Category Archives: SROI

Community Transformation, Not Just Sector Change

There is a growing body of information about the trends and forces facing non-profit organizations and even more opinions on how the sector needs to address them. There is a lot of talk and a good amount of action taking place around shared services and shared space. Social enterprise is becoming more of a player in generating revenue for non-profits. Collaborations are engaged in work force issues, especially those that are coming down the road. Funders are meeting. Governments are making changes to how they invest in non-profits. And on it goes.

There are some excellent reports and think pieces. The James Irvine foundation commissioned La Piana Consulting to write: Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector. That report is generating a lot of buzz and for good reason; it is an excellent piece. You likely have heard of it, but if you haven’t read it and shared it with your boards, I encourage you to do so.

Imagine Canada is holding consultations around the country with non-profit leaders about the future of the sector. It’s working paper, A Framework for Action, was workshopped not long ago here in Edmonton and will continue to be discussed at consultations over the coming months. The Imagine Canada work is important, and I wrote about my attendance of its Edmonton consultation.

In Alberta, the CCVO, in partnership with the CanadaWest Foundation, is conducting a survey of Alberta’s nonprofit sector in an effort to gather updated information. Results of this survey will be used to make important decisions and will provide a source of meaningful and credible sector information for organizations, funders and policy makers (TAKE THE SURVEY).

There’s more from all of those organizations, and I encourage you to visit their sites (see links above) to access information that will inspire and at times push your thinking.

Clearly, the sector needs to be engaged it thinking about its future. While the many subsectors, not to mention large versus small non-profits, may have different challenges and issues, it is also true that many issues and challenges are relevant across the board, such as funding, donations, participation of citizens/volunteers, generational influences, and technology.

I wonder though if all of the discussions and actions underway about the health and well-being of the non-profit sector will truly lead to transformation. I am not sure, for example, if such things as shared services, shared space, clusters, social enterprise, and social return on investment (SROI) will in the end produce transformative change for people, families and communities. My wondering out loud doesn’t mean such initiatives are not warranted; they are worthwhile endeavors. But truly transformative? I am just not sure.

For example, there is a lot of discussion going on about reinventing the sector, and debate about whether or not there are too many non-profits (161,000 in Canada, 19,000 in Alberta). My impression is the sector has continually been re-shaping itself over the years, responding to economic and policy changes, acting on new opportunities, forming collaborations, studying itself, and so on. And the question about how many non-profits are too many non-profits has been posed for as long as I can remember.

None of the changes that might evolve out the work of La Piana, Imagine Canada, the CCVO, and countless others will make much difference if the significant social issues facing Canadians are not addressed.

Canadians face serious challenges around income, debt, work, health, and community. The aging of the population is having and will have huge implications for future government budgets. In Alberta right now, one cannot find a family doctor. There are not enough care facilities for the growing number of seniors.

The incomes of Canadians have not grown in proportion to the cost of living, much less the profits of major corporations. Personal spending is exceeding income and the personal debt of Canadians is one of the highest in the world.  The gap between the wealthiest one percent of Canadians and the rest of us continues to widen. What are the chances that economic reform that benefits the majority of Canadians will emanate from those who have all the money?

How will such realities and trends impact citizens over the next 20 years and what should non-profits do about them? Critics of the sector tend to point out that often human service non profits address the symptoms of poverty, for example, and work less to address the structural and systemic changes required to eradicate poverty.  Yes, of course, there are exceptions. There are significant efforts underway to address Homelessness in Alberta, and the government is investing millions in non-profit initiatives and so it should.

There are collaborative efforts underway to reform the child welfare system; in Edmonton, community organizations are working together toward creating a common impact agenda; and the City of Edmonton’s strategic planning includes a “people plan.” All of this is good stuff.

But there are some fundamental questions (and they are not necessarily new ones) that the sector as a whole might wish to consider.  No social program will end poverty, for example. It will take community effort, changes in government policy and decision-making, better (meaning different) economic planning, or in other words, the collective will of the community to make the changes required to increase quality of life to a level that renders addressing symptoms far less necessary in the future than it is today.

This is about community change and it will take community development initiatives involving all sectors and community people to make it happen. SROI won’t make much of a difference if it manifests primarily as individual efforts (just like outcomes has). It won’t work if non-profits do it, but governments and funders don’t.  Sharing services can result in quality and cost improvements, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that questions of the sector’s role in community transformation will be addressed.

For me, a key question is: what roles should the non-profit sector, especially among human service organizations, in facilitating and supporting community development initiatives that address, poverty, income, and the other issues mentioned? How might it do so without becoming political in nature? What can advocacy for change look like?

Community transformation is the superordinate challenge and within that we need a strong, vibrant, and sufficiently resources non-profit sector. What do you think?

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.


Writers on generational change suggest that younger people, being the first digital natives (meaning they grew up on the Internet) developed at an earlier age their view of making a difference and because of their exposure to and use of the Internet have a perspective on philanthropy that is global in nature. Organizations are showing up on the Net that reflect this movement of the young. Sprout is one of them.

From their website: Sprout Story
Sprout was born out of the desire to make organising community projects more simple, more effective and more fun. Never before have global challenges such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, environmental degradation, rising food insecurity and persistent human conflict demanded more global cooperation and local action. As global citizens, many of us have already dedicated countless hours, various talents, and a lot of our energy to addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges affecting our communities. We asked a handful of the ambitious young leaders of the world what skills they found most useful in their work, which were most scarce and which skills they would like to improve in order to do their work more effectively. We also asked them how they thought an e-course could benefit them and their efforts to change the world, one project at a time… (more)

Click HERE for the website

Is SROI another bandwagon?

If the title of this posting seems a tad cynical, I confess to it up front.  But the question being posed is meant to stir thinking more so than debunk SROI (which stands for “Social Return on Investment”). Honest truth is I don’t know enough about SROI to sing masterfully its praises or lampoon it or anything inbetween.

I attended a recent talk by Jermey Nicolls who came over from England to speak to and work with local people on the topic. I like him, his style and humour, and I have to say my head was nodding up and down more often than back and forth.  There were sharp minds in the room and I have colleagues who are active in SROI work and when I see people I respect involved with something “new” or different, I tend to pay attention. Continue reading Is SROI another bandwagon?