Community Transformation, Not Just Sector Change


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There is a growing body of information about the trends and forces facing non-profit organizations and even more opinions on how the sector needs to address them. There is a lot of talk and a good amount of action taking place around shared services and shared space. Social enterprise is becoming more of a player in generating revenue for non-profits. Collaborations are engaged in work force issues, especially those that are coming down the road. Funders are meeting. Governments are making changes to how they invest in non-profits. And on it goes.

There are some excellent reports and think pieces. The James Irvine foundation commissioned La Piana Consulting to write: Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector. That report is generating a lot of buzz and for good reason; it is an excellent piece. You likely have heard of it, but if you haven’t read it and shared it with your boards, I encourage you to do so.

Imagine Canada is holding consultations around the country with non-profit leaders about the future of the sector. It’s working paper, A Framework for Action, was workshopped not long ago here in Edmonton and will continue to be discussed at consultations over the coming months. The Imagine Canada work is important, and I wrote about my attendance of its Edmonton consultation.

In Alberta, the CCVO, in partnership with the CanadaWest Foundation, is conducting a survey of Alberta’s nonprofit sector in an effort to gather updated information. Results of this survey will be used to make important decisions and will provide a source of meaningful and credible sector information for organizations, funders and policy makers (TAKE THE SURVEY).

There’s more from all of those organizations, and I encourage you to visit their sites (see links above) to access information that will inspire and at times push your thinking.

Clearly, the sector needs to be engaged it thinking about its future. While the many subsectors, not to mention large versus small non-profits, may have different challenges and issues, it is also true that many issues and challenges are relevant across the board, such as funding, donations, participation of citizens/volunteers, generational influences, and technology.

I wonder though if all of the discussions and actions underway about the health and well-being of the non-profit sector will truly lead to transformation. I am not sure, for example, if such things as shared services, shared space, clusters, social enterprise, and social return on investment (SROI) will in the end produce transformative change for people, families and communities. My wondering out loud doesn’t mean such initiatives are not warranted; they are worthwhile endeavors. But truly transformative? I am just not sure.

For example, there is a lot of discussion going on about reinventing the sector, and debate about whether or not there are too many non-profits (161,000 in Canada, 19,000 in Alberta). My impression is the sector has continually been re-shaping itself over the years, responding to economic and policy changes, acting on new opportunities, forming collaborations, studying itself, and so on. And the question about how many non-profits are too many non-profits has been posed for as long as I can remember.

None of the changes that might evolve out the work of La Piana, Imagine Canada, the CCVO, and countless others will make much difference if the significant social issues facing Canadians are not addressed.

Canadians face serious challenges around income, debt, work, health, and community. The aging of the population is having and will have huge implications for future government budgets. In Alberta right now, one cannot find a family doctor. There are not enough care facilities for the growing number of seniors.

The incomes of Canadians have not grown in proportion to the cost of living, much less the profits of major corporations. Personal spending is exceeding income and the personal debt of Canadians is one of the highest in the world.  The gap between the wealthiest one percent of Canadians and the rest of us continues to widen. What are the chances that economic reform that benefits the majority of Canadians will emanate from those who have all the money?

How will such realities and trends impact citizens over the next 20 years and what should non-profits do about them? Critics of the sector tend to point out that often human service non profits address the symptoms of poverty, for example, and work less to address the structural and systemic changes required to eradicate poverty.  Yes, of course, there are exceptions. There are significant efforts underway to address Homelessness in Alberta, and the government is investing millions in non-profit initiatives and so it should.

There are collaborative efforts underway to reform the child welfare system; in Edmonton, community organizations are working together toward creating a common impact agenda; and the City of Edmonton’s strategic planning includes a “people plan.” All of this is good stuff.

But there are some fundamental questions (and they are not necessarily new ones) that the sector as a whole might wish to consider.  No social program will end poverty, for example. It will take community effort, changes in government policy and decision-making, better (meaning different) economic planning, or in other words, the collective will of the community to make the changes required to increase quality of life to a level that renders addressing symptoms far less necessary in the future than it is today.

This is about community change and it will take community development initiatives involving all sectors and community people to make it happen. SROI won’t make much of a difference if it manifests primarily as individual efforts (just like outcomes has). It won’t work if non-profits do it, but governments and funders don’t.  Sharing services can result in quality and cost improvements, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that questions of the sector’s role in community transformation will be addressed.

For me, a key question is: what roles should the non-profit sector, especially among human service organizations, in facilitating and supporting community development initiatives that address, poverty, income, and the other issues mentioned? How might it do so without becoming political in nature? What can advocacy for change look like?

Community transformation is the superordinate challenge and within that we need a strong, vibrant, and sufficiently resources non-profit sector. What do you think?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mark Holmgren
Mark Holmgren Consulting
Mark Holmgren is committed to helping non profit organizations and local governments build capacities for new visions. Mark does this through the provision of custom designed strategic services that fit an organization's culture as well as its aspirations.


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