Time for the not-for-profit sector to lead

Viola Dessanti

The Ontario Not-for-Profit sector is vital to Ontario’s economic development and social prosperity. Yet, the sector has been shy of recognizing the knowledge it holds and its capacity for leadership. There are at least three things we can do to address this.

Last summer, Robin Cardozo, CEO of the Ontario Trillium Foundation delivered a speech entitled “Who is going to Address Canada’s Big Issues.” He recognizes that the not-for-profit sector plays a major role in addressing the country’s major issues and he puts out a call to action to the not-for-profit sector: “we may have full plates, tight budgets, limited time and important missions, but we cannot afford to let this opportunity slip … there is no sector better equipped to influence change.”

The not-for-profit sector is an important economic driver for Ontario.

According to a conservative estimate by the Ontario government, the not-for-profit sector employs about 16 per cent of all employed Ontarians and generates nearly $50 billion in annual revenues. The estimate is conservative because it does not account for the thousands of hours of professional services and labour delivered by volunteers. Not-for-profit organizations provide key services and programs for Ontario citizens that government and the private sector cannot or do not want to deliver.

The not-for-profit sector is also an incubator of new ideas that change the world.

We live in a world riddled by complex, evolving, multi-dimensional problems that require creative, emerging solutions. The social innovations coming out of the Ontario not-for-profit sector – social venture, social entrepreneurship, and innovation labs, to name a few – are not just new creative ways of doing things. They are important because they address systems change and have the power to be transformational. In doing so, they change the way we think about our world, and they show us that a different way of doing things is possible.

The Ontario not-for-profit sector is recognized around the world for its leadership and innovation. Still, the sector can be bolder in recognizing the knowledge it holds and its potential to be a leader at home. Three main things might help us to get there:

  1. Shift the culture of scarcity to a culture of transparency and sharing: most not-for-profits rely on public funds and private donations to keep the lights on. This has led to a culture of competition and scarcity. In many cases, this is shifting. We can be creative in how we share knowledge, talent, and capital by sharing spaces, and collaborating and harnessing our collective intelligence. Leverage new web tools, be transparent, and we can learn from each other.
  2. Cultivate the human talent in the sector: many youth and professionals opt out of working for the not-for-profit sector because it is not financially viable. For young emerging talent, working in the not-for-profit sector should be just as competitive and attractive as working in the private sector and government. This means higher salaries and better benefits, but it can also be achieved by highlighting the non-monetary benefits of working in the sector like: working for a cause and following a passion, having more room for creativity, flexible work arrangements, and interesting professional development opportunities.
  3. Increase the policy capacity of the sector: through capacity building, convening, research and grant-making. Empower not-for-profit organizations to take a leadership role around public policy issues without risk of political reprisal. And, encourage more cross-sector pollination. For example, a program where public servants and not-for-profit professionals exchange jobs for one year.

The not-for-profit sector is an important driver of innovation and economic development towards social change, although more can be done to leverage the sector’s knowledge and leadership. It is an exciting time to be working for the not-for-profit sector in Ontario.

Viola Dessanti graduated from the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2010, currently works at the Ontario Trillium Foundation, and is involved in the SPPG Alumni Network as point person for Communications and Knowledge Management

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One response to “Time for the not-for-profit sector to lead

  1. Viola,

    An excellent post – and I completely agree on your three points of action for the sector. It’s imperative that all of us – regardless of size, scope, area of activity or charitable focus – realize the collective impact of the broader nonprofit sector and work together to shift the culture of scarcity that plagues us.

    We tend to come at and respond to problems from a deficit perspective – we are the “not” profit sector, after all. This needs to change. We can’t let ourselves continue to be labelled as the poor cousins, who do what the private sector or government can’t or won’t do, who employ those who ‘didn’t cut it on Bay Street’, and who are always looking for a hand out.

    We really need to shift the conversation.

    My mother once told me if you wanted people to change what they thought about you, that maybe you should take a look in the mirror and make a change for yourself, and then maybe what people thought of you would change. Granted I was an angry ‘the world is against me’ teenager at the time, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, her advice was bang on.

    Our sector needs to find that mirror – and the courage to change what’s being reflected in it.

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