Category Archives: Non-profit

Thinking about the Charity Model and Systems Change Debate

There has been a movement afoot for the past 15 to 20 years that evolved out of a growing dissatisfaction with the charitable sector or more to the point, the Charity Model. Critics of the sector are nothing new, of course. And these criticisms are often based on unproven perceptions (e.g. there are too many charities), biases people have toward “the needy” (e.g. I made it through hell, so can you), and some that still boggle my mind like, non-profits need to be more business-like.

But the conversations I am talking about have gone further than that and very often have been initiated and led by well-respected non-profit sector leaders tired of seeing good work (or what they saw as good work) not really moving the needle of big change. The impact, they say, just hasn’t been good enough, which has evolved into concluding that the so called Charity Model has failed us all.

What I find interesting and somewhat unnerving is that this thing we call the Charity Model is in effect a descriptor of organized helping; it is not and I suggest never has been an actual model in the manner that we tend to think of models or frameworks.  Usually a model has an author or set of authors and has an intended purpose, and governs or guides how you do something. I am not aware of anyone who authored the Charity Model. As a term it represents our attempt to put meaning to what the charitable sector does and why, though we tend to spend less time on the latter.

My sense is that the Charity Model is about our desire to capture and understand how the organized expression of love or kindness is implemented through institutions and systems. It is a term that offers differentiation from the private and government sectors. How that expression is organized is certainly worthy of review and adjustment, if not significant change, but my struggle with the direction many are taking is that charity has become something sector leaders want to move away from while replacing it with something better. Continue reading Thinking about the Charity Model and Systems Change Debate

Let’s Take a Break from Doing Good

Let’s forget our worries and our doubts and walk together unencumbered by the need for a destination. Let’s close the big books of plans and studies and turn down the volume of all that best practice noise. Let’s prefer to have faith in something less predictable and confining. Let’s agree to never again meet in board rooms, or scrawl our logic models on white boards, or wax eloquent about the innovator’s dilemma. Let’s run outside into the blue and green grinning wildly. Let’s throw away our shoes and dig our toes into the dirt and feel what it is truly like to be grounded in Mother Earth.

Let’s walk along the water’s edge and enjoy the rush of the river. Watch the way water prevails no matter what sits in its path. And when we reach a clearing, let’s rest and listen to the murmur of the forest and wonder about the creatures there. Let’s sit in sunbeams on cool stones. Let’s think like wild flowers. Let’s feel life like insects do. Let’s shut our mouths and let quiet matter.

Then let’s walk side by side and climb the hill to discover whatever is there for us. Let’s watch the lights of city streets and how the starlight sparks against the glass of skyscrapers. Let’s emerge from a dirt path to a sidewalk with weeds sprouting from its cracks and just keep on walking. Walking until being alone gives away to manoeuvering through the crowds of shoppers, strollers, and pet owners. Let’s be happy when a dog wraps his leash around our leg and looks up at us with his dark eyes. Let’s watch men with jackhammers and smile at the music they make. Let’s buy roses and hand them out to strangers and wish them a happy day.

Let’s stop and drink Fat Bastard at the Thin Lady Café. Let’s tell jokes to strangers and laugh from our bellies. Let’s spill on ourselves the excess of our happiness and not even think for a moment of erasing the stain with a Tide pen. Let’s talk about gardens and camping. Let’s read each other stories from the newspaper that the other would not choose to read. Let’s write down our peculiarities on napkins and then leave them for others to read after we leave.

Let’s stand in picture windows and make funny faces at the shoppers inside. Let’s gawk like children at everything we do not understand. Let’s walk down alley ways and enjoy the gardens of strangers and let the colours and aromas kiss our skin. Let’s sit on the concrete bus bench and refuse to look tired and resigned to the long wait to come.

Then, let’s find the busiest of plazas, and in the middle of the chaos of people and neon and honking horns, let’s dance. Let’s dance like tiny dogs do. Let’s inhale everything that is good and uplifting and exhale all of our broken pieces and watch them float away toward the moon. Let’s forget that we want to save the world. Let’s forget for a short time all that we have to do. Let’s forget how afraid we are and defy our tendency to think professionalism trumps personal connection.

Let’s embrace on the sidewalk for all to see. Let’s communicate like dolphins and hold on to one another. Let’s hold onto one another like grandmothers do when their grandchildren run to them for love or because they are frightened or for any other reason at all.

And then, let’s get back to work. There is suffering everywhere and while we may not ever end it, God help us if we ever get to the point where we just give up and accept that suffering is acceptable and something we just have to learn to live with. Let’s never do that.

Let’s never do that.

Mega-Charities: the 100 Largest Charities in Canada

I am working on a major paper currently entitled, Mega-Charities and All the Rest: Money, Power, Folk Lore, and Transformation. It will include research and data about the revenue sources of charities in Canada and, drawing upon CRA data will provide a comprehensive look at all the ways charities fund raise.

The paper will include revenue information from all levels of government (as displayed in this posting), from foundations across Canada, as well as revenues generated from many other sources including from United Ways from across Canada to the human services sector. There will also be research and commentary on administration and fundraising costs and how the benchmarks used by funders of the sector for “allowable” costs are one of the major challenges facing charities. The paper will also provide more commentary on duplication (I have written about this before but my research was limited to Alberta – click here), and culminate with commentary about transformation ideas and directions that I suggest require our attention.

It will be published within a couple of weeks, most likely and offered free as a PDF.  Meanwhile here is some of the data and trends that will be in the paper.

Note: Some of the charts and tables may be difficult to read. They are clickable for larger versions.

Continue reading Mega-Charities: the 100 Largest Charities in Canada

Premier Prentice – My Two Cents about the Budget

UPDATE… at the request of the Edmonton Journal, I rewrote the piece below and the EJ published it HERE.

Dear Premier Prentice:

We met west of Edmonton at a BBQ when you were campaigning for your position. I appreciated your speech and remember thinking you could be a strong Premier and move our Province forward in a variety of ways. I am sure you weren’t all that happy that shortly after winning the post you faced plummeting oil prices and the prospect of $7 billion or so in lost revenue.

I imagine you have a few voices offering up their advice about what to do now. I filled out your online form about the budget. I hope many, many other Albertans did, too. At the risk of being one more voice amongst the din of thousands, here’s mine, written from the perspective of a boomer who has held numerous leadership positions in the community sector as well as operated a couple of businesses. I will try to be as concise as possible.

We have a revenue problem
I would suggest that the loss of $7 billion in revenue represents a revenue problem, not an expenditure problem. It’s a structural problem in our economy – too much dependency on oil. Markets can be volatile and cyclical; we need a more diverse and optimally reliable revenue mix. I know you know that, but I encourage you to do more than release an annual budget. We need a long-term plan that doesn’t allow for a knee-jerk reaction to our revenue issue to rule the day in year one of that plan.

The economy should work for the majority
Please keep in mind that during the boom times, the good times in Alberta, the poor and disenfranchised typically do not benefit, if at all, to the degree of folks like you and me do. The steady rise in the wealth gap provincially, nationally, and around the world indicates that no matter the ups and downs in the economy, it is most often true that those who have wealth continue to grow wealth and those who lack income remain, at best, stagnant. Those in deep poverty are actually worse off than they were a decade ago. This suggests to me that we need leadership that ensures those who are the worst off in our Province should not be pushed further away from what little hope they have of experiencing the Alberta Advantage.

It’s time to raise some taxes and fees
I imagine you know that the Government could raise taxes to generate an additional $8 to $10 billion in revenue and still legitimately claim that Alberta is the lowest tax Province in Canada. That just tells us how much lower we are taxed now.

No one hugs the tax man, but all of us want to benefit from living in Alberta. I hear a sales tax is off the table. Maybe you are right about that, I don’t really know for sure. That said, in Canada, corporate taxes have decreased markedly over the years while personal income tax has not decreased at all. Do you think this requires some review, perhaps a rethink on what corporate social responsibility should be in terms of paying taxes? Corporations create wealth and the wealthy are growing income and assets consistently and significantly.

It’s good to hear that you are concerned about the flat tax we have currently which hurts lower income workers. A progressive tax will help with the revenue problem and lessen the tax burden on those who need every dime they earn to have a decent living.

Isn’t it time to rethink Alberta Health Care fees? We lost $2 billion in revenues when that fee was eliminated. I would think it mostly helped employers because that benefit was typically paid in full or partially by businesses and organizations. It seems to me that it was about that time when our health care system became over-stressed due to a shortage in doctors, and incredibly long waits in emergency wards. There’s some fixing there we need to do.

Public Education needs more support, not less
Teachers are coming out of a three year freeze on their wages. That’s a long time to stay flat as housing, food, clothing and other costs continue to rise. I am not sure we can blame teachers for the looming deficit. Not only do we need to address the wage challenge here, but my sense is some promises made by the Government have not been fulfilled. For example, classrooms now are integrated which means special needs students included as full members in the general student population.

It’s a good thing, but unfortunately this principle of integration has not been supported by the funds required to support teachers in a class room of 35 (which is too big a number) that might have a blind student, a disabled student, three students with learning disabilities and several who don’t speak English. Without the resources, it’s not really integration; it’s more of a gathering of students that teachers must do their best to educate. And by the way, each year our public school teachers spend between $500 and $2500 of their own wages on classroom supplies because our school system has no money to stock classrooms with the basics. Can you imagine the outrage if business forced their employees to spend that amount of their hard earned money on office supplies? Everyone knows this is happening. Time to do something about that.

Don’t abandon the poverty elimination strategy and the ten year plan to end homelessness
The ten-year plan is working and its existence is a prime example of a caring government. If anything, we need a renewed commitment, not the dissipation over time of this incredible and important initiative. We need to end poverty, Mr. Premier. Poverty is wrong and we need to set things right. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are living poor and data suggests that nearly half of the population is living pay cheque to pay cheque. We need a government that pays attention to that because if the economic vulnerability of so many people continues to grow and deepen, we will face decreased consumer spending, impacts on tax revenues, and social unrest.  I know it’s hard right now, but now more than ever is when we need leadership that speaks clearly and boldly about ending poverty for so many Albertans: Aboriginal people, newcomers, youth, single parents, the disabled, the mentally-ill, and the growing number of working poor.

Be careful about what you do to the non-profit sector
Yes, I have a vested interested, given where I work, but please think about this: non-profit organizations are structurally underfunded by governments as well as nearly all community based funders. This means that non-profit employees are paid substantially less than the comparable staff employed by the government and most of the time they receive no pension or RRSP benefits. It’s not that they are not worth the money because often your government departments recruit my staff away and offer them much higher wages. Often these are the same departments that fund our human service contracts and insist on inadequate funding levels. It is often the case that long-term non-profit workers end up retiring into poverty. It’s ironic, don’t you think?

If you cut 9% or 10% to human service agencies doing contract work with you, you are in effect cutting back on contract funds that frankly do not pay the full cost of the contract and haven’t for years. So please be careful because deep cuts here – and for some any cuts at all – will not only harm more low paid workers but will result in less support for those Albertans that need it the most.

I know. No matter what you do, you will be vilified and praised and everything in between. You won’t please everyone and frankly how could you? I am just asking you to consider the above points and then do what you believe is fair and just as you move forward with your budget.

Thanks for listening.


The Charity Slam: Enough Already

It’s been going on for quite some time to be honest. Often it’s just subtle derision producing comments like “charities need to be more business-like” or “My goodness, how many charities do we really need?” Other times the charity slam manifests as a rant against “poverty pimps” or a rail against artists who create things “that my five year old could make.”

I am used to these kinds of slams against charities. Often they are based on a solid lack of evidence, are judgements governed by unpleasant ideologies (“how can you help worthless bums?”), or constitute a debasement of what people do not understand or like.  These types of slams, while frustrating, are fairly easy to deal with or ignore.

There are many voices that express their displeasure with beggars on the street. I understand that people don’t want to contribute to someone’s addiction; many tell me that’s why they don’t give to beggars. “That kind of charity doesn’t help anyone,” I have been told in one way or another. I get that. But more often than not when I ask what kind of charity they do that works, I am met with either silence or a bit of a lecture about how they made their way all on their own, and so forth. In other words, they think homeless people should receive no help. That’s a whole different kind of charity slam I think. To be honest, it is not likely their minds will be changed, even if they later admit that they didn’t make it on their own; they had a whole bunch of help and support. Some people just don’t believe they should be charitable. Fortunately, not many.


Continue reading The Charity Slam: Enough Already