Building Impact – Decent Work for the Nonprofit Workforce

Taylor Davis

Nearly 1 million Ontarians are employed in the not-for-profit (NFP) sector. The roughly 55,000 organizations that employ these people contribute more to the province’s economy than heavy-hitter industries such as accommodation and food services, automotive manufacturing, and agriculture. However, the NFP sector stands apart as being primarily purpose-driven rather than profit-driven. These purposeful objectives attract passionate employees who are motivated to contribute to the public good and improve the lives of the people they serve. But how do the working conditions within the sector affect NFP employees’ lives and well-being? And how does precarious employment affect the sector’s ability to achieve their mandate and make a social impact?

On September 26th, the “Building Impact: Decent Work for the Nonprofit Workforce” conference was held by the Intergovernmental Committee for Economic and Labour Force Development (ICE Committee) and the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) to discuss these very questions. Panelists included Lisa Lalande, Executive Lead for Mowat NFP; Cathy Taylor, Executive Director of ONN; Axelle Janczur, Executive Director of Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services; and Judy Morgan, Chair of the ICE Committee. The conference built upon the collaborative “Change Work” project of Mowat NFP, the ONN, and Toronto Neighbourhood Centres, and drew on the findings of a Mowat NFP report titled “Change Work: Valuing Decent Work in the Not-for-Profit Sector,” which came out of the project’s first phase.


The Change Work report highlights the notion of “decent work” as an action-oriented lens through which to conceptualize the potential for fair and secure work in the sector in order to mobilize governments, organizations, and individuals to work together towards achieving it. The concept of “decent work” was originally developed by the International Labour Organization, and is included as a goal in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Adapting the concept, Lalande presented the 7 elements of decent work as it relates to the NFP sector as:

  1. Employment opportunities
  2. Fair income
  3. Health and retirement benefits
  4. Stable employment
  5. Opportunities for development and advancement
  6. Equal rights at work
  7. Culture and leadership

In all of these areas, the NFP sector has significant room for improvement. For example, only 53 per cent of paid employees are in full-time, permanent positions, and only 24 per cent of permanent part-time staff receive some type of benefits.

According to the Change Work research findings, three main barriers stand in the way of improvements: the move towards short-term and project-based funding and away from core funding; a focus on keeping administrative costs low; and leadership and culture in the sector that views employee investment as a trade-off at the expense of programs and client services. Governments’ relationships with the sector can exacerbate these barriers. For example, many government funders simultaneously mandate low (often 10 per cent) administrative ratios as a measure of organizational efficiency, and require impact and outcomes-based reporting on these funds. Measuring outcomes and impact requires capacity – both time and resources – and these demands, given current funding models, put NFPs “in a starvation cycle in the middle, in an ecosystem not prepared for the type of reporting asked of it,” says Lalande. This funding and accountability landscape can undermine the very goals governments aim to achieve by engaging NFPs to deliver services. Decent work therefore also has implications for the  effectiveness of public spending, with government transfers constituting the second largest source of revenue for the core NFP sector at 19.7 per cent. As Lalande reminded the audience, “the largest resource in our organizations is our employees, […] starving administrative resources to death is not necessarily building an effective organization.”


However, transforming the Change Work recommendations into reality is not so simple. It costs money to provide decent work, and both NFPs and governments are operating within their own contexts of fiscal constraint that can impede policy change. While secure, fairly-paid, and equitable work with benefits and pensions is an ideal to strive towards, the reality is that this type of work is receding in most sectors. Taylor addressed this reality by highlighting the role that stakeholders at all levels can play, and emphasizing the many things that can be done to help achieve decent work that costs no money at all. These include providing flex time to employees to support work-life balance, and implementing innovations such as job sharing or bundling part-time positions between organizations to create more full-time positions with benefits. Taylor stressed that there was potential for the sector to be much more creative in response to the challenges it faces, and that solutions can often emerge as a result of an organization’s meaningful commitment to providing decent work. Lalande gave an example of a community organization that made the decision to make decent work a non-discretionary budget item, committing to providing employee benefits and creating a phase-in plan to be able to afford it. While these promising practices are illustrative, all the panelists noted that success depends on changes at the organizational level happening alongside larger policy changes that improve the funding and regulatory environment in which NFPs operate, and create a stronger social safety net for everyone.

“As a sector that serves the most vulnerable people in our communities, we do not want our own employees to be vulnerable. Good people practices make us more impactful in the community work we want to do.”

Governments are still navigating the policy choices involved in stepping in to fill the gaps that employers have stepped out of in the new economy, and demand for stronger action is evident in the face of ever-greater precarity. Just as Ontario’s minimum wage rose on Saturday from $11.25 to $11.40, thousands gathered in Queen’s Park at the Rally for Decent Work to push for “$15 and Fairness” – a $15 minimum wage along with changes to labour laws to improve worker protections. The call to increase the minimum wage to a living wage was brought up at the conference by audience members as one action that could be taken by government to support decent work in all sectors. Within the NFP sector, where Taylor stated precarity is “partly funder imposed, partly self-imposed,” Janczur noted that it is “shocking how many organizations haven’t had cost of living increases in more than 10 years”, making it increasingly difficult for employees to make ends meet. The lack of decent work in the NFP sector is especially troubling given the important role the sector plays in alleviating the precarity of others. As Taylor put it, “as a sector that serves the most vulnerable people in our communities, we do not want our own employees to be vulnerable. Good people practices make us more impactful in the community work we want to do.”

One audience member echoed this sentiment, commenting to the panel from experience that decent work in the NFP sector is like the announcement they make on the plane in the case of an emergency: you need to put on your own oxygen mask first so that you have the capacity to help others around you.

Taylor Davis is a 2017 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Victoria. Taylor is a Director of the Public Good Initiative, and recently completed an internship with the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration’s Voluntary Sector Relations Unit. Her main policy interests include immigration, settlement, equity, intergovernmental relations, the non-profit sector, and service delivery and integration.


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