Starved for attention yet striving for greatness

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Nearly 500 nonprofit leaders did something a little out of the ordinary last week: they gathered together to take action on some of the biggest challenges facing the sector. From all across the country they convened for the National Summit for the Charitable and Nonprofit Sector to share ideas on maximizing the sector's contributions to Canada and the world over the next decade.

A daunting task indeed, but not without merit; more than anything the Summit acted like a springboard in getting participants talking over some tough questions. And perhaps none were more difficult to discuss than those surrounding the story of the sector's impact - one of the four priority areas for action identified through Imagine Canada's National Engagement Strategy and co-led by Marcel Lauziére (Imagine Canada), Caroline Riseboro (World Vision Canada) and Lee Rose (CharityVillage®, MESH and Ten Oaks Project).

So why the focus on improving how the sector demonstrates its impact? Perhaps it's because the nonprofit sector often behaves like the middle child in the family. Typically a passive player within the tedium of family dynamics, the middle child is neither as suave as the eldest or as cute as the youngest. Starved for attention yet striving for greatness. Often overlooked but never underused. Does this ring a bell for anyone?

Yet what's more upsetting is the middle child's uncanny ability to let others speak for them. To take the easy road and let others tell stories, unchecked until the consequences are incredibly difficult to reverse.

Now back to the nonprofit sector, where the symptoms of middle-child syndrome run rampant. Instead of taking charge of its own destiny, the co-leads argued that the sector has been complacent in standing back and letting others fill that role. Content to stand by as media, funders and donors hold it accountable to principles that don't define the great work that charities and nonprofits accomplish. As a result, there has been a crescendo of public outcry demanding greater transparency that looks to scrutinize overhead costs and condemn executive-level salaries. All because the sector has waited too long to discover its collective voice, guilty of commiserating about 'doing something' rather than actually taking the lead.

Perhaps the toughest part to swallow is that this is by no means a new challenge; the nonprofit sector has been struggling to find unison in the story of its impact for decades. The nature of the sector often leads to individuals and organizations working in silos so that cooperation in defining measurable impact is difficult. This was the crux of the matter when two years ago Imagine Canada launched a series of Community Conversations and Provincial Forums as part of its National Engagement Strategy. Feedback from these conversations led to the development of four priority areas of action that were then fleshed out in greater detail at the summit.

Before delving into the highlights of the summit, it is necessary to crunch some numbers that show how big of a player the sector is to the Canadian economy. More than two million Canadians earn a living while working at a charity or nonprofit. Overall these employees contribute more than $106 billion or 7.1% of our country's gross domestic product each year. Paid employees in the sector outnumber the total combined workforces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. They also outnumber employees in the country's entire construction and hospitality industries combined.

While knowing the numbers is crucial, the sector should never be seen from this perspective alone. The key is to capture the heart and soul of the sector, which is always a bigger challenge. Yet the National Summit provided an environment in which passionate individuals brought to bear the many ways in which the sector touches people's lives.

"We provide safe havens for women and children, we work to decrease poverty, we build greener communities. Investing in us [nonprofit sector] means we can help keep you healthy," said consultant Barbara Grantham.

This kind of asset-based messaging is what people working in the sector should first start to believe, then communicate on a broad scale. People that rely on a variety of services will start to grasp the influence the sector has on communities across the country and around the world. However despite the vital work that the sector does and continues to do, it has come under fire recently for budgeting too much cost to overhead and higher-level salaries.

"If we want to tackle the big issue of our society like poverty, illness, homelessness and at risk youth, we have to invest…and that means recruiting and retaining people who are skilled to be able to tackle these issues. You get what you pay for, if you want to pay people next to nothing or depend solely on volunteers, then it gets to be very difficult for them to prioritize and become experts," said Riseboro.

Greater accountability and transparency are critical for all nonprofits, yet the public should not consider those values as the only measure of the sector's impact. After all, other sectors struggle with the same issues, it's time to stop apologizing for not being perfect. That's not to say the sector does not need to focus on building up its image, there is a high level of professionalism and commitment owed to the people who rely on nonprofits. Both Riseboro and Grantham summed it up nicely:

"We need to start with ourselves internally, if we don't align our messages then there's no way we can start putting them out there if we're not of the same accord. One of the examples I'm going to give…is the principle of branding. A lot of people think it's the look and feel of the organization and that's good practice in terms of developing a really strong brand and the ones that survive realize that brand actually starts with the organization itself. You have to have all of the staff and all of the employees living out the brand and when they do that it actually starts to permeate in external messages," said Riseboro.

Grantham took the point a step further and reminded her fellow participants that the conversation needs to shift to focus on the benefits to communities and not the needs of organizations. In essence, sector services are worthy of investment and communicating about that is essential. "Organizations don't have needs. Communities have needs and we're here to fulfill those needs," she said.

Mid-way through the working sessions, participants identified a strong desire to tackle the issue in two parallel streams:

Tactical communications:

This stream would focus on providing organizations with resources and materials to help them respond more nimbly to requests for information or questions about transparency and accountability. This could include:

  • Developing a series of Frequently Asked Questions and responses that organizations could use to appropriately reframe questions from the media, funders or other stakeholders, especially on the subjects of transparency, accountability, administrative expenses and staff costs.
  • Identifying and leveraging sector champions who are knowledgeable enough to respond on the more contentious issues to the media and other external groups.
  • Creating a network to develop and share key communications points across the sector.

Aspirational narrative development:

This stream would be more strategic in its approach and work to shift the conversation around Canada's charities and nonprofits and their impact — using an asset and strengths based approach, including:

  • Creating a framework for action and engaging people from across the sector to continue to develop and implement this new narrative for the sector.
  • Identifying actions that could be taken by individuals and organizations at a local, regional or national level — with the intent of implementing them and scaling up the impact over time.

The challenge now lies in moving beyond the ideas generated at the Summit into action. At the end of the working session, participants were invited to commit to actions that they would take upon returning to their organizations — whether they be internal, local, regional or national in scope — with a promise from the co-leads to compile the commitments and hold participants to their commitments.

In the meantime, small changes can be to reclaim the nonprofit sector's niche in the hearts and minds of Canadians. Crafting positive messages that an organization can put into practice internally is an excellent start. Using the right language on an internal and day-to-day basis will surely filter through to communications externally as well. Time for the passive middle child to take a stand and recover the narrative, it's long overdue.

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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