Catalyst for Change: Exploring the new report from the Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector

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On June 20, 2019, the Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector released its report, Catalyst for Change: A Roadmap to a Stronger Charitable Sector, which included 42 clear recommendations.

Because this comprehensive report has been called “a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” CharityVillage wanted to talk with key players in the sector to understand their responses to the report, why they think it’s important for everyone in the sector, and what next steps we can each take in response. CharityVillage will also be hosting a free webinar about the report on September 26. You can listen to the report's co-author, Senator Ratna Omidvar, discuss the report on The Small Nonprofit podcast episode from September 9.

The Backstory in Numbers

2018 – The Senate Committee began its work in January 2018 at the instigation of Senator Terry Mercer, who has held a variety of positions with charitable organizations. Under the leadership of Mercer and deputy chair Senator Ratna Omidvar (formerly the president of Maytree), the committee was asked to examine and report on Canada’s charitable and nonprofit sector.

7 – The committee was made up of seven senators, many of whom have a lifelong commitment to public service and direct involvement in the sector. Early on, they recognized the diversity, scope and size of the sector, and that the sector is a significant economic driver in Canada.

24 – The Senate Committee hosted 24 public hearings where it heard from 160 witnesses, including government officials, legal and policy experts, funders, volunteers, front-line workers, and board members. These witnesses represented organizations of all sizes across the sector and throughout the country.

695 – In addition to public hearings, the committee ran an electronic consultation (the first Senate committee in more than a decade to do so) and received responses from 695 people, including those from small and rural organizations that might not otherwise have been able to participate in the process.

1 – Despite the diversity of the sector, response to the report has been unanimous, with consensus among leaders that the committee listened well and offered a detailed and robust response that addressed the concerns and ideas raised in the process.

Why is the report important?

“The charitable and nonprofit sector has suffered from benign neglect for too long,” says the report. “Legal rules have been reformed in a piecemeal fashion; task force recommendations have gone unimplemented; and kind words have all too often served as a substitute for meaningful action.” In fact, one of the only pieces of federal legislation governing the nonprofit sector is Canada’s century-old Income Tax Act.

In an analysis of the Senate Report done by Mowat NFP, executive director Lisa Lalande and senior policy associate Joanne Cave write, “Within the current system, charities and nonprofits operate in a policy environment that constrains their ability to meaningfully address significant social, economic and environmental issues. By enabling the sector’s potential rather than limiting it, charities and nonprofits can be an important ally to the federal government in tackling the most complex issues facing Canada today.”

The Senate report says, “The time for real change has come,” while Mercer adds, “The charitable, nonprofit and voluntary sector is full of people who have dedicated themselves to the highest ideals of public service. They told us they can do still more — if we can give them the proper tools. It is time for the government to work with them to succeed so they can continue their crucial work.”

Many nonprofit leaders see this report as providing a blueprint to enable that successful change. Volunteer Canada President & CEO Paula Speevak agrees. “This report is important for many reasons. It raises the profile of the sector and promotes an understanding of its value to community life. Its recommendations are specific and concrete, indicating what is to be done and who is likely to be responsible for implementing it. It provides language and understanding about issues, giving people tools to bring issues to the table when talking with provinces and territories.”

For Cathy Taylor, executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network, the report is about “modernizing the sector” while James Temple, chief corporate responsibility officer, PwC Canada, says it proposes “solutions for the complex, outdated rules and the lack of coordinated support within the federal government to help empower the sector’s long-term socioeconomic resiliency.”

The report also changes the conversation about the sector. Temple says, “We are inspired that leaders across the country and all sectors are engaging in conversations about charities and nonprofits that highlight the value to all Canadians. That is a transformation from previous public conversations where the focus on was overhead ratios and diminishing trust. This report also gives credibility and focus to these conversations because it comes from the Senate.”

What happens next, especially in light of the upcoming federal election?

The work of the Special Senate Committee concluded with the tabling of its report, which now goes to the federal government, with recommendations falling under the responsibility of at least eight different federal departments or agencies.

While those we talked with felt strongly that the report is not partisan, the implications of the upcoming federal election on it are uncertain. Bruce MacDonald, president and CEO, Imagine Canada, says, “We believe all federal parties are natural partners for us: they get elected to make Canada better and we are also in that business. Yet, each party has its own ideology, so the way they seek improvements will differ. The next government could result in different priorities surfacing. We need to be strategic and determine where interests align.” At the same time, citing historical precedents of other reforms, the Mowat analysis says “…it is possible that the CSSB Report recommendations may get lost amidst potentially changing political priorities.”

Taylor says, “I believe there’s a risk this work could get lost if there’s not a concerted push on part of the sector and its champions to keep going. It’s up to those who volunteer and work in the sector up to say the time has come for change, that we want the modern framework, agreements, and data that every other part of economy takes for granted.” Taylor calls for action both before and after the election, making sure that the nonprofit sector is part of the agenda for every political party, and that the recommendations offered by this report are included in the mandate letters to each minister after the election.

Another way the work of the Senate Report can move forward is through the Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector initiated in March 2019. This committee, which will be housed inside Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), was determined in the Senate Report as the body responsible for stewarding nine different recommendations. MacDonald, who will co-chair this committee alongside Hilary Pearson, former president and CEO of Philanthropic Foundations Canada, and Geoff Trueman, assistant commissioner of the CRA, says, “We hope once the committee gets formed and working after the election that we can use the Senate Report as a blueprint for reform.”

One of the most frequently cited recommendations in the Special Committee’s consultation process was the desire for the nonprofit sector to have a home in government. Recommendation #22 calls for the establishment of a secretariat on the charitable and nonprofit sector through the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

“With this report, the Senate has done the heavy lifting,” says MacDonald. “The onus is now on the charitable sector to be our own best advocate and keep this report alive.” To this end, Taylor says, “We will be looking for tangible steps being taken in the first 100 days of the new government to show they are committed to this. If it isn’t on the government’s radar within the first 100 days, it will be a hard slog going forward.”

Next Steps for All

1. Read the report (or at least the executive summary). Temple suggests reading with two highlighters in hand, one colour used to highlight issues that connect directly with your work, and the other to highlight areas you want to learn more about.

2. Circulate and make use of the report in your teams. This report offers value to boards of directors and leadership teams as well as staff and volunteers. Speevak says, “Consider individual and collective action to respond to the report’s recommendations,” while Temple suggests it can generate questions for teams to consider whether it relates to your organization’s work (or whether it should). It can be used to support skill development and succession planning, especially in emerging areas. Taylor adds, “We’d love to see organizations send out emails, tweets, and letters about the recommendations from this Report.”

3. Figure out your organization or network’s priorities. The vice-president of public affairs for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Toronto Chapter, Juniper Locilento, says, “AFP reviewed every recommendation to determine which were most important for our members and the profession.”

4. Think big picture. MacDonald says, “There can be tension between advocating for organizational interests and broader sectoral interests but if we allow this process to fragment, it will dissipate and have no energy. We need organizations to say, ‘This isn’t directly in our line of sight but it’s of benefit to the whole sector so we will put energy into it.”

5. Participate in Imagine Canada’s mapping project. Imagine Canada is talking with organizations to determine the sector’s initial priorities among the report’s recommendations. This project is in its early stages and welcomes organizations to approach Imagine Canada to participate. MacDonald adds, “We are hoping that through this process we might identify organizations interested in advocating for certain issues, and perhaps create cluster groups around shared priorities.”

6. Sign up for Imagine Canada’s federal election hub to track what various parties have to say about social good and what various organizations in subsectors are recommending parties add to their platforms.

7. Talk to candidates in the federal election, using the report as a basis for questions, says Speevak. MacDonald adds, “The nonprofit and charitable sector has 13 million volunteers and 2.4 million workers. We could get noticed and accelerate change in policy if we engaged. We are hoping to help train this muscle so that we are rightly viewed as an essential element to Canadian society.”

8. Engage with government outside of the election. MacDonald says many organizations are not engaged in the public policy process but could sign onto a letter to government officials, supporting particular recommendations that would allow them to serve their recipients better, a form of low-risk advocacy. Locilento says, “AFP developed three policy priorities and an advocacy strategy called Day in the Ridings, through which members across the country met with MPs to offer our expertise on matters related to fundraising and to seek support for our policy priorities. We’ve held more than 160 meetings over the course of the last two years.” Taylor says, “Meet with your MP. Send a letter to the Senators on this special committee thanking them for their work, but also to the new government to let them know that the nonprofit sector is a pillar of society and the economy.”

9. Collect good data to tell a good story. Temple says, “Beyond reporting requirements, the ideas in the Senate report show that charities can collect data that can inform better decisions by government. We can collect standardized data that’s comparable and reliable in financial statements and in demonstrating how we are effecting change in communities. This allows us to describe the economic contributions charities and nonprofits make to the country.”

10. Manage your expectations. MacDonald says, “Remember that public policy change takes time: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We need people to run the marathon with us. It is impossible to do 42 recommendations all at same time. It is incumbent on the sector to determine our top priorities and to gradually work our way through. If we go in and press for universal adoption, we will not succeed.”

While there is some concern that without action on the part of those engaged in the sector, the recommendations could get lost in the shuffle, Temple says, “A year from now, success might look like further consensus around the recommendations with highest potential to scale, a more cohesive message about what the sector wants and how successful change is taking place.”

Additional Resources

Different umbrella organizations have varying policy priorities that they brought to the Senate Committee and take from its recommendations. To read their responses and the specific recommendations they highlight, go to:

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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