Imagining the future: An update on Imagine Canada's Standards Program

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One of these days, someone in the for-profit sector is going to look at what the folks over at Imagine Canada are doing with their new Standards Program and wonder why nonprofits are the envy of organizations everywhere with respect to financially responsibility, ethical operations and financial transparency.

Really. It could happen.

Early in 2012, Imagine launched its then-new initiative with a pilot group of nonprofits willing to revamp and revise the way they do business in terms of ethical fundraising, responsible self-governance and maintaining budgetary transparency, to win the trust of donors and Canadians in general.

For background on the initial launch and test phase of the program, you can read CharityVillage’s stories here and here.

Now 10 months into the program, Imagine has increased the number of participant organizations aiming to earn the organization’s “Trustmark” of approval.

Aside from bringing more nonprofits in line with ethical guidelines for the sector, and winning benevolence from an ever-appreciative CRA, the umbrella body is also hoping to make the program self-sufficient.

Speaking to CharityVillage in a sit-down interview at Imagine’s Toronto offices, its President and CEO, Marcel Lauzière, said he believes there will be a snowball effect with his organization’s major initiative. And his institution is already expanding internally to accommodate the anticipated increased workload in the coming months and years.

Marcel speaks

“As you know we went through the Standards pilot, through which 21 organizations were accredited, and not easily. Some had to go through it again, and do work. It is a rigorous process,” he said. In fact, it can take up to eight months for an organization to earn Imagine’s vaunted “Trustmark” of approval indicating accreditation.

It starts with the application process, signing the agreement, and passing through a peer review by committee before an organization can reach the finish line. So it’s no rubber stamp.

While Lauzière knew there would be some interest in the program, the response has been “way higher” than expected, he noted.

“I think [the Standards Program] is hitting at a time when organizations are beginning to realize how important it is. It’s not just nice to have [ethical practices] in place, it’s actually something they feel their donors, stakeholders and the media are asking for more and more,” he said. “I hope and I think it’s linked back to the reputation of Imagine Canada.”

There are now more than 100 nonprofits in the standards program process, Lauzière said. And from all reports, interest is growing.

“People are responding positively to this concept of creating a community of practice. The idea is that when we have a critical mass of accredited organizations – and it is starting to happen – we hope and expect that many of them will agree to become mentors themselves,” he said.

Lauzière clarified that while the program is called a “Standards Program” it is not a standardization program.

“Rather than an organization being on its own, trying to figure this stuff all out, it can connect with others who know how to do it,” he said. “Most important to remember is that this is not a standardization program. Organizations can do things differently, they just have to demonstrate that they’re actually doing stuff that makes sense and is appropriate to their enterprise in the various areas.”

It’s also a kind of social and business networking platform, where nonprofits will have access to others who can share ideas on best practices for achieving ethical standards and implementing them in the workplace.

Nonprofit word is spreading

As an example, Lauzière said he recently given a presentation on the standards program to some 50 organizations in Winnipeg as part of a workshop organized by the city’s United Way.

At the event, after he explained how the accreditation process works, a United Way Winnipeg representative – an organization already accredited through the initial phase of the program – fielded questions from participants on how their institution had implemented the program.

“It’s one thing for me to explain how the program works. It’s a very different thing for an accredited organization that has gone through the rigorous process [to explain it to sector peers],” Lauzière said. “It’s become organizations helping organizations.”

With more than 85,000 charities registered across the land, for Lauzière, success is a percentage. The Standards Program will have achieved critical mass, according to Lauzière, when about an eighth of the country’s charities are on board.

But when will the program become a full-fledged success in Imagine’s opinion?

“It’s an important question,” he concedes. “The market we’re looking at is probably closer to around the 12,000 mark. More than 50 percent of charities in Canada have no staff. And while there is a way for those to go through [accreditation], it requires work and the will, but they likely won’t be a major component of the program. Then there are almost another 40,000 nonprofits under the heading ‘churches or houses of worship’. They are probably also not the ones [who will go through accreditation].

“So when you look at which organizations remain with the wherewithal to get accredited...one is left with around 10,000 to 12,000,” he said.

Keep in mind, all the material, including toolkits, on how to become a more ethical nonprofit is available for free on Imagine’s website. So any organization that wants to self-improve has but to trawl through their webpages for the necessary information, Lauzière reminds readers.

Government impact?

While it’s not necessary for charities and nonprofits to get accredited, readers should note that the CRA and other governmental departments have been following Imagine’s standards initiatives closely, and have been impressed. Lauzière recently presented to some 15 “senior officials in the federal government from 15 different departments who actually fund the charitable sector” to talk about the Standards Program. 

While Imagine “categorically” doesn’t want government to only consider funding accredited organizations, Lauzière said, his organization has “been pushing government to look at their funding practices more from a risk management approach.”

“If organizations have a good track record or systems in place; we’ve speculated on whether there could be a ‘fast-track’ mechanism whereby government could fund a project in less time, given the organization could demonstrate good governance, transparency, etc. Maybe down the road [accreditation] could facilitate these [funding] processes. I think that would be a major contribution of the program.”

It would be in the government’s interest to do this as well, since it would reduce red tape and costs, he said.

“But I don’t think any funder is ever going to say ‘We will only fund you if you are accredited” through Imagine. “No one has talked about that at all. And I would be very surprised if anyone ever went down that road,” Lauzière said.

In related nonprofit world news...

Lauzière also shared some intriguing information with CharityVillage during the course of the interview on the Standards Program.

First, that his organization will soon launch a web portal – the current working title is “Sector Source” – that will focus on capacity building in the sector. The site is scheduled to premiere sometime in March.

Second, Imagine is gearing up to launch a major information campaign aimed at Canadians to tell them more about the charitable sector. Currently in consultation with numerous players in the sector, Lauzière said he hopes his organization can help shift the public discourse about nonprofits away from the traditional narrative held by most people: that charities exist to “do good” but don’t really have an impact on society or the economy at large.

“This is not a PR campaign. It’s about developing a new narrative...whether by YouTube, speeches, public service announcements...anything really. We want champions from other sectors coming out and talking about the [nonprofit sector’s] role. We feel that’s the biggest of our priorities,” he said. “Because if we don’t get that on the rails, it’s going to be really hard to attract the resources we need. Because people still think that the best charities are the ones that spend the least on administrative costs; rather than saying ‘this charity is a charity that has impact.’

“In order to have impact, you need technology, resources, to evaluate your programs. What does that cost? It costs you money. So until we change [this perception] it’s going to be difficult. And we also want to attract the next generation of university and college graduates who will say ‘Yeah, this is where we want to work.’ For that we need a more innovative and exciting message than we’ve had in the past,” Lauzière said.

Though many people perceive the charitable sector as only helping those most in need, and it is an important facet of the sector provided through social service organizations, charities also focus on improving quality of life – via the arts – or with critical medical research, to name just two areas he noted.

“The charitable sector puts close to $1 billion a year into university research, through its philanthropy. That’s huge,” Lauzière said. “If you take that away...government’s not going to replace it, neither will the corporate sector.”

Lastly, Imagine is set to announce the installation of the first-ever “Chief Economist” for the charitable sector.

Four foundations have contributed funds to create the position for the next three years. Lauzière would not reveal details of the foundations involved, but said the interview process had begun to determine who would fill the position.

“This will go towards our ability to talk to different audiences about our economic contribution and how we create jobs.”

What do you think? Will the Standards program revolutionize the way charities function in the sector? Will a Chief Economist for the nonprofit world in Canada help clarify the economics of the sector to the layperson? What would you like to see the sector do to increase its profile and communicate its importance to Canadians?

 

Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is president of WordLaunch professional writing services in Toronto. He can be reached at andy@wordlaunch.com.

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