Thoughts about the Imagine Canada Forum

Got home a bit ago after taking in the Imagine Canada Forum here in Edmonton. I estimate 80, maybe a hundred folks attended, so a pretty good turnout. This was the first of the provincial forums Imagine Canada will be doing over the next several months.

I extend KUDOS to the organization for embarking on a journey with others in order to create some pan-Canadian strategies to both strengthen the nonprofit/voluntary sector AND ensure that the public (including business and government folk) truly understand the value of the work and results delivered by nonprofits and volunteers that make a difference in the lives of Canadians.

A few thoughts on the day.

Information on the size of the sector was presented and discussed, and it is impressive. The sector as a whole, for example, represents 7.6% of the GDP – that’s about $110 billion. Not chicken scratch. I have written before on the big numbers and I won’t repeat them here. But I do want to stress again how important it is to not to let the big numbers impress us to the point of not looking deeper into the data.

Simply put, we need to know more about the sub sectors of the BIG SECTOR. Not because they don’t share some of the same trends and issues (like the changing nature of volunteerism and its lack of growth overall OR the dissipation of government funding)., but rather we need to understand them better within the context of re-shaping (some say reinventing) the entire sector.

I agree with the Imagine Canada crew that we need to identify those big “drivers of change” that impact the sector across Canada. And I agree, we will never reach consensus on what to do about them or how to use them. But to try to move forward as a sector without understanding the profile and specific challenges of the sub sectors would be like, at least for me, trying to change one’s community without sufficient understanding of what community members are facing, their capacity to change, and how their priorities fit with the overall priorities of the community.

Each sub sector has a distinct revenue profile. Some get lots of government funding. Some don’t. Some rely heavily on membership revenues; other don’t. Many (over half) have no paid staff. Some are much more dependent on volunteers than others. Some have the capacity to engage in big new ventures (social enterprise, social media, social innovation), but others (likely most) do not.

In its draft “framework for action” Imagine Canada identifies 7 drivers of change, which are:

Driver 1: The increasing importance and influence of social innovation in Canada
Driver 2: Structural shifts in the revenue base which supports the work of charitable and nonprofit organizations
Driver 3: Shortage of talent to strengthen and lead charitable and nonprofit organizations
Driver 4: Lack of growth in the number of volunteers to govern, support and promote civic and community organizations
Driver 5: Heightened demand for transparency, accountability and communication of impact
Driver 6: Growing need for transformative partnerships among charities and nonprofits and with other sectors
Driver 7: Increased use of social media and new technologies for community engagement, outreach to youth and networking

I agree that all of these are drivers of change and Imagine Canada’s identification of these has come from many conversations across the country with others. It’s an excellent list and I applaud IC for wanting more eyes to look at them and more voices to dialog about them. At the forum we were asked to prioritize them, and all but one of the tables did so (except mine – we were labelled renagades… in good fun of course).

It’s too early to prioritize them I think. And I am not sure if having each compete with one another is the way to go. Actually sounds like the “old way” of figuring out priorities. In fact, I would suggest all seven are priorities because they are interdependent. Drivers three and four are about people (staff and volunteers) and to tackle the challenges will involve being innovative (Driver 1), generating resources (Driver 2) and reaching out to youth (Driver 7) and could very well call for new kinds of partnerships (Driver 6).

As well when pitted against each other, we run the risk of not addressing things that must be addressed like social media (Driver 7) which frankly would not make the top three or four in my opinion and yet I propose is a huge strategy that enables progress in the other drivers. Anyway. Food for thought (I hope).

Also at the forum we talked about the need for a cultural shift because the changes that need to be made cannot be made by maintaining the norms of today. I do think there is a need for a cultural shift that goes way beyond cultural changes in our organizations. We need citizens to shift their understanding of, and attitudes about, the sector.

Imagine Canada’s example is the private members bill that would cap the salaries of non profit executives. Huh? No bill to cap the salaries of oil execs or bankers or…? As noted at the forum such a bill speaks volumes about the value placed on the sector by at least one member of parliament.

There are other cultural shifts as well. One is that younger people are not engaging in formal volunteerism, but that does not mean they are not active citizens. We have professionalized volunteerism – and much of that work is great work — but for some reason formal volunteerism does not resonate with GenYers like it does with Boomers. How come? We need to understand more about that.

Then there is the new language we use: social innovation, social enterprise, SROI, social economy, social media, social networking, clusters, shared services, and so on. What do these words mean in our changing culture? What is the difference between “innovation” and “social innovation?” Is there a difference? Will we let SROI mean whatever each one of us decides it means (kind of like we did with “outcome measurement”) or will that acronym (means “social return on investment”) have common meaning for us?

I am excited to think about the rich ideas and connections Imagine Canada will make as it talks with our colleagues across the nation. I appreciate their leadership and openness to the leadership and ideas of others – even the renegades!

I do hope the transformative ideas that are generated help Imagine Canada and other leading organizations undertake changes in how they operate, too. Not because they are not doing a great job, but because they have a culture and passion to always get better.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts about the Imagine Canada Forum

  1. Thanks for your post Forum assessment Mark. Your post was timely as I am immersed in work with others on non profit, community change issues in York Region (just north north of Toronto). It looks like much promise can come from their consultations. I look forward to their stop in southern Ontario and will try to attend when they do arrive.

    I’ve written a longish post that can be read at my site. Here is the URL.


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