All posts by Mark Holmgren

About Mark Holmgren

Mark Holmgren is the Executive Director of the Edmonton Community Development Company.

THERE’S MORE TO DO TO IMPROVE AISH, ISN’T THERE?

I was at the gathering where Premier Notley and Minister Sabir announced legislation that would improve benefits to recipients of AISH. I support these improvements (read more). My math indicates a 6% increase to the AISH benefit. Some critics say it should have been higher, given the length of time since the last increase. Some say the government could have brought in these changes earlier.

Of course there are others who would choose to reduce AISH benefits while increasing the coffers of the wealthy through tax breaks.

Everybody’s got their opinion on how things should be if they were in charge. If only Premier Notley and her colleagues could accommodate all of us!

I see the changes as a positive development, an additional program reform that will help vulnerable Albertans. I wish the bump had been bigger, but the government has a budget to contend with. The indexing to the cost of living is an appropriate way to ensure that adjustments are made each year. That’s a big change for the better.

Most of us who work in the community change sector, in particular those who work to end poverty, homelessness, and the poor treatment of the marginalized are expressing support for the government’s actions. Some are celebrating it.  Sure, I will clink a glass or two to celebrate the changes, but let’s make sure we see this change as a strong beginning to a path forward toward further reform. We are not done yet, right?

I saw one suggestion via Twitter that folks on AISH should receive the equivalent to the minimum wage that the government requires employers to provide. At 35 hours a week that would amount to $27,300 per year. The increased AISH benefit translates to an annual income of $20,220. There is merit in this idea. If  one believes that an Albertan worker should be entitled to a minimum wage of $15 per hour, why are people on AISH deserving of less? On the other hand, $20,220 is above the poverty line (as of 2015) of $18,213.

The problem with poverty lines is that they are about subsistence in the present. They do not factor in the future of recipients of AISH as they grow older. They do not allow for emergencies in the many forms they manifest in people’s lives. They do not allow saving any money or having the means to do much more than survive.

Survival is not living. Survival is surviving.

AISH should promote more than survival.

What concerns me is that AISH is not really a disability pension that the recipient can count on. Let me provide an example. It’s a real one, not made up. Names have been changed.

John and Mary are married. Mary has a teenage son from a previous marriage and together they have a three year old. Mary is on AISH. Well, actually she is and she isn’t. John has been a low income earner until recently. Each month Mary’s benefit was adjusted (i.e. clawed back) based on John’s monthly income, which varied month to month.

Recently John got a better job that pays reasonably well. His income is still far below the Alberta average, but he is making enough to trigger AISH reducing Mary’s AISH benefit to zero. If one does the math for this family, it is in effect no farther ahead than then when John earned lower wages. I am not suggesting AISH should never be adjusted downward based on family income, but I do wonder if it is appropriate to wipe  it out.

Wiping out the benefit says to Mary, you no longer deserve your own income. You no longer have status with AISH decision-makers and should be happy now being totally dependent on your spouse. And for John who is trying to make a better life for his family, the message is your wife is now your burden. Your extra wages should not benefit your family; they should reduce the cost of Mary on the government.

I have a problem with that.

Doesn’t the claw back marginalize Mary? And John? And their children?

If Mary earned the minimum wage, an employer would not reduce it because John is making more money than he once was.

To be honest, I am not sure how this should work, but how it works now seems wrong to me. AISH recipients are people, not just recipients. Having their income reduced to zero impacts the dignity of people like Mary who want to feel like they are able to contribute to their family’s economic life and future.

Perhaps there are further reforms to consider. Perhaps there is a “middle way” to adjust AISH benefits downward as family income increases. Perhaps there should be a core benefit that never can be eliminated or that should only be eliminated if the family’s income is on par with the average wage of Albertans. Or something like that.

What do you think?

A BIG fail of our Media

Today I attended the announcement by the Alberta Government that it would be raising the AISH benefit by near $100 per month and indexing it to the cost of living from here on out. Premiere Notley spoke. Minister Sabir spoke. A gentleman on AISH spoke. Michael Phair, Co-Chair of End Poverty Edmonton spoke. You can read about these changes HERE.

This announcement, while long over due, is a positive step forward toward treating 250,000 Albertans with due respect. Along with other programs brought in by the government to attack poverty, the announcements today represent one more effort to turn away from marginalizing vulnerable Albertans.

There was a large contingent of media present in the room and via teleconference. One might think that when the media show up to such an announcement they are coming to report on what is being announced. When the floor opened up to questioning, the media decided to hijack the proceedings and grill the Premiere about disgruntled MLA Robyn Huff who was booted from caucus. She has indicated that she felt bullied by the Premier and others, although from what I can tell offered no real evidence of bully-ism.

That said, my point is not to weigh in on that situation but to point out how at least four representatives of the media ignored this important announcement about improved income security benefits to 250,000 vulnerable Albertans and, instead,  decided marginalized people like AISH recipients were not worth their time and energy as reporters. Rather, they opted to  assail the Premier with a suprise attack on her character and the character of the government.

Apparently one disgruntled MLA was far more important and newsworthy than the positive impacts the government’s actions will have for a quarter of a million people. Perhaps improving conditions for those living in poverty, for those living with disabilities that disallow them to work are good news stories not worth discussing with the Premier, especially if a reporter might get a feather in her or his cap for somehow getting the Premier to look bad as the leader of our province.

If there was any bullying occurring in the room, it was by the media. It was despicable and a clear statement by the media to 250,000 Albertans that “you do not matter.” It was a shameful act of marginalization.

I was so angry that afterward I went on a rant with the media people who behaved so poorly. They couldn’t even look me in the eye.  I was so angry, I failed to identify who these reporters were, but they know who they are. I can only hope their superiors investigate and make it clear such bad treatment of vulnerable Albertans is not what their media outlet cares to be known for.

Albertans deserve better.

Why do we love bad stories about charities?

A recent headline: “Charity watchdog urges donors to think twice before giving to Calgary Flames Foundation.” Read it here if you haven’t already.

The article does not paint the Flames Foundation in a positive light. That said, I am not here to debate if the foundation is a cash hoarder or an expensive charity. I am wondering why this is the article the Edmonton Journal chose to write.

There are so many incredible stories to tell about the lives changed by charitable work. Stories about people who overcame racism, homelessness, violence, abuse, and on because they received support from a charity.

Often the people helped by a charity live in conditions most of us would find abhorrent. How many us have been beaten up for being any other colour than white? How many of your children go to school hungry? How often have any of “us” charitable types been homeless?

But it appears we like dirty little exposés about charities that frankly become rationale for many to no longer give to charity, though one does wonder if such people ever really gave before. So, a foundation that, according to a charity watchdog, performs below the average of other charities – that’s newsworthy, not the charities that are on the top of their subjective lists of attributes and qualifications.  That is so disappointing.

If you judge charities solely on financial data, ask yourself if that’s how you evaluate for-profit businesses? You don’t care about the quality of their products or services? You just want cheap, cheap, cheap, right? You want low utility prices and would be happy if they were so low that you had unreliable power in your home or business – right? Who cares if your home falls down as long as you got it really cheap, right?

Why is it so many people think charitable work is not worth much? Why is it people who do jobs most of us would never consider doing are supposed to earn the lowest wages possible? Do you not care about them? But want them to care about the homeless and the disenfranchised so you don’t have to?

Some years ago, a colleague working at a major corporation informed me that her business wanted to fund the organization I was leading at the time.  She told me it could be as high as $50,000 but then added, “Of course, we won’t want any our money paying for administration or rent and stuff like that.”

Of course? Really. That should be the norm? Did she want us to go good without lights or heat or the ability to have an accountant or fix the old boiler when it broke down?

That made me angry, the viewpoint and the attitude. I checked myself, took a breath and said to my colleague, “Let’s say I am a customer of yours and you send me your bill and I send it back to you and say, sorry this bill includes your administrative costs. Please resubmit so I am only paying for your service. No rent, nothing else. Would you be amenable to that?”

I got a smile and she nodded her head. “Okay, I get it,” she said.

Maybe she did. Maybe not. But that $50,000 apparently went elsewhere. I was not even invited to submit a proposal. Of course proposals take time and expertise and no one should pay anyone to do that – well, only if you work for a charity, that is.

Charity watchdogs do not measure impact. They do not measure impact because they can’t. They don’t know how, and if they did, it would cost them too much to do that and then we all would have to hope the Edmonton Journal might write a piece about those extravagant charity watchdogs spending all that money on useless stuff. That would be fair, right?

 

The Way of Innovation

<repost>

The word “innovation” conjures up positive imagery. We see it as something we want to be known for. It’s creative, desirable, inspiring, and we sense that if we can do it, if we can achieve it, we will lift ourselves up above the status quo, not to mention those who are quite comfortable in the box of convention.

cavefiguresHow to be innovative is of course the question and that is what this little article is about: the way of innovation and a call for the kind of leadership that fosters innovation throughout the organization.

Anticipate Tomorrow
This is both a mindset and a discipline and require that a leader accept that anticipation is rife with uncertainty. In other words, at the same time as a leader must try to plot the future course of the organization, he or she must also understand it is impossible to do so with certainty. Continue reading The Way of Innovation

Collective Impact as Uprising

I have written in the past about what I call the pendulum swing or the bandwagon effect. I think this is what has happened with respect to collective impact over the past 10 years. I suggest it also occurred  in the late 1980s when outcome measurement rode into town on its stallion named Logic Model. And it is also happening with the word, “movement.” Today, just about everything is a movement. Also see Collective Impact: Watch out for the Pendulum Swing (click image below for the paper), a piece I wrote for Tamarack in 2015 while I was the CEO of Bissell Centre.

Click Image for Paper

I am simultaneously a proponent and opponent of collective impact. I do not think large-scale change efforts have to embrace the CI framework but also think CI can help create large-scale change. It all depends on how committed folks are to truly changing themselves and their organizations and how well they design and execute their collective efforts. Continue reading Collective Impact as Uprising