our award-winners online over the last two years, our ceremonies continue to attract high-profile speakers, excellent media presence, support from politicians and local leaders, and unqualified praise.

Our research shows that the awards positively impact not just the people receiving the accolades, but their teams, the organization as a whole and its standing in the community. For award winners, public recognition by their peers and other social agencies is a benefit that is cherished.

Making history through public recognition

The quest for public recognition for the Nonprofit Sector gained momentum in a novel way. A few years ago, we were asked to present to the Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector in Ottawa. The vision for a National Day of Recognition was first articulated there. The advice of the committee? Start at the provincial level.

In 2019, Nova Scotia made history by becoming the first province in Canada to proclaim a Day of Recognition for the Nonprofit Sector. In partnership with Bhayana Family Foundation, United Way Halifax and the Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia, the province organized a virtual flag raising and awards ceremony with remarks by the Premier. The former Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia was the Master of Ceremonies.

In February 2022, Ontario will become the first province to host a Nonprofit Sector Week of Appreciation. Thanks to Bill 9, every third week of February will henceforth celebrate nonprofit staff throughout the province.

We are working with other provinces to create their own public celebrations. Our ultimate goal is a national week of recognition on a scale that truly reflects the immense impact of this unsung sector.

Let’s show non-profit workers that they are valued… nationally

Why is public recognition important?

  • It uses the power of public visibility to celebrate success.
  • It inspires others.
  • It gives top performers a forum to share best practices.

The front-line staff of our nonprofits are relentlessly mission-driven. They are people for whom a job description is only a starting point. They are always there for us: ready, willing, able, and forever stretching themselves to go an extra mile. Our lives would be unimaginable without their powerful yet silent support.

National recognition is not just fitting but imperative for a group that not only transforms lives but unites our communities coast to coast. They are our invisible scaffolding.

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