Redefining ourselves: Building a foundational narrative for the nonprofit sector

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The 2011 National Summit for the Charitable and Nonprofit Sector set the stage for further development of four identified priority areas, including the need for a better understanding of the sector and its impact. Six months later, the development of a narrative for and by the sector is well underway and proving to have much bearing on the other priority areas.

In the months following the summit, a working group was established and tasked with developing a concept paper that looked at starting to frame the conversation. A strategic and long-term piece, the narrative will give voice to Imagine Canada’s National Engagement Strategy. Foundational by nature, it will go beyond the issues specific to each nonprofit and will shift the conversation away from outdated definitions and metrics to a new focus on impact and results.

From a strategic perspective, this new narrative is about finding ways to attract talent and financial resources so nonprofits can better serve Canadians. The more compelling the narrative, the more the sector will be seen as an attractive and viable place to work and volunteer. The narrative will also provide evidence to support the need for generating financial resources to carry out the work.

“If we are going to attract the best people to come and work with us as volunteers or paid staff and if we want to attract dollars through fundraising...I think if we can get a narrative that’s inspiring and that gives us a sense that we’re all about impact and change I think its going to make a huge difference to our success,” says Marcel Lauzière, president and CEO of Imagine Canada.

On a more practical note, nonprofits can use the narrative as a base from which to build relevant sets of messages targeted to specific audiences or concerns. These targeted messages should compliment rather than detract from the foundational narrative itself. Caroline Riseboro, vice president of public affairs at World Vision Canada and one of the co-leads on the narrative initiative, maintains that the goal with the narrative is to create a cohesive voice because “if we don’t take our responsibilities seriously about how each one of us represents the sector as we are communicating then obviously there’s going to be a number of messages that will likely lack congruence.”

The messaging will be broad enough to cover the wide range of perspectives across the sector, including but not limited to the media, clients, donors and volunteers.

“We wanted to be very practical in approaching this. The reality is charities are already being questioned. How do we equip them to respond in a way that helps to express the current strengths and assets of the sector?” asks Riseboro.

Perhaps the best technique for safeguarding against skepticism is to be as transparent as possible, especially when it comes to financial matters. For this reason, transparency will be crucial to the narrative, which will clearly outline emerging concerns regarding governance and operating costs.

Without a strong and true narrative the sector is poorly prepared to deal with sensitive issues effectively, leaving itself vulnerable to outside criticism. “What has been challenging is there hasn’t been coordination and as a result…we’ve allowed others to define us,” says Riseboro.

And define us they have. In its role as convenor for the sector, Imagine Canada has taken a reactive approach in dealing with the following spate of negative publicity:

  • Bill C-470 – a federal bill that that would have capped compensation for people working in nonprofits
  • Negative media coverage of fundraising and overhead costs
  • Concerns raised in the media about the lack of impact of giving for international crises
  • Charity rankings based on overly simplistic methodologies (Charity Intelligence and MoneySense magazine)
  • Political attacks on the legitimacy of charities undertaking advocacy and public policy work
  • Concerns raised by federal politicians about foreign funding and money laundering; and
  • Recent measures announced in the federal budget regarding political activity

Responding to the above concerns is a lengthy process and a huge burden. The intent of the narrative is to establish a proactive approach so less time and effort is spent on reacting to these ‘hot topic’ situations. According to the report Marketing & Communications in Nonprofit Organizations, published by the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership, Georgetown University:

“In the public mind, stonewalling equals guilt (just as most people instantly interpret the classic ‘no comment’ as an admission of error) the longer you wait to respond to charges, the more validity those charges assume. These factors alone provide a powerful incentive for nonprofits to get their side of the story out fast.”

Getting a story out fast requires the right messaging to be readily available so nonprofits can respond to inquiries in a timely fashion. It will also be necessary for nonprofits to feel comfortable enough communicating messages from the narrative when the need arises.

“I would say if we all thought this was solely the job of Imagine Canada, all of us would be disappointed with the outcome. Imagine Canada plays the role of convening the sector and convening the influencers and helping cast a vision of where we need to go. I think every single person needs to be part of this initiative; it’s the only way we can gain traction,” says Riseboro.

In terms of next steps, Imagine Canada has committed to a tentative schedule. A Steering Committee representative of the diversity of the sector will be established by the end of June. By September, a draft narrative will be complete and will then be validated with colleagues across the country throughout October and November. The narrative is expected to be finalized just before the new year.

Tools and resources that aim to support the finalized narrative will be developed in the first six months of 2013. During that time, development of an internal and external mobilization strategy will be underway as well. Mobilizing an audience as diverse as the nonprofit sector, though difficult, is critical because:

“The needs of the audience dictate the message. Nonprofits often miss this point and believe that the message should be about them. But it most emphatically is not. More than just slogans, messages should be designed to motivate the target audience to go beyond awareness and take action.” [Marketing & Communications in Nonprofit Organizations]

Building a better understanding of the sector and its impact through a foundational narrative will help bolster accomplishments from the other priority areas identified by the National Engagement Strategy. As Riseboro says, messaging that comes from the narrative will not be contrived, rather it will be based on evidence that the sector provides significant contributions to the quality of life of Canadians and many people abroad.

“I think we need to be aware of the fact that this is something very new for the sector and to obviously learn as we go, but the reality is we’re still starting up a fairly large and significant initiative together,” says Riseboro.


Editor's Note: For additional context read Michelle's original article which was published shortly after the National Summit in 2011. 

Michelle Jondreau is a communications professional based in Ottawa. She currently works at the HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector. She has a background in journalism and also writes for a parenting magazine as well contributing articles for nonprofit publications. She loves her tea (green please!) and settling in for the evening with a classic novel.

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