Reinventing the wheel: Does Canada need more nonprofit organizations?

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Anyone who starts a charity or nonprofit organization does so to make a difference. But while this is a worthy motive, Marc and Craig Kielburger, co-founders of Free the Children and Me to We, offer a different perspective: “Society needs more passionate people who want to change the world. But the world doesn’t need more charities.”

With more than 85,000 charities in Canada — or one for every 414 Canadians — how does a well-intentioned person with an idea they believe can make a difference in the world determine whether or not the world needs their charity? And what about established charities — how can they respond to an increasing number of charitable and social purpose initiatives?

Why not start a charity or nonprofit?

People start charities for a variety of reasons. Christina Marchand, founder of Full Soul Canada says that, as in any sector or industry, new initiatives in the charitable and social purpose sector come about when people see a gap. “Had the Ugandan government filled hospitals with medical supplies, we wouldn’t have gone into that area. There has to be a gap where you can meet a need.”

Tania Del Matto, director of social entrepreneurship incubator GreenHouse at the University of Waterloo, says that the emerging Generation Z “wants to carve their own paths, and, even more than Millennials, wants to do things for social good.” She notes that the students attracted to the GreenHouse program are those who are intrinsically motivated to start something on their own, rather than working for an existing organization. They want to feel empowered about creating something.” Elle Crevits, founder of Food Not Waste, agrees. “As a young person, I could apply for a job at the food bank, but the odds of getting it aren’t good. Doing this, I’m creating something for myself.”

This isn’t just true for young people. A 2011 survey found that 12 million Americans aged 44 to 70 hoped to start nonprofits or businesses that solve social problems, half of them within the next five to ten years. The challenge with all this enthusiasm, as the Kielburgers hint, is that sometimes launching something new may feel great but not be the best solution. Mark Rosenman, former director of Caring to Change, a collaborative project with the Aspen Institute's Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, says the trend of more and more charities moves “further away from developing coherent analyses of public problems. And it would lead the country to define and treat social concerns as fragmented individual or local matters. That would make it profoundly more difficult to mount any significant effort to advance the broad-based change needed in our social, political, and economic institutions.” Rosenman adds “an individualistic approach is exactly what has caused so many of the problems we face and inhibited real progress toward the common good.”

The desire to start something new can also be ego-driven or a desire to create a legacy, but as Nigel Brown, executive director of Sing for Your Life Foundation, suggests, “When people are driven by ego, they don’t always serve the cause or community as well. The only reason we continue doing what we are doing is the difference we are making in people’s lives. That keeps us going.”

Crevits agrees. “Some people like to be the face of what they are doing. I don’t enjoy that part of what I do. For me, it comes back to falling in love with a problem. I’m really passionate about reducing food waste.”

Do your homework

According to Katrina White, president of Veris Alliance, “The worst thing happens when well-meaning people have a beautiful idea and they start a not-for-profit or a charity but things fall apart because they didn’t look at the bigger picture or didn’t know how to run a business.”

Anyone considering starting a charity needs to do their homework to understand what is involved, what existing organizations are already doing, and examine their capacity for making change.

Del Matto says she has a “purposefully thick and intimidating binder” filled with all the information someone would need to know about setting up a charity or a nonprofit. “When deciding whether to launch a new venture, the social entrepreneur needs to weigh the time and administrative resources required to set up a legal entity with the time needed to focus on building and validating the idea.” Brown concurs. “The road to starting a new charity is full of lots of potholes, disappointments, and a lot of hard work – when I think of the number of hours I have put into this, my bank manager would say I’m crazy.”

It’s also vital to understand the lay of the land. White says that when nonprofits come to her for help with strategic planning, one of the first things she does is an “enviro-scan” of the sector. JP Bervoets, vice-president of Community Foundations of Canada, supports this approach: “It’s vital to have a good idea of what’s happening in the sector. Spend time mapping existing organizations and developing relationships. Understanding who the key players are and where you fit into that space is a valuable and strategic process.” Del Matto says, “One of the first things we encourage our young entrepreneurs to do is to find out more about the problem they are seeking to solve, and also learn who is currently in the space trying to address the problem. Do a scan of who else is in this space, what are they doing, what services are they offering, what gaps are there.”

Avoiding Duplication

One lesson that can be learned by understanding the charitable climate is to understand where there is duplication of effort, something donors want charities to avoid. In a previous role, where White was responsible for Bell Canada’s corporate donations to charities, she recalls, “I saw enormous duplication of effort. There could be people down the block from one another, literally doing the same thing.” From that experience, White says, she developed a desire “to get nonprofits in Canada to actually talk to one another in a meaningful way and openly discuss the future of the industry in Canada and globally. Too often, people don’t know what each other is doing, and they end up fighting for the same dollar, hurting each other in the process to some degree.” A scan of the sector allows organizations to see where there are gaps and areas of duplication.

Conversations, Partnerships, Mergers

Conversations: Whether yours is an existing charity or a potential one, there is enormous value in having conversations with other players in your field. Brown says such conversations are courageous and require vulnerability and honesty. He suggests picking up the telephone and talking about what is good both for your organization and the other organization.

Full Soul’s Marchand agrees, saying it’s a matter of opening yourself up to that conversation. “Talking with a larger organization gives us the experience we don’t have, someone to talk to who has been there before, to remind us to dot our Is and cross our Ts — somewhat like a mentor relationship. And larger organizations can recognize that smaller organizations are doing great things too.”

Brown encourages charitable leaders to be curious, bold, honest and vulnerable. “I don’t sit around trying to come up with organizations that might benefit from what we’re doing but when I see a potential opportunity, I check it out. Maybe nine times out of ten it won’t lead to something, but it is still very valuable to see what is out there.” Bervoets adds that such conversations can be facilitated by and are often initiated through online resources and tools but also emphasizes the importance of face-to-face meetings. “It’s hard to replace people being in a room together. There’s a tremendous value in getting out there and meeting with people.”

Partnerships: Bervoets is optimistic that the entire charitable sector is shifting toward a “more collaborative space as more nonprofits recognize that through partnerships they can achieve their desired outcomes, be more effective and efficient and tap into different resources.” Brown adds that a good collaboration happens with an organization that is not the same but similar to yours, and one that might benefit from your particular focus.

“There’s no way any single organization can move the needle on complex and inter-related issues like poverty, health or education,” says Bervoets. “If we want to turn the tide we have to work collaboratively both within our sector and cross-sectorally.” He also notes that demonstrating partnerships between organizations is something donors see as advantageous. “It demonstrates that you aren’t siloed, that you are leveraging the strengths of multiple parties in a complementary and collaborative manner.” Brown says, “If you are working collaboratively you are either saving time, money or people. In this day and age, we need to do things more efficiently and less expensively.”

Still, as Crevits says, “Partnerships can be scary – there’s uncertainty and worry about ‘what if it doesn’t work’, and sometimes a fear of being eclipsed or losing control.” Too often, White says, charities insulate themselves, fearful that someone else will get their donors. Brown says this fear is unnecessary, that players in the charitable sector need to stop “guarding their own turf.” He tells of an organization he approached when he began his charity. Initially “they thought we were coming in to steal what they had already accomplished.” He says if a potential partner is defensive, fearful or even too busy, they are not ready to partner with your organization. In his case, it took time, but that same organization is now partnering with Brown’s.

Crevits’ own experience with established organizations has been excellent. Crevits works closely with the House of Friendship who receive and serve the food Food Not Waste collects. “They have been so open to helping me, and have seen it as an equal partnership we both can benefit from.”

Marchand is another strong believer in partnership. “We decide it’s right time to have a partner when someone does something better than us. We can then focus our time and effort on what we’re really good with. You have to know what each other’s values are. When you find a partner whose values are on the same wavelength, it’s a great relationship.”

Marchand looks at three Rs when considering working in partnership with another organization: Reciprocity (“making sure it’s good for them and good for us, and no one’s values are compromised”); Relationships (communication, follow-up, etc.); and, Reality Check (“being realistic with what we’re talking about so we don’t take on too much and we can keep our commitments”).

Merger: Sometimes, as in any sector, conversations between organizations can even result in mergers or a start-up being embedded in an existing charity as a project. Brown says this requires “interest, buy-in, time to talk and to allow ideas to ferment.” This allows capacity building, both for an existing organization and for the fledgling organization, and can create new revenue streams and services, says Del Matto.

One Canadian charity that has recently gone through a merger is Casa Pueblito. Formerly two organizations that shared staff, office, resources and expertise, and worked together on projects, in 2014 Casa and Pueblito became one organization. They describe the merger as “overwhelming positive”, saying “We have increased our capacities in Toronto and in Managua, invested in improving our program model and key partnerships, increased our financial stability, and ultimately, we are better able to serve communities, children and youth.”

Do we need new charities? Probably, but only where there are gaps, and in partnership with existing partners in the sector and other sectors. As the sector looks to engage younger people in particular, it needs to adapt to a way of thinking that is both entrepreneurial and collaborative, and to harness the passion of people of all ages in ways that both respond to the desire to get involved and best meet the need being addressed.

Who do you go to for further information?

Imagine Canada’s Charity Focus is a helpful tool for finding information about all registered charities in Canada. Searchable by specific organization, community or area of interest.

For other insight into the charitable sector, the 191 community foundations across the country have deep knowledge about what’s happening in their area. Visit for more information.

Katrina White notes that Canada Revenue Agency is “fantastic” to work with, as are all federal and provincial funding agencies. “They want you to succeed and encourage organizations to consider collaborative ventures.”

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

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