Canada’s non-profit and voluntary sector is in a peculiar position. For a sector that is 161,000 organizations strong, boasts a GDP of more than $25 billion and is valued by millions of Canadians who demonstrate this through the donation of time and money, it should be a powerful force. Sadly, however, it is often seen as fractured, under funded, unstable and without a prominent voice at government tables. It just does not seem to get heard very well.
The consequences of this scenario have been many, including a loss of infrastructure, diminished human resource capacity and a tendency to stray from the core mission of the agency in a constant pursuit of funding – problems described by Katherine Scott in Funding Matters.
In response to this state of affairs, Halton Region convened a community-wide effort to develop local solutions, culminating in a community plan built on the input of hundreds of non-profit and voluntary sector stakeholders through the Roundtable on the Non-Profit and Voluntary Sector.
The plan articulated the need to establish a coordinating body that would provide leadership in several broad and strategic areas: enhanced networking opportunities; restructuring of funding (advocacy); facilitating access to information; and implementing a marketing strategy to generate greater support for community agencies.
It was also identified that this coordinating body should be: relevant, operate with transparency, have power and credibility among all stakeholders and be accountable to the sector.
After reflecting on the functions this new body was being asked to undertake, the parallels to a Chamber of Commerce model became apparent – opportunities for networking, speaking on behalf of the sector, promoting conditions for success, and so on. Even more on point were the criteria on which this body was to be structured:
Relevance: the Chamber model has been successful in direct measure to its utility among stakeholders; otherwise, they would opt out Transparency and accountability: Chambers are non-profit organizations themselves, member driven, governed by a board of directors, and subject to the rules and regulations under which all non-profits operate (e.g., the requirement to hold an annual general meeting and make financial statements available)Power and credibility: Chambers have a strength-in-numbers approach from coast-to-coast.
More importantly, the collective representation offered by Chambers could provide a vehicle for the sector to leverage its status as the third pillar of society, claiming a role in our social discourse proportional to its size, economic importance and tremendous impact on our communities. Just imagine – a ground swell of community chambers united provincially and nationally.
Admittedly, there are flaws in this approach. Business organizations are fundamentally different by virtue of their ability to generate disposable income – the voice is self-sustaining. While there are clearly benefits to such an approach, it could equally be criticized as a costly endeavour, one that would divert funding from an already under-funded sector. If waiting lists for service are a wrenching reality, how would enough agencies be able to sell this concept to their boards such that a little investment up front could go a long way? Clearly, without sufficient numbers, the effort would be a waste of time. Would any level of government be willing to provide leadership to get this started when the raison d’être could make things a little more uncomfortable for government funders? How far away would the long-term benefit actually be?
A chamber would also have to confront the difficult balance of providing a voice for its members while being careful not to alienate the interests of those who fill its coffers – a reality that has severely diminished the capacity of non-profits to engage in advocacy work.
More discussion is needed to determine if the chamber model would be feasible for non-profits in our communities. What we know is that for the sector to move forward and thrive, it will need to change and find a better way to make its voice heard. While it is too early to tell if this idea has traction, it is worth exploring further.
The Chamber of Commerce Model
Chambers of Commerce (Board of Trade in some communities) are voluntary, non-political, grass roots member-driven associations focused on advocating for business, regardless of a business’ size or place. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s mission is: “To foster a strong, competitive and profitable economic environment that benefits not only business, but all Canadians.” It achieves this ambitious mandate by following “a two-way consultative process with its membership to steer the debate on federal and international policies affecting business.”
At the local level, a Chamber of Commerce provides members with crucial tax and regulatory information, networking opportunities and access to local politicians, regulators and business leaders. It conducts research, supports committees with resources and offers professional development to strengthen the sector and grow its knowledge base and relevancy.
Given this well-defined, influential and sustainable role, it is not surprising that the model has begun to surface in another of society’s key pillars – the non-profit and voluntary sector.
Adelina Urbanski is the commissioner and John Versluis is coordinator, Special Programs, at the Region of Halton’s Social & Community Services (www.halton.ca).