By Carter Hammett
Special to the Toronto Sun
For many toiling away in the Canadian non-profit industry, March is the month that's fraught with anxiety. As funding deadlines descend -- complicated this year by a federal government financial scandal,which has had far-reaching effects, including a demand for increased accountability for community groups -- managers in this sector tweak final portions of their already-tight budgets and nervously wait to see if cuts manifest.
Restraint, accountability, partnership, customer service and sustainability are the order of the day in today's turbulent "third sector". Indeed, many non-profit managers, commonly known as executive directors (EDs), search for creative solutions while balancing an increased demand for service against inevitable government cutbacks. This is a rather ironic twist, as non-profits pray for enough funds to run agencies that they hope will eventually put them "out of business."
After all, if the social problems they combat ever disappear, so will the people fighting to eradicate them. But competition for ever-shrinking monies is a theme that's felt on all levels of service, whether a humble grassroots organization operating at the local level, or a high profile national-level agency.
Two years ago, the developmental disability advocacy group People First of Canada closed up shop in Toronto and moved to Winnipeg says national co-ordinator Shelley Rattai.
"Winnipeg's a place where you get a lot more bang for your buck," says Rattai, noting that the move has also geographically positioned the group in a more central location, to service more than 1,500 members spread across 110 local chapters across the country. As an administrator at the national level, Rattai is accountable to carry out the mandate established by a volunteer board of directors, each one of whom have been "labelled disabled."
Like People First, non-profit agencies are governed by volunteer boards of directors who are normally elected for two-year terms by members at an annual general meeting open to the public, where budgets are publicly available. Budgets include salaries paid to staff, and one of the common misperceptions of the non-profit sector is that everyone involved is a volunteer.
In fact, Canada's 75,000 registered charities employ more than 1.6 million people and are supported by more than six million volunteers annually. Non-profit management in Canada mirrors global trends that began in Europe and North America during the 1970s, when agencies shifted their service delivery models to an emphasis on community empowerment, where those directly affected by a social problem take ownership of it and collectively find solutions. Later, governments entering periods of fiscal restraint abandoned agencies trying to absorb increased service demands caused by corporate downsizing, an aging population, and increased settlement. The impact on managers has been to try to find inventive methods of reaching their constituents while government support continues to dwindle.
Somewhat unique in this massive social shift is Epilepsy Ontario, which has only received sporadic government funding during its 40-year history, relying heavily on massive fundraising instead.
Executive director Diane Findlay heads the agency that supports the start-up and maintenance of a 32-chapter network of agencies across the province, which provides direct service to an estimated 200,000 Ontarians with epilepsy.
"Our role at the provincial level falls into a grey area," Findlay says. "It's not like we have a recognized identity at the national level, or we provide direct service at the local level, either. I tend to think of us as a sandwich, and we're the good stuff inside the bread," she cracks.
"We help with fundraising, literature and donations, because a lot of local-level offices simply can't afford those expenses, and our support allows them to provide more direct service," she says. Start-up can also involve hiring staff, establishing boards and writing funding proposals. Findlay says her agency provides a lot of indirect service through a 1-800 number and an award-winning website.
"Indirect service" begs the question: who exactly, are the clients then? "There's two schools of thought on that one," Findlay says. "Our chapters are our members, but people with epilepsy in under-serviced areas require support as well, which we provide when necessary. Nobody gets turned away.
One recent trend has been the emergence of downsized for-profit managers looking for more humane work environments, and making the jump to the non-profit sector. But it's a move some, like Shelley Rattai, suggest isn't for everyone.
"Administration can be lonely and you can lose your focus," she says. "I've seen corporations come in to manage non-profits and not understand the impact of their decisions. This sector is about people; it's not about systems. When you work with people who live in poverty, you have to be sensitive to their needs. Don't get into this business for the money, because it's not huge. Get into it if you have a passion for improving lives."
Higher education under review
Ontario's students have set a direction for higher education in Ontario with a new response paper on the Liberal government's proposed plan to review the post-secondary education system.
Facilitating Effective Change to Improve Access and Quality provides context, options and a proposed direction for the consultation process. The paper suggests principles and outlines preliminary recommendations for the establishment of specific consultative efforts.
"Higher education in Ontario has faced significant challenges to access and quality for the past decade, and previous review efforts were unable to ensure positive change for students and the system as a whole," said Jeff La Porte, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance OUSA and vice-president, university affairs, University of Windsor Students' Alliance (UWSA). "We need an innovative review that embraces change, involves stakeholders in a decision-making capacity, and engages in a clear conscience review that can truly improve the quality of the undergraduate experience and tear down systemic barriers to access."
The paper can be viewed online at www.ousa.on.ca
(Toronto writer, trainer, and employment information officer Carter Hammett can be reached at [firstname.lastname@example.org
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