The Transformation of Advocacy in the Community Sector

The Transformation of Advocacy in the Community Sector

The Transformation of Advocacy in the Community Sector

What is advocacy? How do you define advocacy? People understand it differently depending on the context in which they first encounter it. It could refer to political campaigning or lobbying. It could be a way to describe an argument for a particular position. It could be about making a case for a specific public policy change. It’s one of those elastic terms.

In the charitable or community sector, when we talk about advocacy, we are usually talking about an action directed at government policy makers or public agencies. Much advocacy by charities is intended to bring about a public policy change that will support the people and communities who are at the heart of their mission. Typically, when a charity is “advocating” it is making a case for change to the people who have the power to make that change, but who may not be aware of the need or who treat it as a lower priority.

Advocacy can have a bad name in the charitable sector because it is often associated with political partisanship, and that’s not a permissible activity for a charity. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what kind of activities fall under the aegis of advocacy. Advocacy activities range from low key, “behind the scenes“ actions such as policy research and evidence gathering, all the way to very public and highly visible media campaigns and rallies actively pressing for a specific policy change. Despite this range of options, pursuing the strategy of advocacy is uncomfortable for many charities because of the rules set by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), as well as the CRA’s past audits of charities for so-called “political” activities.

Although charities may think that advocacy is out of bounds for them, there is much more you can do than you can’t do. Many charity boards think that if you state any position at all publicly you are running the risk of getting into trouble, and not behaving like a charity—yet this is simply not true. At the same time, it’s not just boards (or their legal advisors) who can limit advocacy, for charities also lack the resources to devote to it. That’s unfortunate because they often know what works best on the ground. Charities can provide useful information to policy makers and talk about what should change, without taking a partisan stance. But approaches can differ based on strategy. A charity that provides direct service to its clients, say, may not want to pull any resources away from meeting clients’ needs. Another charity in the same field may understand advocacy as very much a part of their mission because for them advocacy relates to social justice. In their view, the mission is to advocate because it isn’t right to be silent.

Charitable foundations, like operating charities, are also often risk averse. Foundations think of themselves as funders who work at arm’s length to support charities with more direct experience with issues. Some believe, with justification, that the charities they fund are best suited to do the advocacy work because of their proximity to the issues. Others, nervous about being associated with “political” activities, might prohibit use of their resources for advocacy. But foundations can fund advocacy or act as advocates themselves—and more are doing so. This is part of the transformation we are beginning to see in the charitable sector in Canada. Foundations are starting to see the possibilities, and to connect them to their own charitable purpose.

Advocacy as a strategy is often related to the goal of public policy change. That may not be entirely fair to the role of advocates. In fact, you can advocate without trying to change policy. For instance, you can describe how your work changes the lives of people you work with, without pushing for a policy change. In this chapter, however, we address advocacy intended to contribute to policy change. Advocacy can be about all the work leading up to policy change, or it can be about what comes after, which is improving a particular policy once implemented.

Some foundations in Canada do work that is clearly related to policy change—they convene, they call on experts and practitioners, and they bring people together to have an informed conversation about what works and what doesn’t work in a policy framework. This is work that makes it possible for policy makers to identify their options. The comfort zone for many foundations is convening, funding research, or think tanks, or collective policy development by charities—the work that precedes policy change.

The Laidlaw Foundation of Toronto focuses on youth in difficulty, whether in foster care, in the justice system, or on the streets. They believe in youth voice, that youth have something to say about their own conditions and situations and how to better them. To give youth a chance to raise their voices during an election campaign, for example, where they are not usually heard, Laidlaw convened a group of youth and invited politicians of all parties to come to a town hall to listen to youth. In this case, the foundation was equipping them to advocate for themselves by preparing them and creating an opportunity for them to speak to politicians directly.

Another example is the Early Childhood Development Funders Working Group. For many years, a group of foundations have been dedicated to promoting a more supportive public policy environment for the growth and development of very young children. They did this for the most part behind the scenes. In 2015, the Group decided to write a public letter during a federal election campaign, setting out the conditions for a successful early childhood experience and showing what government can do to help and why. This public advocacy step had impact. It was followed by two more letters in 2021 during the next election campaign with the goal of trying to shape the public debate about the conditions for success in early childhood.

In Quebec the collectif des fondations québécoises contre les inégalités came together in 2015 as the provincial government was framing its next budget to make a public statement to the government about the negative impact of fiscal austerity on the most vulnerable in society. These funders were taking a position and advocating for the government to pay attention to the differential impact of the cuts on the population. The letter was published in a newspaper, Le Devoir, then followed by several organized convenings. This group of funders continues to collaborate and comes together to talk about using advocacy among other tools to advance their mission of tackling poverty and inequality in communities.

In 2020, during the worst of the Covid pandemic, four Montreal-based foundations came together in a collaboration they called the Consortium Covid Quebec. Their goal was to provide support to community workers in some of the poorer neighbourhoods, which house the most vulnerable populations of Montreal, to educate people about how to protect themselves against Covid. They were filling a gap that governments were not by creating local mobilization to provide public health education and direct support for measures to vaccinate the population. Over two years the Consortium served an important public purpose in financing local efforts to reach people and to save lives through education and vaccination. In fall 2022, as the effort wound down, community organizations and their foundations supported a public call on the government to prepare for future emergencies by funding local mobilization efforts like those modeled through the pandemic by the Consortium’s partners.

Advocacy for mission in the charitable sector is becoming much more a part of the zeitgeist. The summer of 2020 was an important moment for many social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and movements for Indigenous rights. The media prominence of these issues of racial and social equity and injustice has pushed more charities to raise their voices. There is a change in the understanding of what it means to be an active citizen. Environmental activism is also part of this change. And digital media make a huge difference. Smaller charities now have significant ability to have direct impact by using social media tools. Digital technologies have created a new sense of the power to act on issues that might have appeared to be only controlled or influenced by large corporations, or governments. People in communities feel they have an influence on issues that they did not have before the spread of social media.

 

Why has advocacy been perceived as a non-charitable activity in the past?

The reluctance of charities to act as advocates for policy change is connected to the way the federal government has viewed advocacy, describing it as “political” in the Income Tax Act and treating it as a separate activity from charitable activity. In the early 2010s, federal Cabinet Ministers criticized environmental charities for their advocacy activity in opposition to oil and gas pipeline development. Audits of charities and their political activities by the CRA in 2014 caused an uproar in Quebec, as they did in other provinces. During the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals promised to look at harassment of charities for so-called political activities and review what had happened during the years of the Harper government. In 2015 the Liberal Government set up the Consultation Panel on the Political Activities of Charities, which, after consulting with charities and communities, made four recommendations, all of which were adopted after 2016. So-called “political” activities are now renamed as public policy dialogue and development activities. The CRA limits on policy development activities have been dropped and expenditures on such activities do not have to be separately reported. The CRA audits specifically for political activity have stopped. So legal constraints have been lifted to a great degree.

But the positive changes in law and regulation have not completely erased the chill on advocacy. Charities had absorbed the message over many years that it was not entirely legitimate for charities to be critics of government policy—they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. There are still barriers thrown up by charity boards, so charity leaders must work hard to persuade their boards before they can take a public position. Yet this aversion is no longer acceptable to many people working in mission-driven charities and social enterprises. Today’s activists are not sympathetic to the idea that charity status might preclude advocacy or taking a public stand.

A counter argument to the reluctant charity board has been made by Dr. Roger Gibbins, a western Canadian academic who was funded by the Max Bell Foundation for a year to examine the question of charity and advocacy. He said in 2015 that “Charitable status (and its financial benefits) creates a moral imperative to pursue the public good and to be engaged as policy advocates in political and ethical debates about policy and social change.” It could be argued that because charities work for public benefit and are often funded by the public either through government support or through tax incentives to donors, there is a public interest in seeing charities contribute to policy work. Because charities are public entities, they have an obligation to contribute to public policy development. This argument goes to the heart of the question: to what degree are charities public bodies and therefore to what degree are they obliged to engage in public policy? Charities are also a way for citizens to engage in the work of building their communities. This is a question that many charity leaders and donors should ask themselves: do we have a moral imperative as citizens to engage in advocacy in order to help our community thrive?

 

What does it take to be successful in advocacy for policy change?

Policy change takes expertise, resources, patience, and persistence by advocates. Policy change advocacy is also inherently a collaborative project. It is very difficult for one charity to bring about a significant shift in policy on its own. To be effective, charities need to work with each other and with community peers.

An example of collaborative advocacy that led to a substantial shift in public policy at the federal level was the development of the National Housing Strategy in 2017. The National Housing Collaborative (NHC) was a Canadian coalition of non-profits and foundations set up as a time-limited initiative with a goal of ending homelessness in Canada within 10 years. The collaborative was supported among others by United Way Centraide, the United Way of Greater Toronto, and private foundations. Through their collaborative efforts over several years, beginning in Ontario, the Collaborative built a social “lab” to test the elements of a National Housing Strategy, including the implementation of a Portable Housing Benefit for tenants struggling to afford rent. Because most households face homelessness due to a lack of affordable housing, providing a subsidy would bring households out of homelessness and allow them to allocate their extra finances to support education, nutrition, and well-being. Since the subsidy would be “needs-based,” people would have liberty to move to other neighborhoods or cities without fear of unaffordable rents. The work of the Collaborative strongly influenced the National Housing Strategy announced by the federal government in 2017. The Strategy aims to reduce chronic homelessness by 50%, remove 530,000 families from housing need, and build up to 100,000 new affordable homes. One of the important elements in the Strategy is a Canada Housing Benefit, which puts choice and buying power in the hands of low-income renters. This benefit came directly out of the modeling done by the NHC.

This example demonstrates how nonprofit advocates, working together over years, created an actionable set of initiatives and programs that the federal government could adopt in collaboration with provincial governments. The National Housing Collaborative was successful because it understood that it had to be very practical, and it tested the various policy ideas to see if they would work before proposing them to government.

Yet most charities wouldn’t be able to do this work of testing and developing policy ideas because they don’t have capacity to do so at scale. Through their mission and relationships, they do have the capacity to share expertise, and create access to community knowledge and lived experience. Funders can help by doing the convening with both community partners and policy makers. They can also help charities by giving them support for data collection. This is important since it is difficult to make a case for policy change without evidence, and the data that is routinely collected for service delivery and operations is not always the same as the data required for policy work.

Network organizations can help develop capacity for policy advocacy by building awareness and normalizing it as an activity for charities. This is another way in which funders can help promote advocacy, by supporting the policy advocacy budgets of intermediary, umbrella, and network organizations. Funders can also fund sector policy training institutes. As more nonprofit leaders take advantage of this training or of other educational opportunities, their sense of confidence and capability around advocacy will develop.

People, and especially the young, feel a great sense of urgency for change. The climate crisis is real and urgent. Young people are very aware and plugged into advocacy movements. They are eager to join a march, sign a petition, speak to politicians. There is, however, a gap between this kind of activism and the work that it takes over many years to make policy change. Charity leaders need to be aware of this, especially with their activist volunteers. There is no substitute for the hard work of gathering evidence, developing and testing options, and making the case for change.

 

Policy change advocacy in action. An example from Quebec

Le secteur Communautaire (the community sector) and the state in Quebec are often connected in their mutual projet de société. Charities or community groups see themselves as legitimate participants in public policy debates. The word plaidoyer (advocacy) isn’t much used in the francophone context to describe public policy development activities, but at times it can be something like a love-hate relationship between public and charitable sectors. Many community groups feel there is a lack of recognition by the government of what they can bring to the table. And the different jurisdictions of government in Quebec can be as frustrating to community groups in Quebec as they are elsewhere in Canada. Community groups depend on governments for their funding. But they also depend on governments for effective regulation and decision-making. This is not easy to achieve in multi-jurisdictional situations with many players such as the province, municipalities, health agencies, the police, and the justice system.

 

Head & Hands: the toxic drug crisis and the role of public health

In late 2023, the idea that Montréal is contending with a worsening toxic drug crisis is not controversial. In fact, the Federal government readily acknowledges that Canada is facing a national opioid overdose crisis. A few years earlier, however, as the increase in the number of overdoses and fatalities was steadily moving eastward across Canada, community sector actors found themselves having to advocate for a more proactive, localized approach to mitigating preventable loss of life.

Head & Hands (H&H), a nonprofit which serves a primarily English-speaking youth clientele in one of the most culturally diverse boroughs of the city, is one of a handful of organizations to offer harm reduction services on the western half of the island of Montréal. This combination of geography and demography made H&H uniquely positioned to reach a population that was often underserved by the existing services. H&H staff were also more aware of how the realities of people who use drugs in and around their neighborhood were changing. When H&H staff reached out to the Direction de la Santé Publique (DRSP), Montréal’s public health agency, to flag their concern and to make the case for greater material support of harm reduction services, the request was well-received, but nonetheless met with reticence. The agency readily acknowledged the severity of the crisis, while maintaining that the overall profile of drug usage in Québec was sufficiently distinct from that of the rest of the country that the crisis warranted monitoring rather than immediate action. The conversations which ensued over weeks and months are an excellent example of the behind-the-scenes advocacy roles that community actors can play as highly discriminating sensors of early signals.

These exchanges with the DRSP led to a growing number of basic harm reduction services being offered through Head & Hands with the public health agency’s support, such as providing sharps containers for used needle disposal, tourniquets, etc. Having access to new, single-use materials, was and is a major protective factor against blood borne illnesses, but in the context of growing harms due to an adulterated supply there still needed to be mitigation against the risk of overdose. Because of this unmet need the Director of the Street Work program began to plan for a pop-up overdose prevention site, the Head & Hands Overdose Prevention Site (HHOPS). The intention was to pilot the provision of drug-checking services, and eventually supervised consumption as well. There were, though, a number of barriers to overcome, including a legal framework which made the very act of verifying the presence of fentanyl illegal because it implies that someone is in possession of a controlled substance.

H&H began to speak with local law enforcement, municipal administrators, as well as both provincial and federal health regulators, to secure each actor’s buy-in to move forward with HHOPS. As is often the case when trying to tackle a complex issue (e.g., housing), each level of government has its jurisdictional considerations, and there was both overlap and disjunction among them. The project’s success was contingent on assuring each actor that every other actor was on board, as each cited another as needing to be involved.

This delicate dance, sometimes really more akin to a wobble, progressed. Finally, the HHOPS team set up the site and did dry-runs. Over the course of months, through countless meetings, phone calls, applications, and e-mails, what was once considered impossible was coming to fruition. Ideally, this is where HHOPS would be described as a watershed moment for how new harm reduction services are introduced in Montréal. Instead, the project ended up having to be put on hold following the intervention of a borough police chief who, while not responsible for the neighborhood within which Head & Hands operated, did hold the mandate for harm reduction services. The local police chief deferred to their colleague at the borough level. Just like that, the dance came to a stop. The Director of the Street Work program, and the HHOPS team of staff and volunteers invested many more hours over several months through the COVID-19 pandemic to secure buy-in and permissions for the project—and finally succeeded. Nonetheless, success was bittersweet. By the time it had all come together, many of the staff members who were key to the initiative had left the organization, for a variety of reasons, including exhaustion and burnout.

In the meantime, however, there has been an increase in the number of sites, and in the breadth of services that are available across the island of Montréal. There is a growing consensus for the need to proactively address the toxic drug crisis in Québec, and a better understanding of the risk that stigma poses to people who use drugs. This is the result of years of work by dozens of organizations like Head & Hands, which continue to commit time, energy, and resources to changing how governments and public sector institutions approach this crisis.

 

How can a charity engage with advocacy?

    • There are many ways that a charity can be successful in advocacy.
    • Begin by understanding that advocacy for policy change can range from simple information sharing and awareness raising to actively building support for the policy change you want to see. You can choose where best to play a role.
    • Use different strategies: start small or local; collect data; and think about how to educate the public on an issue. It’s not always about changing the mind of government.
    • Take a collaborative approach to policy advocacy. Charities are more effective when they can work together to raise their voices or to present evidence.
    • Respect the accountability of elected officials. Offer practical solutions to policy problems.
    • Facilitate the voice of people with lived experience. This is a unique role that charities can play to bring these voices forward.

 

Conclusion

It’s important to find a way to talk about advocacy in a way that is not threatening to government, or to other interests. We must fight the idea that it is not charitable to raise your voice, to state your position. This notion penalizes all of us in society. The boundaries between not-for-profit and other sectors are starting to blur. There is much more collaborative activity, working on a systemic problem together. Government needs to understand and acknowledge that. More forward-thinking policy makers are seeing that society’s problems are too complex to be solved only by one sector, and what used to be called advocacy may now be better described as collaborative policy making. It starts with a belief in the legitimacy of advocacy as an element of charitable work. There are new opportunities and possibilities for advocacy work as part of mission. It takes boldness, expertise and money but charities can and increasingly will bring about social transformation through advocacy.

Andrea Clarke

Andrea Clarke

Former President, Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation

Hilary Pearson

Hilary Pearson

Philanthropy observer and author Founding President of Philanthropic Foundations Canada

Digital Transformation Shaping the Non-profit Sector

Digital Transformation Shaping the Non-profit Sector

Digital Transformation Shaping the Non-profit Sector

For over two decades I’ve been dedicated to helping organizations find better ways to raise money, increase awareness for their cause, and bring hope to those who need it most.

The biggest shift I have witnessed in the sector occurred when websites became the norm for nonprofits. Online donations started to grow in popularity, and the ability to accept donations more quickly really changed things.

Since 2015, the digital shift has been happening faster and faster. Resources that weren’t as accessible to smaller charities are now becoming more common. Tools are more available for organizations to implement on their website. For instance, third party donation platforms, like those provided by Zeffy and CanadaHelps, facilitate the complete transaction process, making it easier and faster for organizations to collect money online and funnel it back to the charity.

While the number of overall individual donors in Canada decreased 0.5% per year from 2006 to 2015, the 2018 CanadaHelps Giving Report shows that the number of individual online donors steadily increased to 20.5% over the same period. Online donors also increased their annual donation amounts at a much higher rate than the average donation amount for all dollars (2.8% vs. 1.2% per year).

In fact, findings from the 2020 CanadaHelps report show that online donations have been rising year over year since 2011. “In 2017, online growth rose 17% from the previous year,” says Shawn Bunsee, Vice President of Data & Analytics for CanadaHelps. That’s nearly three times higher than the growth of overall donations. It’s clear that offering a simplified and rewarding online experience for donors results in increased revenue for charities that have invested in the technology.

In 2020, 1.1 million Canadians donated more than $480 million through CanadaHelps to nearly 30,000 charities, more than double the amount donated in 2019. Following the declaration of the pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020, the online giving index shows online giving suddenly accelerating nearly every month that year in nine of ten charitable categories (The Giving Report 2021, p.7).

Studies show that the pool of donors is getting smaller but online donors have increased, and they’ve increased their amounts at a higher rate than the average.
The potential for fundraising is much bigger since technology has lifted so many barriers to giving and increased our capacity to reach larger, wider audiences. Digital fundraising offers a bigger potential for an increase in new donors, even if the organization’s traditional donor list is diminishing.

It’s not only who is giving that is changing but it’s what they are giving as well. Some organizations are already accepting Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrency, so the transformation is just going to continue in new and interesting ways.

 

Donors are becoming more selective and demanding accountability

Technology plays a big role in the sector’s transformation because access to information has been made easier and forced a new expectation for transparency. This new level of accountability for an organization’s actions means demonstrating their impact is more important than ever. People can now give money more easily, thanks to digitalization, but they won’t part with their hard earned dollars unless the organization can prove that they are worthy of the donation, that they are credible, and that the money will be well spent.

Today, more and more donors and funders are Googling an organization to vet them before making a gift, looking them up on the Canadian Revenue Agency website in order to make better-informed decisions. As easy as it is to get a bad rating as an Uber driver, organizations can get bad ratings as a charity, tarnishing their hard-earned reputation. There are websites that rate the quality of a charity based on how they manage their donations and how they operate. How many charities are looking up their own organization to see how they measure up? The tools are out there, and organizations need to stay on top of these tools to mitigate risks.

It’s no longer enough to say, “We’re a non-profit, of course we’re doing good.” There is increasing pressure from funders, investors, employees, and partners to “Do good better,” and provide evidence of the social change organizations are creating through their direct activities. In order to live up to the claims of doing good, the organization has to learn how they can ensure that they are maximizing their positive impact and minimizing their negative impacts. At the same time, on the funder’s side we are starting to see a shift away from simply expecting grantees to meet financial reporting requirements, and toward an expectation that evidence be provided of improved programs and deeper impact.

If you want your organization to continue to create effective outcomes, you can—and should—be intentional about providing evidence that you are achieving what you set out to do for the people you support, the larger community, and the planet. Having impact means lasting change and value creation. We each have a responsibility to recognize that our own ways of being and working have positive and negative impacts on others, whether intentional or not—and these positive and negative impacts often have much farther-reaching consequences than we are aware.

Impact measurement is what will set organizations apart in years to come. Technology is key to tracking, evaluating, and measuring impact in a more systematic way—so the sooner organizations have the proper tools in place, the easier it will be to measure the outcomes of their work.

 

Social media is the new soap box

The ability to support a cause you care about is literally at your fingertips. Not only can you become a donor, but you can become an advocate or influencer, just by sharing on social media the fact that you support an organization. When you make a donation through Facebook, the first thing the platform offers is to tell all your friends that you just gave to that fundraising activity, and to share it with your network. The donor goes from being simply a donor to now being a key player in the communications strategy, which also brings more satisfaction to the donor because they are no longer just a donor—now they are also an ambassador.

This new dynamic can make or break your reputation. If a donor has a bad experience, it can be problematic. In the same way, if they had a great experience they can be your best advocate.

This new level of influence in the hands of donors has shifted the power dynamic between the giver and the recipient. Yet even with the many opportunities that the fastpaced changes in technology have brought us, fundraising practices within organizations have not been as swift to adapt. Many charities are still stuck in the one-to-one mode of fundraising and have yet to embrace the one-to-many dialogue that social media requires.

Traditionally, most organizations would send out appeals once or twice a year and wait for the cheques to be mailed in. Wining and dining large donors was also common practice. Relationships between donors and the organization were slow and steady, and for those who knew how to steward donors well, they would benefit from the donor’s loyalty for years to come. Today, however, social media allows organizations so many other touchpoints and opportunities that go beyond a once-a-year letter to engage donors.

 

Our motivation has changed, our language is changing

In the past, people would often give out of a sense of obligation, tradition, or religion. Now, though, more and more people are giving as a social investment.

Even language is changing in the sector. Organizations are less and less comfortable with the word “charity,” because it implies a sort of pity. We are seeing clients replacing the language for the donate button on their website from “Donate now” to “Invest now” because they feel this wording is more impactful. Donors will feel even better about giving their money because they feel like it’s going to be invested, not just spent, and the donor will get a social return on their investment. As the sector professionalizes, the language is starting to change around money and how we talk about it in the sector, which is really fascinating.

At Charity Water, their monthly donor program is not called a monthly donor program. Rather, they name each program based on the outcome of the money received. There is an invitation to be part of their community and not just perform a transaction. There’s a whole shift in power, a sense that the donor is closer to the work that’s being done—and when it’s done well, it creates a stronger spirit of partnership.

Larger organizations do this really well. They have very slick marketing, with copywriting and development officers who really know how to steward their donors, bringing donors along on what’s called a “donor journey.” Most often it’s the larger donors who get treated like partners: they’re given special reports with details on projects they funded and receive information on tangible results, with metrics and touching stories of the lives they’ve improved. For many organizations, once a funder has made a donation, they’re kept in the loop and consulted for more than just taking their money: they’ll actually be brought into the work in a more intimate way. Donors are showing a keen interest in wanting to do more than just give money. At the same time, charities are realizing that there’s a benefit to involving some larger donors who can lend their expertise, for instance to become a good board member, committee member, or ambassador. The lines then blur, the engagement deepens, and that partnership grows because the donor is involved on different levels. It’s not just transactional anymore. We’ve gone from an obligation, religious duty, or tradition to this idea of partner, being consulted, and being part of a community working towards a common goal.

With an international development client, Tostan, they often spoke about their community of practice and leadership circles – they saw how important it was to build a wider community around the mission. And the more you do that successfully, the more donors will stay loyal, want to see their investment grow, and want to be part of the solution.

Technology has also improved other areas, beyond fundraising. When we were making a website for Logifem, a woman’s shelter in the Montreal area, one of the things that we talked about was how administratively heavy the process was for recruiting and organizing volunteers. We introduced a volunteer sign-up form where the organization could collect all the data on the person interested in volunteering, get it organized, and put those people to good use. Websites are no longer just handy to facilitate online giving, they can also be used for reducing administrative tasks that take up hours and hours of an employee’s time unnecessarily. Showcasing that kind of efficiency, and thus working more effectively, really impresses donors, resulting in a win-win-win outcome.

 

Leadership is key

The nonprofit sector’s slower pace of adoption to technology is ironic, in that many board members are successful business people who use technology day in and day out. And yet, they don’t typically approve budgets or suggest investing in their nonprofit organization’s technology.

Dan Palotta, the TED Talk speaker and humanitarian activist, has been very vocal about how the sector needs to change its scarcity mindset. For far too long there’s been this notion that a charity is supposed to be lean, and donors often evaluate how much of their dollar is going to overhead and operations rather than to “the cause.” Technology, along with administrative costs, marketing, and fundraising expenses are all normal costs of operations, and yet we have a double standard with charities. If charities can’t keep up with the changing pace of technology, they will continue to fall behind, their missions will be negatively affected, and society will suffer.

 

Technology has transformed the way we do everything

Our recent digital revolution is not much different than how the world adapted to the Industrial Revolution. Think of the people that didn’t want to use electricity, wanting instead to continue using oil lamps. At a certain point they had to accept electricity as the new normal and adopt the way of progress. In today’s world, technology has transformed the way we learn, the way we communicate, the way we move around, the way we see the world and each other.

Mobile phones provide another example. In the early 2000s no one would have imagined how quickly cell phones and smartphones would take over our lives. In 2019, just under half of Canadian households (45%) reported they had a cellphone and no landline, up from 10% in 2010. Nearly 85% of Canadian households with a respondent under 30 years old reported they had a cellphone and no landline in 2019. By 2020, over 54% of seniors owned a smartphone. Having access to this technology is also impacting how and when donors interact with your charity. They might be reading your newsletter on their smartphone while waiting for the bus on the way to work. They might be reading your annual report on their device while in line at the supermarket. They might scan a QR code off a poster while on a walk and feel moved to donate online without even speaking to anyone at your organization. They might be on social media and see a friend’s peer-to-peer fundraising campaign, and decide to support their friend—and, by extension, your cause.

We now live in an “on-demand” world where we can order food from anywhere at any time, we can watch a movie or the TV show of our choosing with a simple scroll and click, we can meet the love of our life by swiping right or left. There is an immediacy to how we operate as a society today that the nonprofit sector was just not prepared for.

Many organizations feel they are no longer in the driver’s seat because donors and potential donors are able to access information from multiple sources and access the organization in multiple ways. It can be overwhelming for the organization and its limited staff, which is why developing new strategies is essential for not only surviving this new digital world but to be able to thrive in them.

The digital revolution is opening doors for smaller organizations. Today, smaller charities have many of the same fundraising tools and opportunities as the big charities have. While the smaller ones may not have the same resources as their larger counterparts, they are more agile and can make quicker decisions than larger institutions. We may see another significant shift in the near future, where the smaller sized nonprofits have greater opportunities for impact because they’re more nimble and faster to adapt to the changes that technology and digital solutions provide. It’s going to be interesting to see the changes that take place over the next five to ten years as technology continues to evolve and pick up pace. I look forward to the day when board members agree to invest in technology and capacity building for their organizations. Maybe then we’ll see more charities live their missions more effectively, to bring about the much-needed positive change in our communities.

 

Moving from transactional to transformational

In my career I’ve witnessed far too many cases of charities who aren’t taking good care of their donors. Whenever we’re hired to do a digital transformation for a client, I always take the time to live their donor’s giving experience firsthand—like a secret shopper hired to uncover what is going well or not in a particular marketplace. In one particular case, for a larger and rather successful hospital foundation, I was shocked by the online experience. The donation form was difficult to use and when I got my confirmation receipt, the receipt came from the name of the platform, not the name of the organization. The email confirmation thanked me for my gift, and it gave me a donor number for future reference. In the blink of an eye, I went from feeling good about supporting a local health institution to being reduced to a number. Not only was it difficult to make my online donation because the organization hadn’t invested in a good design and easy-to-use platform, the email confirmation said that I would receive my tax receipt in the mail in three to six months! With today’s available tools, donors should be receiving their tax receipt immediately.

Making changes to the platform your organization uses, and changes to how you send a “Thank you” confirmation, can make all the difference. Every organization should invest in their online experience and in the follow-up communications. One has only to look at many of the successful online retailers to see how that investment pays off.

 

Data is the new currency

With all of this added technology and the change in donor behaviour, we’re able to collect valuable data easier than ever before. Collecting the right kind of data and taking the time to analyze it can help an organization make better decisions and improve their strategies.

Many organizations I have worked with have a very big database but don’t really know who their donors are. It is unfortunate that they are not maximizing the many communication and fundraising methods available today to get closer to their donors. When an organization is not leveraging their tools to foster closer ties with their donors, they are leaving money on the table.

I witnessed this firsthand with an organization I had been volunteering with for over ten years. When I received their annual spring letter, it made no mention of me as a volunteer, let alone one of over a decade. The letter went straight into who they were (as if I didn’t already know them), what they did, why the charity needed help, why my donation is important, and why I should give now. I immediately threw the letter in the recycling bin. I was insulted, hurt, and angry that they didn’t recognize and communicate with me as a special person in their community. Had they added one sentence at the beginning which said that in addition to being a great volunteer we would really value my donations as well, I would have reacted quite differently. I was their volunteer, first and foremost. If an organization isn’t tracking that in their database, or if they are tracking it but not using the information for effective segmentation, then it can be more than a wasted opportunity, it can be a complete turn off.

 

Trust and respect are timeless

Donors and organizations have a shared responsibility to one another. They have to respect and trust one another in the relationship, regardless of what technology is being used to facilitate the exchange. No one wins if the power shifts too much into the hands of one and so is taken away from the other. As in any relationship, such as one with a spouse or partner, we know that if the power dynamics are unbalanced, the relationship is going to be a struggle or end poorly. The same can be said in fundraising. If you had a friend who only ever called you when they needed something from you, you would grow tired of the relationship and begin to resent that person or avoid interaction with them. Yet organizations carry out that very same behaviour when they only ever contact their donors to ask for money. Organizations that are successful in fundraising and stewardship are the ones who are investing time and money into the donor journey, into crafting communications to keep donors and stakeholders informed of their progress. They are sharing impact stories and bringing people along for the ride.

 

Work smarter, not harder

There has never been a better time than today for an organization to rethink their way of working. Technology is forcing nonprofits to rewrite their playbook so that donors and funders can see the organization as credible and accountable. Fast-paced changes in the digital world require organizations to have benchmarks for success and adjust goals as things change. With better planning, nonprofits can make proactive choices instead of reactive decisions that often put them between a rock and hard place. Armed with a new strategy for a new digital world, staff and volunteers will be excited to work towards a common goal and will be motivated to do their part, while donors will feel part of the solution and trust that their money is being well invested.

Kim Fuller

Kim Fuller

Founder and CEO Phil Inc.

The Changing Face of Volunteerism

The Changing Face of Volunteerism

The Changing Face of Volunteerism

Most nonprofit organizations depend on volunteers to deliver on their mission. They contribute in a variety of ways, serving on Boards of Directors, delivering services, contributing important skills, to name a few. We can talk about their value in terms of the hours they contribute, but their true value is qualitative. It is in how they bring the community into their organization, build connections, support a cause or specific individuals. They do this with their passion or their compassion, rather than because it is their job. This article looks at the ways in which volunteerism has changed over the past 25 years in Montreal and elsewhere, and how it has recently been disrupted by the pandemic with its lingering effects. Volunteers are essential to the functioning and resilience of our communities, and they are taken for granted at our peril. Volunteerism is evolving rapidly as is society itself. Nonprofit organizations are caught up in, and must understand, that shift and its impact.

I was introduced to volunteering by my mother when I was a young teenager. It was her idea. Once a week for a school year, I acted as a “candy striper” in a general hospital, tending to patients’ needs in a non-medical capacity. I enjoyed the experience but did not feel compelled to continue. After that early experience, I was more personally motivated to give my time, energy, and thought to various causes, and this contributed significantly to my education and personal growth. I have never stopped volunteering, but things changed for me when I entered the formal field of volunteer engagement in 2001, joining the team at the Volunteer Bureau of Montreal. Sixteen years later I moved to Volunteer Canada, the organization providing leadership, expertise, and advocacy on volunteerism at the national level.

I have often thought there was something auspicious about the timing of my career change. 2001 was the International Year of Volunteers, a year when everyone in the community sector was talking about the importance of volunteers, when governments were not only celebrating and recognizing volunteers, but also investing in research and in the development of tools and resources to support them.

The Volunteer Bureau of Montreal was the first centre of its kind in Canada, founded in 1937. It is part of a network of centres across Quebec and across Canada that were created to address community needs and gaps by involving local citizens in various ways. Apart from promoting volunteerism and helping build the capacity of local organizations, many of these centres today provide direct services and play important leadership roles in their communities.

 

Some Definitions

Perhaps the simplest way to define “volunteering” is as a gesture or action that is offered freely, made without financial reward, and intended for the good of another person, of a cause, or of the community.

While this definition covers most volunteering, there are situations where the principles implied can appear somewhat blurred or nuanced, for instance “volunteering” that is:

    • required for academic purposes (for graduation from high school, for acceptance to certain programs, e.g., International Baccalaureate, medical or law school, or for obtaining scholarships),
    • community service performed as a condition of parole or as an alternative to prison, or
    • part of corporate or other employer supported programs where employees individually or in groups volunteer while being paid.

Volunteerism was defined in a 2021 report by Statistics Canada as:

…the participation in purposeful helping activities without monetary compensation. It can involve a variety of activities, taking place occasionally over the course of a year, or a more consistent and sustained commitment, such as a weekly commitment to a specific cause. Volunteering benefits groups, persons, or the community, and can either be mediated by organizations (formal volunteering) or be direct help without the involvement of an organization or group (informal volunteering).

Volunteering counts: Formal and informal contributions of Canadians in 2018

This was the first report in Canada that recognized and tracked informal volunteering, i.e., individuals or groups participating directly in a cause or to help individuals, not through an organization.

 

Why is Volunteering Important?

When one is immersed in volunteer engagement as I have been, it can be easy to take for granted why it is important and to whom. Staff in community organizations often say, “We couldn’t do it without them!” and they are not referring simply to the financial impact of involving volunteers. The value for them is something else. Volunteers bring whatever is needed to the table – skills, attention, patience, time, knowledge, empathy – and do so because they freely want to. They bring the sensibility of the community into the organization, bearing witness to what it is doing, and they serve a governing role as trustees and board members. Volunteers create connections within an increasingly disconnected society.

Without volunteers, there is no community sector. In fact, well over half of the over 60,000 nonprofit organizations in Quebec have no staff at all. Community organizations, many with precarious budgets, are tasked with completing and complementing the work of governments on all levels and in all areas, including health and social services, arts and culture, sports and recreation, education and research, law and advocacy, housing and development, the environment, human rights, international development, and philanthropy—and they quite simply could not do it without volunteers.

Even if volunteers are unpaid, they make an important contribution to the economy – and this is another angle on their value, one that is more tangible for some people. In 2017 the Conference Board of Canada estimated that volunteers added over two billion hours to Canada’s work effort and contributed a value of $55.9 billion, the equivalent of 2.6 percent of GDP. If volunteering were an industry, it would employ nearly as many people as those currently working in education. (The Value of Volunteering in Canada)

Volunteers create value for themselves, as well. They acquire skills, improve their employment prospects, and create their own social and economic networks. There is growing recognition of the many benefits of volunteering for neighbourhoods (social capital and social cohesion), organizations (increased capacity and cultural competencies), workplaces (improved employee engagement and public profile), and society at large (better public policy and citizen engagement).

 

Some Statistics and Trends

Statistics on volunteering among those who are 15 years or older have been gathered in Canada every five years since 1997, in what is now called the General Social Survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating. It was originally undertaken every three years, later changing to every five years, and it takes at least a year before the data is analyzed and published.
Regardless of the lag, this information is useful for benchmarking and noticing trends.

The pandemic further delayed the release of all the data from the most recent survey (2018). When the results were finally published in the spring of 2021, they were eagerly awaited, despite the fact that they contained only information collected before the pandemic. People in the sector wanted to know if the recent trend towards lower formal volunteer rates was continuing, and also to see the data on informal volunteering.

Formal and informal volunteering
In fact, the trend downwards did continue. The number of volunteers was almost the same as in the previous survey (12.7 million), representing a smaller percentage of the adult population (41%, down from 44%), and they collectively contributed approximately 1.7 billion hours, down from close to 2 billion.

If you add formal and informal volunteering together, 79% of the population 15 years old and over in Canada volunteer formally or informally or both. In Quebec the percentage was 78%.

This is good news for Quebec. In all previous surveys, Quebec was at the bottom of the list in terms of volunteer numbers, percentages, and hours – some believe mostly because many Quebecers see their actions as entraide (mutual aid) or informal volunteering. In this survey, Quebecers, while still coming out at the bottom in terms of formal volunteering, were at the top for informal volunteers and were in the average range for those who volunteered both formally and informally.

What is important for nonprofits to take from this data is that there is less interest in structured, managed, or long-term volunteering, whether in Quebec or anywhere in Canada (and in fact world-wide). This trend started before the pandemic and is now well anchored.

As a society, we cannot see the increase in informal volunteering as bad news, because it provides evidence of much goodwill, kindness, and giving, and this is to be celebrated. For nonprofit organizations, however, this new reality presents a challenge. While many adapted their volunteer programs and recruitment practices during the pandemic, it is now obvious that there is nothing temporary about the situation. If individual organizations and the communities they serve are to thrive, change must be sustained.

Another First
For the first time in this survey, the data is broken down into five age cohorts instead of simple age-ranges. This is intended to introduce the notion that people’s actions are influenced to some extent by the significant societal events and cultural experiences within a given time-period. The five cohorts used in the report are:

    • iGen (also referred as Generation Z): Born between 1996 and 2012 (15 to 22 years of age at the time of the survey)
    • Millennials: Born between 1981 and 1995 (23 to 37 years of age)
    • Gen X: Born between 1966 and 1980 (38 to 52 years of age)
    • Baby Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1965 (53 to 72 years of age)
    • Matures: Born between 1918 and 1945 (73 to 100 years of age)

According to the results, the younger cohorts tended towards informal volunteering, and, although higher in volunteer rates (percentage of them that volunteer), gave fewer hours than the older generations. The older cohorts tended towards formal volunteering, and, while their rates of volunteering were lower, they contributed more hours.

Note: The Canadian Knowledge Hub for Giving and Volunteering is a new website that brings together stats on giving and volunteering and, as a hub, will be updated over time as data becomes available. This tool should prove invaluable for those working in the non-profit sector.

The Pandemic Effect
Smaller, but still statistically significant surveys carried out since 2019 in Canada and in Quebec have shown that volunteerism has been seriously disrupted over the pandemic years. Initially individuals were inspired to come out in droves; the needs were obvious and so many had time to spare due to being forced to stop their work or studies. Early in the pandemic, jebenevole.ca, a website created by volunteer centres in Quebec to provide access to opportunities across the province, crashed within hours of the Premier encouraging people to sign up.

During the pandemic, nonprofits proved themselves both resilient and creative, cancelling services or shutting down only when it proved necessary. Mostly they scrambled for funding, recruited new volunteers, trained them while also learning from them, and managed to continue responding to an ever-increasing demand for services.

Meanwhile, as time went on, many older volunteers, by far the vast majority in our society, found they had to wait too long to be permitted to return to volunteering or to feel comfortable in doing so. They simply decided to stop.

With seniors not returning, and with eager pandemic volunteers being called back to work, school or to family responsibilities or having more leisure options, fewer volunteers were left for the required tasks. Some returning volunteers found that their previous activity had moved online during the pandemic, or now entailed an online component, which did not suit them. As a result of all these intersecting and overlapping changes, nonprofits found themselves coming out of the pandemic with a serious shortage of volunteers at a time when most were also having trouble finding staff.

 

Other Trends and Factors Impacting Volunteer Engagement

Apart from the impact of the pandemic, many factors, trends, and practices have come to light during my time working in the sector, some that facilitate volunteer engagement, and some that get in the way. Below you will find six of the most important, along with some of my own thoughts about their significance for volunteerism.

Professionalization of Volunteering
Professionalization takes two forms. First, the engagement of volunteers in nonprofit organizations has become increasingly organized and professionalized. This can be a good thing: staff adopt practices that better support effective volunteer engagement, become aware of the importance of having clear policies that protect both the volunteers and the organization, and learn to evaluate the impact of volunteer efforts. But it can also make their jobs and the atmosphere more bureaucratic and make volunteering itself less appealing and spontaneous, more like paid work. This aspect of the trend can certainly contribute to a decrease in formal volunteers. Organizations need to find a way to balance maintaining appropriate levels of paperwork and risk while offering maximum flexibility and autonomy to their volunteers.

The second form of professionalization is what is referred to as skills-based volunteering. Individuals and sometimes groups are engaged for their professional skills to undertake tasks or projects, or to educate employees at nonprofit organizations. This professionalization does not contribute to the decrease in formal volunteers, while it it allows volunteers to participate on a short-term basis or project basis, and in ways that are meaningful and satisfying to them. It also gives organizations access to many necessary and desirable skills to better accomplish their missions.

Virtual Volunteering
A growing but by no means new trend is volunteers offering their time and expertise remotely. From their home or office in Montreal or beyond, they are able to participate in communications functions (writing, editing, translating, graphic arts, photography, web development), perform various direct service tasks via phone or online (friendly visits, tutoring, mentoring, social skills training, group facilitation), join in fundraising campaigns, and more. As organizations adapted to pandemic conditions, some services moved online, and many more volunteer activities became what is called “virtual.” Some, but not all, of those services continue online, and organizations are finding more ways to engage people from afar. Virtual volunteering is alive and thriving.

Employer-supported Volunteering
When I first arrived at the Volunteer Bureau of Montreal, it was not common practice for organizations to welcome employee groups in to help; and, in fact, many nonprofits were somewhat cynical about the practice and did not consider it to be volunteering. Twenty-five years later, companies and other employers commonly engage in both group and individual volunteering projects as a way to invest in the communities in which they operate. Employers are willing to pay for costs directly associated with the activity, to pay employees’ salaries while volunteering, and often to make a contribution towards the time, knowledge, and skills of staff in the nonprofit. They see a two-fold return on their contributions: good will in the community and improved retention of employees.

Parallel to this trend, there is also a growing recognition among employers of the value of volunteer experience. It is not only “nice to have” on a CV, or simply evidence of a person’s character and values. Volunteering is also proof of skills and acquired experience, particularly soft skills. This recognition has crept into the hiring process, and also into ongoing evaluation and retention practices.

Volunteers Have Rights, but also Responsibilities
Volunteers give their time, their skills, their presence, their passion and so much more. But you will hear many say, “I receive so much more than I give!” Volunteering is a two-way street and it works best when the back-and-forth is in balance. According to Volunteer Canada (Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement), the guiding principles of volunteer engagement are that volunteers have rights, and volunteers have responsibilities. Organizations need to respect those rights, but they also can expect volunteers to deliver on their responsibilities.

Of course, in order for these principles to be followed, both the rights and the responsibilities involved need to be made explicit and be acknowledged by both sides. A good set of volunteer policies and procedures should reflect these simple principles and the implications that flow from them for the organization in question.

In years of consulting with community organizations in Montreal, I found that this back-and-forth being out of balance was at the heart of any problem reported by volunteers or those working with them.

The Future of Formal Volunteering In Question
Many volunteer programs in nonprofit organizations were facing recruitment and retention problems long before the pandemic. One-time events and short-term projects have become popular, as has micro volunteering, meaning short projects taking from 10-15 minutes to a couple of hours.

At the same time, fewer volunteers are interested in a long-term commitment. Many want to experience other organizations, different causes, or perhaps find it difficult to fit anything long-term into their busy lives. With so many older volunteers not returning after the pandemic, this trend has become even more problematic.

In addition, other less formal types of engagement have continued to increase in popularity, for example, direct involvement through neighbourhood or online groups, petitions, fundraising, social media campaigns, and, of course, responding directly in emergencies. This informal volunteering is in itself positive, as noted above, but not when it is at the expense of nonprofit organizations with their significant dependence on volunteers.

There are, in fact, more than enough potential volunteers in Montreal to go around. In order to rise to the challenge of finding sufficient and appropriate volunteers, organizations must prioritize volunteer engagement at a strategic level and focus on three fronts.

    1. Communications: become compelling storytellers, explaining their mission and impact in such a way that attracts today’s volunteers, and develop social media savvy.
    2. Integration: be open and inclusive from the first contact with volunteers, seek to understand their motivations and expectations, and be clear about the organization’s own expectations and goals.
    3. Operations: find a safe and sustainable balance between flexibility and structure.

Organizations that are aware of all these various trends will be the most successful in their recruitment, even in these difficult times. They will develop different types of opportunities that allow them to engage volunteers remotely when appropriate, seek out volunteers specifically for events, and recruit volunteers who want to offer skills on a one-time or project basis. They will also find those who are happy to become “regulars”. They will know that volunteering is a “two-way” street and will have a balanced approach that means those “regulars” will be more likely to stay longer.

Perhaps the Biggest Barrier of All
Volunteering has long been suggested to immigrants and other new arrivals as a way to learn about and integrate into their new environment, whether that be a large city like Montreal, a small town, or a new neighbourhood. It does, in fact, often prove a pathway to meeting people for social and employment purposes, to better understanding the local culture, to learning the language, and to finding much needed information and resources. Many nonprofit organizations report high numbers of immigrants in their volunteer ranks, the highest not surprisingly being those that work within settlement and cultural communities.

There is, however, a larger issue of inclusion within the community sector as a whole in Montreal and in Quebec and in volunteer engagement. We are not immune from the diversity, equity, and inclusion barriers that exist in our society and are becoming more visible. Apart from the historical and cultural origins of specific community organizations and institutions here, volunteerism itself is a white, colonial structure with assumptions that are often implicit and unacknowledged. Many cultures have practices of mutual aid and supporting each other, but these are not recognized as volunteering by the dominant culture and the term itself does not resonate with those from all cultures.

Organizations have their work cut out for them if they want to create a truly welcoming and inclusive environment for staff, volunteers, and boards of directors. There is growing awareness of this complex issue and the history that lies behind it. I am encouraged to see some organizations looking deeply into and changing their practices. Others may take longer as will the political, social, philanthropic systems with which they are necessarily interconnected.

 

Some Concluding Reflections

It would have astounded the women who founded the Volunteer Bureau of Montreal 85 years ago to see what today’s volunteers are doing and how they are doing it. Volunteers from 2001, the year I started working at the centre, would also be very surprised. Volunteering has been changing all along and continues to do so. The pace is merely accelerating.

As stated in the introduction to this article, volunteers are essential to the functioning and resilience of our communities. Resilience is a word that we hear frequently, whether in reference to urban renewal, economic improvement, reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, environmental recovery, confronting our mental health crisis, and the list goes on.

The community sector in Montreal is strong and many nonprofits are becoming increasingly savvy as they adapt to the current challenging environment. Volunteers are not the only answer to what confronts them, of course, but in order to contribute in a meaningful way to the crises and processes named above, organizations need volunteers more than ever. Significant investments of financial and human resources are required and must be prioritized by both board and staff leadership. The public sector and philanthropic institutions also have a role to play. They could formally recognize the enormous contribution of volunteers and find ways to provide or support the infrastructure required by organizations to deploy them. How else can they continue to produce the miracles they do?

Alison Stevens

Alison Stevens

Former Executive Director, Volunteer Bureau of Montreal. Specialist, Volunteer Centres and Volunteer Engagement Volunteer Canada

The Power of Data

The Power of Data

The Power of Data

As an immigrant female entrepreneur, I stumbled into the world of data and technology much like one accidentally discovers a secret passage in an old library—utterly unplanned but thrilling. After 16 splendid years in corporate finance, project management, IT, strategy, and sales, a wild craving for meaningful work hit me. It was urgent and all-consuming. In the 1993 documentary “The War Room” James Carville says ”Outside of a person’s love, the most sacred thing that they can give is their labour. And somehow or another along the way, we tend to forget that. Labour is a very precious thing that you have. Anytime that you can combine labour with love, you’ve made a good merger”. I needed to make that merger.

In Canada, of the 84,000 registered charity organizations that filed the T3010 in 2021, 64,000 (representing 76%) are classified as small, and 10,000 (12%) are classified as mid-size. These organizations form the backbone of community support, orchestrating the majority of programs and services. At the same time, there are insufficient support systems and resources to help these organizations effectively carry out their mission. I’m eager to bolster their efforts, helping them navigate and thrive by integrating technology into their noble mission.

Technology revolutionized our lives, bringing countless benefits and opportunities. Technology is exciting and it enables us to reach new heights. Remember when getting lost was a thing? Now, with smartphones, we can navigate through life without asking anyone for directions.

At the same time, technology contributes to the creation of a digital divide – a gap between those who have access and can use it effectively and those who do not. The divide extends beyond mere access to devices and the internet; the divide includes disparities in digital literacy, skills, and opportunities. Multinational corporations and businesses are often on the front end of latest technological advancements, large nonprofits also have the necessary resources to leverage technology to advance their mission. But for small and mid-size nonprofits the struggle with technology and data is real. Often it is not even clear where to start. The consequences of the digital divide are far-reaching as it perpetuates existing inequalities between the privileged and the rest. The responsibility to narrow the divide and level the playing field lies with everyone – nonprofits themselves, large organizations, governments, and us, the technology professionals.

While I wouldn’t label myself as a data scientist or even a data expert, I do proudly wear the hat of a nonprofit technology expert, having spearheaded over 200 system implementations for nonprofits. Our clientele ranges from a compact team with a single employee, the Executive Director, to a bustling organization of over 150 staff members. Since 2016, my firm, Una Buro, has been the tech partner for over 60 nonprofits, supporting them in implementing systems that not only capture, process, and analyze data, but also morph these organizations into data-driven powerhouses. At the core of our practice lies the fundamental role of data. Our daily grind involves meticulously overseeing, cleansing, and transferring tens of thousands of data records. Our team is committed to empowering nonprofits by setting up robust data capture systems, sculpting meaningful metrics, and bringing data to life through vivid visualization.

 

What gets measured, gets managed

In the nonprofit sector, measurement and data capture are familiar territories, not uncharted waters. From annual reports and AGMs to funding applications and board meetings, data is the silent narrator of our stories. But the landscape is shifting. Today’s nonprofit is in a high-stakes game where the ability to harness data isn’t just nice-to-have; it’s a must-have. The advent of sophisticated data capture technologies, coupled with a growing demand for transparency and accountability, isn’t just nudging nonprofits towards a more strategic embrace of data—it’s setting the stage for a paradigm shift. Now, the call isn’t just to collect data; it’s to weave it into the very fabric of decision-making, to turn numbers into narratives, and insights into action. This is more than keeping pace; it’s about setting the pace in a world where data isn’t just power—it’s impact.

Before we jump into the nitty-gritty, allow me to highlight the technical differences between data, intelligence, and measures.

Data

Raw, unprocessed facts, figures, or information that are collected or generated. It can be in various forms, such as numbers, text, images, or audio. In its pure form, data on its own lacks context and meaning. It represents discrete pieces of information without any analysis or interpretation applied to it. For example, a set of numbers representing the number of food bank visits, or the number of intakes is data.

Measures

Specific data points; provide a standardized way to quantify and track variables or phenomena, enabling comparison, analysis, and decision-making. For example, all registered charities are required to report the total number of volunteer hours per year.

Intelligence

Insights, knowledge, and understanding gained from analyzing and interpreting data. It is a process of extracting meaningful patterns, trends, relationships, and conclusions from the data. Intelligence provides a deeper understanding of the data and its implications. It adds context, relevance, and actionable insights to the raw information. It involves critical thinking, analysis, and the ability to draw conclusions or make predictions based on the data. For example, the fact that the number of recurring volunteers is decreasing year over year can be because younger volunteers have conflicting availabilities, or are not interested in making long-term commitments.

These concepts are interdependent and distinct in value and purpose, yet for simplicity I will be using these terms interchangeably and I hope the geeks will forgive me.

 

Data In the Nonprofit Sector

In my world, “data” is like the pineapple on pizza debate—people either dive in or can’t even stand the sight of it. You’ve got the “Data Devotees” chanting “More metrics, please!” as if data points were slices of pepperoni. And then, there are the “Numerically Nervous” folks who break out in hives at the mere mention of spreadsheets. Yet, despite these differing views, we can all agree that data holds undeniable value for organizations, particularly nonprofits.

Unlike before, when nonprofits might have leaned on heartfelt stories or anecdotal evidence, the shift towards data-driven decision-making marks a significant upgrade. It’s like moving from guessing to knowing. While stories tug at the heartstrings, numbers and facts offer a solid foundation for making informed choices, demonstrating impact, and engaging supporters. So, even if the mention of data might not spark joy for everyone, its role in guiding nonprofits toward greater effectiveness and clarity is something worth getting behind, minus the drama of a pineapple pizza debate.

A focus on data is often caused by an external event such as a board meeting, a funding report, a grant application, an annual report, or an AGM. An important meeting is coming up, and we need our stats in two weeks. We take a deep breath to take control of panic and dread, as everyone—coordinators and Executive Director alike—goes on the hunt for data. “Who is keeping track of our participants? It is Nancy! She has a spreadsheet.” So now the team has hope. “But she left, and no one took over.” “That’s fine, at least we have some data.” “Nope, we don’t have the data because no one can find her spreadsheet.” Now panic sets in. “Well, let’s see if we can find participant data somewhere else.” Now dread sets in, actually no other data can be found. In the end, the team always manages to pull data and deliver that report—that’s just what we do. And once we hit the “send” button and exhale a sigh of relief, we can return to our data-free paradise and try not think about it… until next time.

If this sounds even vaguely familiar, you are not alone. In a recent survey of 1250 nonprofits across 10 countries, 30% of nonprofits report struggling with data management.

It is no surprise that so many people have a negative association with data and avoid the subject at all costs. No one likes pain, so avoiding it makes complete sense.

But what if your data experience for that tricky funding application is as smooth as spreading room-temperature butter on freshly baked bread? Or as easy as riding a bicycle after 10 years? Fine, maybe not as smooth and easy since there is no pure magic when it comes to data, but with discipline, consistency, focus, and, yes, some magic, any organization can become a data-driven organization.

 

Importance of data in the nonprofit sector

Data in for-profit organizations is characterized by its clarity and well-established nature. Metrics such as profit, share price, revenue, market share, and capitalization provide clear indicators of a company’s performance. The profit margin, for instance, allows the public to assess and compare companies without necessarily understanding their specific industry or operations. In the for-profit sector, the importance, value, and relevance of such data are widely recognized and regulated, leaving little room for ambiguity.

For non-profits, on the other hand, measurement has been getting a bad reputation. Since there are no profit margins, and no stock price, establishing a success measure is not a simple task.

Some feel that if we measure and collect data, it takes away from the goodness and nobility of our work, it will tarnish our passion and dedication. Why should we spend our effort on data when there are real people, real issues that need our immediate attention? In my tenure, I have heard several times comments along the lines of “Numbers will never accurately express the work we do,” and “We only collect data because funders, the board, and the government demand it, so we do it for them.” When I hear this line of thinking, I take a deep breath to slow my heart rate and make my pitch that in today’s data-driven world, the effective use of data has become increasingly crucial for nonprofits to achieve goals and maximize impact. My top three reasons for a nonprofit to adopt a data-driven approach are:

  1. Compelling storytelling
  2. Effective decision-making
  3. Enhancement of program and services

 

Data-driven storytelling

A compelling story has data. Data-driven storytelling has the power to create emotional narratives that engage and mobilize stakeholders. The use of data in communication creates a sense of  urgency for the particular issue, showcases the effectiveness of a program, and advocates for change. Data-driven storytelling helps to capture the attention of, and amplify the message to, potential partners or funders.

Read the following two calls to give:

Donate to provide thermal blankets for protection and warmth during a humanitarian emergency.

In Ethiopia, women and girls die each year because of complications during labour or childbirth. Your gift can save the life of a mother and her baby by improving essential maternal health care services.

By adding a data point to these statements, we make a stronger case:

– $175 can provide 10 thermal blankets to provide people protection and warmth during a humanitarian emergency.

In Ethiopia, 13,000 women and girls die each year because of complications during labour or childbirth. Your gift can save the life of a mother and her baby by improving essential maternal health care services

Communicating impact and generating engagement is tough. Storytelling techniques help to cut through the clutter. As well,  without data a story can be perceived as fiction. Data helps our brain to anchor the message and to quickly relate to the story, because, regardless of our math skills, we all understand the difference between 1 and 100. A data-driven story supported by other visual media makes your story believable, accessible, and relatable.

 

Data-driven decision-making

As human beings, we often think positively of what our “gut” tells us to do. We even romanticize and take pride when decisions are driven by intuition. Although intuition plays an important role in decision-making, organizations that rely primarily on data are three times more likely to experience improvement in decision-making than those who use less data.

Data-driven decision-making (DDDM) is a process by which data is used as the primary source of information; it is reliant on empirical evidence rather than on intuition, assumption, or personal benefit. Using data to make decisions helps us to reduce our bias, identify issues that we otherwise do not see, and, most importantly, think creatively and be proactive. Despite the well-established fact that DDDM makes organizations stronger, only 34% of nonprofits consistently rely on data to make decisions.

 

Enhancement of Program and Services

Any path to improvement begins with understanding the current situation. Assessing the effectiveness of a program is essential, but challenging without relevant data. Data collection of program-related measures helps us understand if a program is meeting its goals; and is critical in identifying improvement opportunities and foreseeing problem areas. If, then, you believe in the value of a data-driven organization, then where do you start?

 

Building a Data-Driven Organization

In the era of digital transformation, the journey towards becoming a data-driven organization is not just beneficial but essential for nonprofits aiming to maximize their impact. This journey is multifaceted, requiring a blend of leadership vision, staff empowerment, and the right technological infrastructure to navigate the complexities of today’s data landscape effectively.

Leadership

The process of building a data-driven organization begins with strong leadership. The Executive Director and Board of Directors play a pivotal role in setting the tone for data adoption. Without a clear and unwavering vision that emphasizes the integral role of data in the daily operations of an organization, success is impossible.

I recall a particular meeting with an Executive Director discussing the implementation of a system to collect data and generate metrics. The ED expressed a sentiment of indifference, stating, “I will allocate the necessary funds and assign skilled staff, but please spare me from involvement as I have other priorities.” Unfortunately, such an approach hinders the potential and is doomed to failure.

In contrast, there are leaders who wholeheartedly embrace the mantra, “If data is not captured in the system, it simply does not exist.” This mindset reflects a commitment to comprehensive data collection that spreads to the rest of the team and lays the ground for success.

The most remarkable commitment I have witnessed was an ED’s decision to temporarily reduce service delivery in order to provide comprehensive data training for employees. This action exemplified a deep dedication to harnessing the power of data, and to recognizing the importance of equipping staff with the necessary skills and knowledge.

Leadership’s commitment and belief in the transformative potential of data is crucial for fostering a data-driven organization. A steadfast dedication to integrating data into the fabric of decision-making processes and to resource allocation sets the stage for achieving meaningful outcomes.

Data literacy

To foster a data-driven culture, we need to equip staff with the necessary data literacy and analytical skills. Providing training and professional development opportunities enhances employees’ ability to collect, analyze, interpret, and communicate data effectively.

Organizations that prioritize data often have dedicated staff members or even departments responsible for data processes and analysis. In the case of larger organizations, some collaborate with data scientists and utilize resources like Statistics Canada to gain deeper insights into their impact. However, most nonprofits simply cannot afford to have a dedicated resource person just for data and analytics. As a result, team members are expected to develop data literacy and focus on data within their respective areas. Each team member becomes accountable for data collection and analysis related to their specific organizational processes. For example, the volunteer coordinator becomes well-versed in volunteer engagement data, while the development staff takes ownership of donor data. The success of this setup relies on providing adequate training and support to staff members.

While technical skills and a passion for data are valuable, they are not the sole determining factors for success. What matters most is the willingness of staff members to learn, their curiosity, and the level of support they receive. In our experience, we have witnessed staff members from various backgrounds successfully embark on the data path. On one project we trained an 80-year-old volunteer to carry out complex data collection tasks. Hence, the belief that only young, tech-savvy individuals can contribute to a data-driven organization is a myth. What truly matters is having staff members who fully understand and embrace the importance of data.

The most challenging aspect of any organizational transformation is not the technology or infrastructure but rather the people who drive it. Building a data-driven organization requires proper training, ongoing support, and a clear vision that is continuously reinforced.

Harnessing a data mindset collectively from the team can be a significant obstacle to overcome. To address this challenge, we recommend implementing an internal data advocacy campaign. Accompanied by strong data-driven leadership, such a campaign can help ignite a shared understanding of the value of data, and motivate staff members to actively participate in the data-driven culture.

While resource limitations may prevent organizations from having dedicated data personnel, fostering a data-driven culture is still possible. By empowering staff members through training, support, and a shared vision, organizations can break down barriers and build a culture where data is embraced.

Data accessibility and infrastructure 

Now that we have leaders and a team on board and understand that they are the ultimate drivers of a data-driven organization, we need to establish a robust data infrastructure. This involves creating systems for data collection, storage, management, and analysis that are accessible, secure, and user-friendly.

One of the common challenges associated with establishing data infrastructure is its dispersion across multiple sources. In today’s digital landscape, organizations receive data from numerous channels, including phone calls, website contact forms, CanadaHelps donation pages, Facebook donations, SurveyMonkey petitions, Zeffy peer-to-peer campaigns, and many more. In fact, on average, a nonprofit organization has 10 different data sources just for donor information. Each of these sources holds unique value, as generating and sustaining engagement requires organizations to interact with constituents through various channels. Therefore, expecting a nonprofit to rely on a single incoming data source is unrealistic.

At the same time, absence of a centralized data repository makes it difficult to analyze and derive insights. Acknowledging the reality of data dispersion, organizations must recognize the importance of bringing data from diverse sources to a central location. This facilitates data consolidation and analysis, enabling a holistic view of the organization’s operations and constituents.

In recent years, the concept of integration and data transfer has gained significant importance as organizations realize that while consolidating data sources is important, maintaining flexibility and scalability, and reaching constituents where they are, take precedence. Since data is generated from multiple sources, aggregating it in a single place is the strategy data-driven organizations adopt to extract meaningful insights and intelligence.

Clear Metrics and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

When discussing data and metrics in the nonprofit sector, it is important to consider the different categories of measures: inputs, outputs, outcomes and impact.

Inputs

Refers to resources used to enable the organization; foundational elements that enable nonprofits to operate and deliver their services. Inputs are scarce. 

Outputs

Represent what the nonprofit delivers or produces

Outcomes

Reflect the immediate effects and benefits for the participants or recipients.

Impact

Refers to the broader and long-term effects resulting from a nonprofit’s activities; encompasses the changes, benefits, or improvements experienced by individuals and/or communities, as result of a nonprofit’s work. 

  • Number of volunteers
  • Number of volunteer hours
  • Number of donors
  • Funds raised
  • Number of grants given
  • Number of individuals served
  • Quantity of services provided
  • Number of events organized
  • Number of consultations provided
  • Higher engagement or participation rates
  • Enhanced employability or economic conditions
  • Improved skills or capacities
  • Decreased mortality rate
  • Improved long-term financial situation
  • Higher employment

We often observe organizations focusing heavily on collecting input data and presenting these metrics as measures of success, while not giving output measures equal attention. Additionally, due to the complexity involved, impact measurement tends to be overlooked altogether.

It is also a common practice to rely on nominal values when examining data. Organizations monitor closely the total dollars generated by fundraising efforts in a specific period, or total number of participants served. These measures are important; however, the focus should also be on understanding changes over time, such as identifying decreases or increases. Monitoring changes provides foresight and the ability to adapt, and adjust before it is too late.

 

Lessons Learned

Once we have a mechanism to collect and analyze data, it is easy to get pulled into the dark side of data. You see an interesting trend and so you get pulled into drilling down, wanting more, asking the team to dig deeper, and adding more and more fields to the registration/donation page. In the end, however, this digging adds marginal value or none at all. When we work with clients to establish data processes, we build numerous reports and dashboards for data analysis, yet less than 5% of reports and dashboards are used for decision-making.

So, fight against the urge to collect and analyze data just for the sake of collecting and analyzing, and consider a “less is more” philosophy. The concept of “less is more” encourages one to simplify, prioritize, and focus on core objectives. By doing so, organizations can achieve greater clarity, efficiency, communication, decision-making, and long-term sustainability. Embracing simplicity and a focus on essential metrics enables us to maximize their impact and create meaningful change.

The most valuable aspect of data is actionability. Ask yourself what you will do with a certain data point. For example, if you are collecting the gender of your donors to understand the demographics, are you personalizing your outreach efforts based on gender? Most organizations do not, as we realize that this approach will inevitably lead to communication gender bias.

We can apply Pareto’s principle of 80/20 to data: 80% of the value is contained within 20% of data. This means that 80% of the data we collect and analyze has only 20% of value and impact.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, the transformation into a data-driven organization represents a journey that demands commitment, skill, and a strategic approach from every corner of an organization. Leadership’s support and vision set the foundational tone, empowering staff through enhanced data literacy, and establishing a robust infrastructure are essential steps in harnessing the power of data. This journey is not without its challenges, including resource constraints and the need for a cultural shift towards valuing data. Yet, the rewards—increased efficiency, impactful decision-making, and amplified mission effectiveness—far outweigh these hurdles.

A data-driven nonprofit is more than charts and graphs, it’s an entity where every number tells a story, every insight prompts action, and every decision is informed by data. This is not a destination but an ongoing process of learning, adapting, and innovating.

 

Julia Khon
President and Principal Consultant,
Una Buro

Julia Khon

Julia Khon

President and Principal Consultant, Una Buro

Transformational programming: iteration and innovation

Transformational programming: iteration and innovation

Transformational programming: iteration and innovation

It seems obvious in retrospect, but when I walked out of the funder’s office on that bright summer afternoon in 2018, I had no idea how we were going to do what I’d just promised.

I had been told: “We won’t fund anything that doesn’t explicitly address women’s rights–it’s got to include some advocacy for women.” So I had quickly agreed we would do that.

I was a former academic with a background in women’s history and had founded Artistri Sud in 2009 with the mission of empowering women to be leaders and changemakers. We helped marginalized women become entrepreneurs by leveraging their existing assets (typically heritage craft production) so they could generate sustainable revenue, and ultimately become influencers at the household and community levels. I had spent five years working directly with women artisans in the global South who were trying to make a living selling their production, so I had an understanding of the challenges they faced. I had also seen firsthand how all strata of women faced injustice, and lacked opportunities to improve their lives. Studies and reports from the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) were pointing to the multiplier effects of women’s economic empowerment and calling for greater investments in women. Beyond that, as a feminist, it was clear to me that profound social change could not occur until women stepped into their full empowered greatness—and for this to happen in a capitalist patriarchal system, where money talks, they would need to generate revenue for themselves.

 

Bootstrapping a pilot program

Our flagship program, created with the (volunteer) help of an experienced education specialist and a team of advisors, was designed to meet the needs common to the hundreds of women artisans in the dozen or so countries in the global South that I had worked with. This program is a five-day intensive entrepreneurship retreat with a heavy emphasis on innovation and sales—both key factors in revenue creation where women struggled greatly. The week-long boot camp was to be followed by a year of coaching, aimed at supporting integration of the new concepts and practices into participants’ daily work lives.

In 2013-2014, a handful of volunteers and I bootstrapped a pilot project in Bolivia, and just kept going from there. We worked with local NGO partners to recruit our target clients in the field—low-income marginalized women with few opportunities to change their situation. Some were illiterate, while others were victims of domestic abuse. We were scrappy and figured out how to raise money and talent, and we expanded our programs to indigenous groups in Chile. Most of those involved were volunteers, and our Board did a lot of heavy lifting. Our trainer and a few others were paid for short-term contracts, but many stayed on as volunteers to contribute to the next editions, and to co-create new programs.

 

A growth mindset: Continuous improvement

This quickly became a mainstay of our approach to curriculum design: continuous improvement by the program delivery team itself. The team had been on the ground, and they had their own experiences in the field. They knew what led to “Aha” moments, and what didn’t. With our very first iteration, our goal was for women to increase their incomes by 10%. (In fact, we had reduced our goal from 15% after a freak storm in the Andes wiped out a quarter of a million alpaca that year.) That first cohort, however, increased their incomes by an astonishing average of 46%.

By the summer of 2018, three-quarters of our program graduates were consistently doubling their incomes within a year of graduating. Critically, they were also more confident, had more influence over household decision-making, were mentoring other women, and participating in community groups at double the rate they had prior to participating in our programs. As we tried to figure out how to reach more people, we added leadership training and Train-the-Trainer programs to grow our trainer pool and develop leadership and expertise locally. We increased the cohort size every year and that summer, of 2018, we were also expanding our program geographically: for the first time, we were running two programs in two very different regions at the same time.

We were no strangers to iteration; many of the same trainers and experts were still volunteer consultants on our program team, committed to innovating and improving our program design and methodology year after year, and incorporating the learnings from each experience into the next year’s version. Nonetheless, working in a remote province in Vietnam walloped us with very different challenges than we had faced in Latin America: women were visibly more cowed and needed more targeted strategies to bring them out of their shell and build confidence—even just getting them to speak in class was a chore. They were much less literate and tech-savvy (despite all having smart phones), and at least one participant had never even held a pencil before. As well, the poverty was so much more grinding—one participant admitted that in the days before the training, she had had to give some of her money to her sister, whose kids hadn’t eaten in three days.

So that year, when we went back to the drawing board with the team, we had a long list of challenges to address. In addition, we faced the challenge presented by those funders I mentioned earlier—we also had to raise awareness of women’s rights.

 

Some iterations are more successful than others

It seems obvious in retrospect: incorporating women’s rights education was the single most important innovation we’ve ever made. The shift from focusing exclusively on economic development to incorporating rights-based approaches was transformative. Somehow, proactively raising awareness around the systematic oppression of women and teaching about inalienable human rights hadn’t seemed necessary.

But the change over time has proved nothing short of miraculous. We implemented this new module, on women’s rights, the following year—our second year in Vietnam—which also happened to be the year where we again doubled the size of our cohort, such that we were training 85 women.

The first part of the women’s rights module was a warm-up activity—a true or false game, with a series of questions about the status of women in Vietnam. Upon hearing a given statement, women had to move to the left or to the right to indicate whether they thought the statement was true or false. The first fact had to do with the number of women occupying ministerial positions in the Vietnamese parliament. Another was about the number of women in the labour force—they weren’t too sure about the answer to this question (some weren’t even sure women could be ministers!), so they hesitated, some moving left, others moving right.

The last question was about the percentage of women in Vietnam who were victims of domestic violence. When the question was put to them, to answer either “true or false,” without hesitation all 85 participants moved immediately to the left: Yes, came their response, the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese women are victims of domestic violence. The room went still as my own team of six processed the women’s answer. The team—all young, privileged women—reeled. One of our local staff rushed out of the room in tears. Two others gaped at me, visibly shaken. For most of the people in that room, violence against women was a given, a simple fact of life. And in that moment, that room full of women, nearly 100 of us from different backgrounds, ethnicities, countries, worlds—became one. A sisterhood. Unified as endurers of violence.

For the participants, a floodgate had been opened. We wrapped up the evening’s activities, and they went to their rooms, big groups of them, doors opened, talking and laughing and crying well into the night. The next part of the activity took place two days later, when we delved much deeper into human rights. One of the questions was, What would you need to live a decent life? They were surprised to discover that the needs they identified were already theoretically guaranteed by international conventions. When a full group discussion followed, women who had spoken little all week shared their deepest feelings and aspirations with the group of 85—an enormous feat for most.

The discoveries made with this approach helped provide a lens for seeing and understanding something that previously had been hidden from them. After the learning activities around women’s rights, the women saw that there were forces outside themselves which were holding them back. One graduate later explained: “My father-in-law was the worst. He would say I shouldn’t go out, I should just take care of the babies and the house, that my ideas were stupid, that I was stupid, that I couldn’t do anything. I always felt bad. I used to try to explain my ideas. I tried to show him he was wrong. But he never listened. After I did the training about women’s rights I realized: it’s not about me. I realized I wasn’t stupid. I stopped caring about what he says. I created my businesses. I made my ideas reality. I became free.” The awareness of systemic oppression helped them to break free; it took the burden off them, personally. It was no longer their fault.

It was obvious that something significant had changed in the delivery of the program—the women shared more amongst themselves, they were more vulnerable and emotional with each other, more caring. They vowed to stay in touch and shared their contact information. On the last day dozens sobbed openly, hugging each other and all of us on the training team.

This shift also provided a theoretical framework which lent coherence and cogency to other issues we had been covering but which were not strictly part of an “entrepreneurship training.” Tackling barriers to action such as limiting beliefs, lack of self-confidence, and feelings of rejection had proven essential for women to progress with their enterprises, and now made sense when considered in the light of a women’s rights-based approach.

 

Lessons learned

Program design can be transformative. The following approaches have been useful to us and now constitute structured steps in our process.

Focus on results: It can be easy to be distracted from your ultimate aim, or to get attached to a particular approach, methodology or ideology. A willingness to rigorously test outcomes based on their relevance to the mission helps teams make effective decisions. This seems obvious, and yet the program activities of many charities and non-profits do not hang together with rigorous cohesion upon closer inspection. A single mindedness is needed to evaluate whether innovations are truly leading to accomplishing the mission. Let the mission drive innovation, rather than attachment to a methodology, ideology, or funding source. When we added women’s rights training to our programs, we were initially acting on a recommendation from a potential funder, but it was one which aligned perfectly with our mission, so it made sense to put it to the test.

Coachability: Consider advice from different actors, or ideas and practices from different sectors. Good ideas and innovations can come from anywhere and can be extrapolated from other fields. Entrepreneurship and lean startup principles have guided our learning activities and innovation practices; new research and thinking in the fields of education, psychology, neuroscience, and community development have been integrated into program design. Fostering openness and even seeking out different modalities drives better results over time.

Iterate/innovate: Commit to experimentation and continuous improvement. Accepting that interventions won’t be perfect is liberating—we need to try new approaches in situ to be able to properly assess their impact. Sometimes that means taking some risks and making mistakes, and embracing the learning which comes from them. We’ve had to course-correct on site many times; those corrections find their way into the next program as a matter of process.

Trust your target audience: Making mistakes is less daunting when you believe the beneficiaries know best, and when you involve them as co-creators every step of the way. We never get this perfectly right—technology, language, culture, time differences, and other factors make it challenging to involve participants in the design process. And it has taken some trial and error to navigate nimbly between training and facilitating in the actual workshops. We do teach some skills and best practices; but much of what we do is create an environment where participants discover and share from their own knowledge and experience. One of the critical concepts which graduates who are admitted to our Train-the-Trainer program need to come to terms with is that they don’t need to know all the answers; they need to learn how to ask questions and encourage others to share their answers, then guide them in discovering, applying, and synthesizing solutions that emerge from those conversations. Looking to beneficiaries to drive solutions puts them in the driver’s seat in a way which empowers them. It also takes the pressure off us, as leaders and facilitators, to get it 100% right. A dependable, likeminded field partner can also provide important context and feedback.

 

What next?

In the 10 years since our pilot, we’ve directly trained over 600 women, and through them, had an impact on over 7000 others in eight countries: about 35% of graduates have become homeowners; nearly half now employ others in their communities; many have gone on to become teachers and trainers, or leaders of local associations and boards, or even elected officials in their communities and municipalities. An integral part of our sustainability plan was to stay in a given location only four to five years, which was how long it would take to train a cadre of autonomous local trainers. These local trainers could then deliver our programs and be respected knowledge bearers and guides in their communities. Working with trusted local partners enables us to bring what we have to offer to a target audience while maintaining a light footprint in a region—we don’t open offices and set up long-term structures. This in turn means we are able to move nimbly and experiment, to uncover what works to bring about the results we seek. We’ve relied on pro bono consulting and volunteers to accomplish these goals on a shoestring. The challenge going forward will be to build sustainability as an organization, while retaining the lightness that has enabled us to pivot and adapt gracefully while doing so.

Jennifer Lonergan, PhD

Jennifer Lonergan, PhD

Founder and Executive Director, AWE Global

The Transformation of Chez Doris

The Transformation of Chez Doris

The Transformation of Chez Doris

My Journey to Chez Doris

Being an Executive Director in the social service sector is more than just a job—it’s a calling that enables me to leverage my skills, experiences, and passion to tackle social issues and inspire others to do the same. I am deeply committed to advancing the mission and vision of the organizations I serve, and I consider it a privilege to work alongside passionate individuals who share this commitment.

My journey in this field began at the age of 17 when I started volunteering at a drug rehab center—a commitment that continued throughout my undergraduate studies in psychology. Although I initially intended to become a psychologist, my perspective shifted after an internship at the Montreal Women’s Center, where I observed both its Executive Director and Coordinator of Services in action. This experience led me to pursue a graduate diploma in Applied Management, a program structured around the case study method, which honed my critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making abilities by analyzing real-world business scenarios. Since then, I’ve approached challenges with a mindset of continuous improvement, always striving to find ways to make a positive impact.

In 1988, at the age of 24, I assumed my first Executive Director role at Tel-Aide, a 24-hour crisis line. Over the years, I held senior positions in Montreal and New York City, working with organizations at both local and national levels. Fast forward to 2014, during a period of consulting and transition between jobs, an email from Donat Savoie, an anthropologist specializing in indigenous affairs, particularly the Inuit of Northern Canada, captured my attention. He forwarded an article from the Nunatsiaq News concerning Chez Doris, a prominent Montreal women’s day shelter that was facing closure on weekends due to funding issues. This news stirred a mix of outrage and dismay within me. A political attaché for Marc Garneau’s office (then a Federal Member of Parliament) arranged a meeting for me with the President of the Board at Chez Doris to explore ways I could assist. Unfortunately, the Board President resigned shortly thereafter, along with several other Board members. As a result, I engaged in discussions with the remaining four Board members and was ultimately hired as the Interim Executive Director.

 

Chez Doris’ Origins

Chez Doris derives its name from Doris Halfkenny Seale, also known as Doris Toussaint, a destitute woman originally from Halifax. In the 1970s, she was among many struggling women on the streets of Montreal. Their plight caught the attention of a local community worker who, through interviews, aimed to grasp their most urgent needs. When asked, Doris expressed a simple yet profound desire: “A place to go without prying eyes and too many questions.” This poignant response encapsulated the silent suffering of a marginalized community largely ignored by society. Tragically, on November 2, 1974, Doris fell victim to a brutal assault.

In response to this tragedy, concerned citizens from various sectors, including churches, community groups, and social agencies, united to form the Women’s Shelter Foundation in 1975. Among them was Sister Dolorès Coulombe, a Grey Nun, who spearheaded efforts to secure grants for a day center. Officially incorporated on April 1, 1977, as the Chez Doris Women’s Shelter Foundation, the organization received a federal grant of $20,400, enabling the leasing of a space on Mountain Street which was used as a drop-in center offering a safe space for women by providing a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup. Within the first year, over 100 women, spanning ages 18 to 80, found refuge and support.

 

Chez Doris’ Evolution/Growth

By 1986, Chez Doris had acquired a row house near the old Forum, marking a significant milestone in its journey. With the successful culmination of a capital campaign by the summer of 1989, the organization attained full ownership of its property, signaling financial stability and growth. As demand for its services increased, Chez Doris realized the need for larger premises, leading to the strategic exchange of its original building at 2196 De Maisonneuve Ouest, valued at $195,000, for a more spacious one located around the corner at 1430 Chomedey in 1994, valued at $300,000. Subsequent expansions in 2004 further enhanced the facility, enabling Chez Doris to extend its reach and impact. A framed portrait of Doris graces the entrance of our day shelter, serving as a poignant reminder of the ongoing need for protection, understanding, empathy, and support for women who are overcoming adversity. Annually, well over a thousand women walk through the doors of the Chez Doris shelter seeking help.

Today, Chez Doris’ mission is to support and empower any woman in a precarious situation preventing her from reaching her full potential. We offer a wide range of services within safe spaces where women can find help and comfort without judgment. Among other things, we provide food, clothing, a night and day shelter, housing solutions, personal comfort, and offer the women practical assistance in dealing with their challenges and difficulties. We respect the fact that success can be defined differently by each woman.

 

Past Challenges

Between 2009 and 2014, the organization lost three Executive Directors in quick succession. Chez Doris faced a growing deficit, ending its fiscal year on March 31, 2014, with revenues of $843,989, expenses of $947,495, and a deficit of $103,506. Consequently, the Board decided to temporarily close the shelter’s weekend operations as of May 31, 2014, fearing that the deficit would exceed its line of credit of $200,000. Staff was reduced to 11 employees, and many Board members resigned due to concerns about the organization’s financial stability.

When I was initially hired as the Interim Executive Director, my main objective was to find funding to restore its weekend operations, and to hire a permanent Executive Director. Funding was obtained and weekend services were re-launched on February 1, 2015. However, finding an Executive Director proved to be challenging, and I offered the Board my candidacy, which was accepted.

 

Initial Improvements

My initial goal was to modernize our small grassroots organization and implement new programs while enhancing existing ones. We upgraded our technology, phone, and security systems, launched a new website, reconfigured our office and program space to accommodate more people, provided a new Human Resource Manual and updated job descriptions for our employees, initiated performance reviews, improved compensation, analyzed our clients’ needs to better serve them, developed our volunteer program, implemented a housing search and support program, and strengthened our Board with individuals possessing the necessary skill sets.

However, during this period, our biggest challenge arose when our building was found to be structurally unsound, necessitating significant interior and exterior repairs. Leaks occurred with each winter thaw and heavy spring rain, leading to mold growth, while aging plumbing allowed rats to intrude. Consequently, the building needed to be salvaged and brought up to code. Providing services from within the building during extensive repairs required stamina from all staff. The renovations included replacing foundations, rebuilding the entire walls on the south side of the building, upgrading underground plumbing, and acquiring new furniture and cabinetry to meet safety and hygiene standards.

 

The Transformational Donation

In 2017 we noticed an increase of women asking to use the shower and ask for emergency clothing, both of which are indicators of homelessness. As well, every day when we’d close at 3 PM, we saw a troubling number of homeless women with nowhere to go. According to the second Montreal census on homelessness, conducted on April 24, 2018, it was estimated at that time that there were 3,149 visibly homeless people on the island of Montreal and that close to 25% of them were women. Depending on the time of year, only 10-14% of beds are reserved for women, despite them making up close to a quarter of the homeless population. Consequently, the Chez Doris Board of Directors decided that we should step up to the plate and do our part to solve the problem.

In 2018 Chez Doris had the good fortune of receiving an unexpected gift of $1 million from Andrew Harper, who is now deceased. One person’s philanthropy can be a powerful leverage for others to follow and make a big difference in the lives of fellow citizens and the community at large. As a result of this gift, we purchased a townhouse across the street from our day shelter and announced to the media that we hoped that it would be converted into an emergency overnight shelter for homeless women. Soon afterwards, the City of Montreal, the provincial government, and the federal government followed with three grants of a million or more for a combined total of $5 million. We also had the good fortune of being offered a residential building to be built for us with 26 studio apartments for homeless women by the Société d’Habitation et de Développement de Montréal.

We then drew up a budget totaling $10 million for a five-year period to cover the operational costs of both the future shelter and residence, primarily sourced from the private sector. Additionally, we were fortunate to connect with dedicated volunteers who formed our campaign cabinet, spearheading fundraising efforts on our behalf.

 

Organizational Growth

Between 2015 and 2020, our staff expanded from 11 to 24 members, encompassing various roles such as assistant director, administrative assistant, weekend caseworkers, cooks, a volunteer coordinator, a bookkeeper, and caseworkers for Indigenous programming. With the onset of the pandemic, we swiftly transitioned to 24/7 operations, responding to urgent calls from Indigenous community leaders. This expansion saw our staff increase to 50 individuals, enabling us to implement additional shifts, extend the operating hours of our day shelter, provide supper, and oversee temporary overnight accommodations at a hotel. In 2021, a grant from the Secretariat de la condition feminine facilitated the rental of office space, addressing pandemic-related challenges while also expanding our housing search and support program. The ground floor now functions as our community center, offering a range of medical, social, and recreational services.

By 2022, we successfully completed the renovation of the townhouse bought in 2018 that was converted into an overnight shelter with 24 beds for homeless women. In 2023, we launched two residences comprising 26 studio apartments and 20 rooms with communal areas. This growth prompted the formal establishment of departments for Human Resources, Fundraising, Finance, Facilities Management, and Programs and Services, all housed within an additional 4,000 square feet of rented space, and our operations now span across the following five locations: a day shelter, night shelter, two residences, and a community center. Our day shelter services include: breakfast, lunch, dinner; telephone information and referral assistance; access to showers, hygienic products, respite beds during the day, and a clothing depot; the night shelter offers 24 overnight beds for women experiencing homelessness; our community center offers grocery gift cards, a financial management program, activities for Indigenous women, a housing placement and support program for women experiencing homelessness, weekly health and mental health services, legal & tax filing services, a scholarship program as well as educational and socio-recreational integration programs.

 

Chez Doris Today

With hard work, in over nine years, our operational revenues grew from $950,000 to nearly $8 million, allowing us to expand to these five locations, offer a broader range of services and progressively increase the pay scales and benefits of staff. Currently, our team consists of 66 full-time positions and 16 part-time positions, but positions remain to be filled, especially within our day shelter.
To enhance our capacity, we are implementing training programs and professional development opportunities more formally, aimed at enriching the skills and expertise of our team members. Additionally, we have introduced software for Human Resource Management, Fundraising Management, Accounting, and Program Management, with the goal of improving the tracking and management of our organizational resources. We continue to upgrade our facilities and infrastructure to create more comfortable and welcoming spaces for both our clients and staff.

Recognizing that many of the women we assist lack autonomy, we see the need for a transitional shelter where they can stabilize and gain independence within a period of 3 months to 2 years before transitioning to permanent housing. In response to a government call for proposals to address housing needs, we acquired a small hotel in February 2023, with plans to convert it into transitional housing by 2025. Through our real estate investments, Chez Doris has seen substantial growth in assets, increasing from $1,177,911 in 2013-2014 to $19,471,130 by 2023-2024.

 

Successful Fundraising

Donat Savoie was the first to mentor me at Chez Doris, guiding me through introductions to city officials and individuals in Quebec to secure additional funding for reopening our weekend operations. The second person to help was Kim Fuller of Phil, who also generously contributed her time and expertise in the early days, dedicating her efforts to enhancing our fundraising endeavors by redesigning our newsletters and direct mail campaigns. In 2014, the organization had 487 donors; today, that number has exceeded 15,000. Since then, we have actively pursued funds from both the private sector and government through proposals and cases for support addressing both recurring and non-recurring needs. Utilizing prospect research software such as CharityCan, we identify individuals, foundations, and companies with a propensity, capacity, and interest in supporting our causes. We diligently respond to requests for proposals, prioritizing those with higher potential for success. As our budget and ambitions grew, we engaged a top firm to lead a major campaign, and their consultants proved invaluable in recruiting volunteers to assist with fundraising for two of our new services. I consider all of those who have helped with the campaign great friends, including Elizabeth Wirth. I appreciate each one of my Board and committee members not only for their wise advice but also for their contributions in communications, marketing, finance, architecture, construction, law, and HR, as well as their courage to take risks. I hold great appreciation for every staff member, intern, and volunteer who has contributed to our mission; their dedication and the gratitude of our clients towards them are deeply rewarding. Over the years, the donors I have encountered, regardless of their contribution size, have demonstrated remarkable kindness. Their generosity reflects a shared desire to make a positive impact in Montreal. And with that, always remember to say thank you. It’s important to pick up the phone and express your appreciation.

 

Today’s Challenges

The growing number of women experiencing homelessness in Montreal underscores the urgent need for permanent housing solutions and robust community services to prevent homelessness. By 2022, homelessness had increased by 48.9% to 4,690 people, with women constituting 33% of this population. Prior to the pandemic, there were only 148 shelter beds for women out of 845, increasing marginally to 203 out of 1,752 beds post-pandemic, highlighting the persistent scarcity of resources for women. Many organizations have expanded their services since the pandemic, transitioning to round-the-clock operations to meet the increased demand.

I often reminisce about the days when I knew every client by name and was familiar with all the caseworkers and volunteers, receiving a warm hug from our clients daily. However, my interactions with clients are now fewer, mainly limited to giving tours in our new buildings.

Nevertheless, despite these changes, we’ve expanded our impact and offer more meaningful assistance to women in need. However, amidst this progress, there’s a sense of loss. Our organization is at a crucial moment, striving to meet growing demand and provide comprehensive care to women in need. While our expansion has broadened our reach and enriched our services, we’re also addressing internal challenges, particularly the need to strengthen our organizational structure for greater cohesion. Addressing staff dissatisfaction with various aspects of our operations is crucial, given turnover among caseworkers. Despite the challenges, we’re optimistic about future growth and improvement, and with determination and collaboration, we’re confident we can continue making a positive impact.

In my opinion, despite the rapid growth spurred by the pandemic and the housing crisis, taking action is always preferable to standing still. As a community organization, we pride ourselves on our agility and willingness to rise to the occasion, addressing needs as they arise. Despite the hurdles we face, our dedication to empowering and supporting women remains steadfast. We continually strive to enhance our services and better serve our community. However, we recognize that we cannot achieve our goals alone. Collaboration is key, and we call upon all levels of government and the private sector to provide sustained support for critical initiatives such as housing assistance, homelessness and crime prevention, aid for the vulnerable, and expanded mental health and addiction services.

We remain hopeful that donors will continue to support us. Their contributions have a tangible impact on the lives of the women we assist, improving quality of life, increasing opportunities for advancement, and reducing vulnerability to exploitation. This positive impact extends beyond individuals, benefiting families and communities alike. Together, we are shaping a brighter future for those in need, including their children. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

What lies ahead? That may be another chapter 😉

Marina Boulos-Winton

Marina Boulos-Winton

Former Executive Director Chez Doris

Organisational Transformation: Some Lessons Learned

Organisational Transformation: Some Lessons Learned

Organisational Transformation: Some Lessons Learned

I spent six years living and working in South India. My colleagues found it bizarre that I would comment every morning on the beautiful blue skies, and I soon realised that as Canadians we can be obsessed with the weather and changing seasons, whereas for others, seeing a clear blue sky each morning is just normal. I loved living in India, but one thing I missed was the changing seasons. When I moved back to Canada, I valued more than ever the beauty and importance of each season—its temperatures and colours, its precipitation and the environment each season provides for plant growth and different types of outdoor activities.

 

A New Season

Like the changing seasons, organisations and leaders also change over time. These changes are to be expected and welcomed. If you dislike winter, that doesn’t stop it from happening. It’s best to check your weather app, embrace what’s coming, dress well, and jump in with both feet! This chapter tells the story of organisational transformation at Share the Warmth, and some of the lessons learned over a 10-year period.

I was privileged to work at Share the Warmth (STW) from 2009 to 2019, initially alongside its founder and Executive Director of 22 years, Judy Stevens, and then as Executive Director when Judy retired. Judy led during the early seasons of founding and establishing the organisation. She managed a small staff team and built up a committed team of volunteers and a generous donor base. The organisation was known for its heart and resourcefulness, with Judy embodying both those attributes.

I was totally committed to the people I was working with, and to the organisation. I also get a real buzz out of changing things, and felt STW was ripe for change.

Towards the end of every season in an organisation’s life comes a time of reckoning. Often referred to as a time of organisational transformation, some prefer the term organisational renovation. Arriving with a transformation agenda is not always helpful—this can communicate that what was done in the past is no longer relevant and needs to be done away with. A renovation project, by contrast, affirms the best of the past, and builds on those strengths. Yet, while this sounds good in theory, achieving a balance is not always easy in practice.

Over my 10 years at Share the Warmth, the organisation experienced modest but sustained growth: the number of staff grew seven-fold, which included many part-time employees from the community; and the annual budget grew by 250%, in addition to a $2.2 million building renovation project from 2014 to 2019. This growth meant that Share the Warmth went from being a small non-profit organisation to a medium-sized one that was involved in several key areas of community development: food security, youth, and employment and social enterprise.

 

Some of the Challenges of organisational transformation

Every leader who undertakes an organisational transformation or renovation process is guided by a set of values. The challenge is to align our aspirational values with our personal values – the values we actually live out and which others see! It is important to constantly evaluate both sets of values and to strive to reduce any inconsistencies between what we hope for, and what really happens.

When I became Executive Director, I already had a clear idea of the ways I believed the organisation needed to change. And these changes were primarily in the following areas:

  • Clarifying the organisation’s objectives, guided by a philosophy of community development, as opposed to a traditional form of charity which I viewed as enabling poverty to continue through Band-Aid solutions, rather than addressing root causes;
  • The importance of data collection and measurable outcomes to evaluate program effectiveness; and
  • A diversified and program-based funding model with intelligent and transparent communications and respectful donor-recipient relationships.

We began to better understand the outcomes of our programs, which led us to conclude that despite our good intentions, some of our programs were not achieving their intended impact, in terms of the social problems they had been set up to solve.

The community we were serving was changing fast. No longer majority low-income and anglophone, it was becoming culturally diverse, majority francophone, and undergoing rapid gentrification, which risked creating social divisions that would surely isolate vulnerable families more than ever. We put in place a number of important changes to better represent the community and connect with its diverse members and their cultures.

To build a solid organisation requires clarity, but, above all, organisational transformation requires good people. We had a small team of committed employees, but we also needed to hire staff with passion and expertise in food security, youth programming, social economy, and program evaluation; people who would not primarily be concerned with maintaining legacy programs, but who were willing to measure how well the organisation was meeting the needs of program participants and the community. In a way, this strategy contributed to the professionalisation of the community sector, which continues to bring both benefits and problems to the sector.

 

Finding and developing allies for change

A few key board members, donors, and community partners were critical allies at the beginning of the change process.

My relationship with the board chair, whether the person in place at the time I was hired or the two subsequent board chairs I served under, was the most important relationship in terms of seeing through the changes we needed to make. Though we didn’t spend a lot of time together each month, our meetings were always well-planned, efficient, and honest. Board members were committed to the organisation, to learning about issues of poverty and injustice, and to improving how we did things.

We began recruiting board members with specific profiles; people who could bring the skills we lacked. In the early years I was trying to recruit anybody I could think of who had a profile we were missing, but in later years I learned to pull back, so that the board would more fully play its governance role. The board established a nominating committee and by then had developed more of a board development mindset.

I recall having conversations with some of the foundations who supported our work and became allies for change. In addition to developing relationships with our long-time donors, we focused our energy on relationship-building and learning from francophone foundations who were forward thinking and who encouraged organisational innovation.

We invited some community partners to speak at the first annual general meeting when I became Executive Director. One was the coordinator of the local roundtable, a brilliant person from whom we had much to learn. But she couldn’t speak English. We invited her anyway, and over time this became more normal, but initially it was a shock to the organisation’s culture to communicate in franglais, rather than almost exclusively in English. Regretfully, I was so focused on increasing cultural and linguistic diversity during this time that we didn’t do a very good job developing key allies among the English-speaking community, some of whom felt excluded by what appeared to be a francisation of a traditionally English community organisation.

 

Changes to programming

The organisation had three key program areas: food security, youth and learning, and employment training.

 

Food security
We had a vast school food program with no government or school funding or official recognition. It operated exclusively on private donations. We began by putting a mandatory feedback process with all participating schools in place, communicating program costs, and requesting feedback on food quality and quantities, as well as waste. We asked participating schools and their school boards to participate in our massive annual fundraising event for the school food program. Through interviews with stakeholders, and the data collected over a number of years, it became clear we had to make difficult decisions about the program’s financial viability, and the program was eventually canceled. However, this decision resulted in new programs being birthed and traditional programs being transformed in such a way that there was a greater focus on food access, skills, and advocacy, as well as greater community participation in programs like community meals and a weekly market. Today, there is an emphasis in society on food sovereignty, and not simply food security. Things will always evolve and improve where there is an openness to positive change.

Youth and learning
Implementing changes to our youth programming had both positive and negative impacts on local children. At the time, the neighborhood had one of the province’s highest high school dropout rates. Our main youth program was a drop-in crafts and games gathering that attracted huge numbers of primary-aged children and some teens, who attended two nights a week. The program functioned largely due to the care and commitment of a single staff member, along with a few volunteers, who launched the informal drop-in program in response to a request from local children who spent their evenings alone in the park.

As safety measures were put in place, which included additional staff, fixed adult-to-children ratios, and a registration process, many English-speaking families stopped sending their children. They weren’t comfortable with registering their children and they didn’t like the added structure and new staff. While many of the original families stopped sending their children, the changes brought new families who were happy to access quality tutoring and music lessons for their children. These children became engaged and stayed for years, and some eventually became music teachers, tutors, and leaders themselves. One young woman eventually became a community worker after attending university, reaching out to needy families in the area with wisdom and understanding based on her own lived experience.

School grades of children and youth in all programs were tracked, with tutoring offered to any who fell behind. Data collected over time helped program staff to predict the subjects and grade levels that would prove most difficult, thereby allowing time to add preventive measures before difficulties arose. Children and youth found a place of belonging, their self-confidence grew, and graduation rates among children participating in the various programs soared.

Employment training through Social economy
Many community organisations offer employment training in conjunction with the provincial government’s social welfare programs. At Share the Warmth there were some training participants who had been there for years. In the early years, participants were mainly missing recent work experience, and once they learned basic work skills they were able to find work. Several of STW’s first staff members came from this program; however, in later years, participants had greater needs, and were much farther from the regular job market, due, in large part, to mental illness and learning disabilities. Once again, it was necessary to hire staff with the experience and training to support participants in developing their capacity to work, while respecting any limitations they might have. All of this was done in the context of running small social economy businesses that raised funds for the organisation—a second-hand store, a community vegetable market, a community café that morphed into community meals, and hall rentals.

A valuable financial model, that undergirded all programs, was a pay-what-you-can model. A fundamental belief was that people value what they pay for. Making a financial contribution for products, programs, and services changes one’s status from a recipient of charity to a participant with agency. Paying a fee gives us the right to expect quality. This is equally as important for those of little means as for those who are wealthier, with both paying according to their ability. The idea was also to welcome those from various economic backgrounds, and avoid the social divisions that often result in neighborhoods experiencing gentrification.

 

Finding the Money to Make Change Happen

I began working in the community sector at a time when fundraising and philanthropy in Quebec were changing quickly. My predecessor Judy could literally send a one-page letter to funders telling a heart-warming story about a program participant and receive a $25K cheque within days. I didn’t know how to do that, and I still can’t do that. It was also a time when the funding landscape was shifting from organisational mission funding to project-based funding, where funding decisions are made based on project or program objectives, how we would achieve them, and how we would measure the results or impact. I felt positive about that change, but I also felt wholly inadequate for the task.

We learned how to determine real needs, through a collaborative process that included program participants, to collect and present relevant data and to show what could be done to bring about change. Though we experienced growth, the funding pressures never let up. Unless you’re working in an area that receives recurring and significant government grants, this is the reality of working in organisations that depend on donations for the majority of their budget. It’s challenging, and I was almost always stressed about the money.

It was critical to move the organisation to more sustainable and diversified sources of funding. In addition to obtaining more government grants for those programs that provided direct health-related services, we developed social economy projects that both generated revenues and provided employment training for adults who, for various reasons, were far from the labour market. Over several years, we intentionally shifted our sources of funding from over 95% of revenues coming from private donors and fundraising events, down to 60%, with another 25% from government grants (up from about 5%), and 15% of income coming from our social economy projects. In order to have freedom to create and follow their own vision, while creating healthy and respectful relationships with funders, effective non-profits need to develop a healthy diversification of their funding sources.

 

Paying Decent Salaries

There exists an attitude in some parts of the community sector, which is thankfully disappearing as recruitment becomes more challenging, that people should be willing to work endless hours for low salaries and no benefits. Somehow the satisfaction of knowing your work has a direct impact on the lives of vulnerable people means it’s OK for workers to live near the poverty line. No doubt this comes from the days when most charities were led by well-meaning volunteers whose status was somehow enhanced by the fact that they took no salary. But the world has changed, and all workers deserve a decent salary.

Our board of directors once invited a well-known philanthropist to speak at a board meeting. During her presentation, a board member asked how we could improve the financial health of the organisation in order to be able to pay better salaries and offer pensions and health insurance to the staff. The answer was quick and disappointing. In effect, she said, ‘’Don’t bother; it’s unrealistic and you’ll never be able to do it.’’ Afterwards, I remember saying to our board chair that if we couldn’t afford to provide our staff with decent salaries, pensions, and benefits, we might as well close our doors. The board then put together a committee to find a way forward, and soon afterwards we implemented clear job descriptions, pay scales, pensions, and health benefits. I applaud the board for their commitment to do the right thing, despite what others may have advised them to do.

 

Who can volunteer?

Volunteerism is a powerful and positive force without which the community sector would be unable to accomplish all it does. However, it has also evolved from the days of traditional charity where many volunteers tended to be those who had the time and financial resources to give to those who were without. This power imbalance was a constant reminder of who was in charge, who had more freedom, and who did not. An important change was mixing up the volunteer teams so that community members and program participants could participate as volunteers, alongside those who came from outside the community to give their time and other resources to the organisation. Program participants who volunteer in organisations have a stake in determining the type and quality of services that are offered, and they contribute skills, wisdom, and lived experience, thereby enhancing the quality and relevance of an organisation’s programs.

 

Growing pains

Organisational change and growth can be exhilarating. Transformation also takes a toll on those who are often the most impacted—the staff. Towards the end of my tenure at STW, the management and human resources components of the organisation had grown, and some staff struggled with the amount of change. We were at that in-between size where we had more staff and program participants, but we didn’t have a very strong HR function. As organisations grow, staff rightly have more expectations of better HR management to support the change management process. It was a challenge to fund higher salaries and benefits as the organisation grew. It seemed impossible to ensure the infrastructure needed to support that growth.

We had become a medium-sized organisation with small-sized infrastructure. One thing we tried to do early on was to put in place a leadership team to share the management load. Some people really wanted a leadership team so that we could share responsibility. Others were against the idea, because they liked a flatter organization. But the flat organization was no longer working as we grew. Within the management team, we had some high-performing people, while there were others who were insecure. This went on for some time, and was quite counter-productive; however, by the time I left there was a cohesive management team in place that was working quite well.

 

Leadership and governance

Organizationally, we learned that organizational development has to happen at every level, including at the board level and among donors, community partners, staff, volunteers, and program participants.

While board members were full of good intentions, most had no previous board experience. Many began with a charity approach to community work. So, while they themselves were charitably generous and donated, initially they didn’t feel the need to professionalize a non-profit organization. Nor did they yet share the urgency of putting in place decent salaries and benefits for staff who were seriously underpaid. As mentioned earlier, it was a struggle to put in place a pension plan and health benefits for staff.

Another big lesson I learned was when I took a three-month sabbatical in 2018 and one of our managers replaced me. This was such an important time for me personally to recharge my batteries after 9 years on the job. The person who replaced me was extremely talented yet she almost broke down under the stress of what I left her with. When I returned, she and I went out for lunch and she effectively said, “Fiona, you do too much. You do both your job and the board’s job. It’s not sustainable.”

I thought I’d done such a great job of developing capacity, and of moving our collective mindset from charity to development. Yet her statement, “You do everything” really struck a chord. And it wasn’t the board’s fault. I reflected on how the board had grown over time, from being a bunch of people who showed up every six weeks, to a governance board with multiple sub-committees, annual board-staff retreats, a strategic plan, and an annual evaluation process. Then I looked at all the board sub-committees, and who prepared the agendas for them, who produced the minutes, and who followed up on the action items. It was me. What I thought was increasing board capacity was largely increasing my own workload and contributing to a growing weariness.

This manager, who had replaced me during my sabbatical, helped me so much. After our conversation I said to the board, “I’m not blaming you, this was my fault. We’ve grown so much over the years. I’m doing all the management and I’ve been doing a lot of the governance work as well!” They really took my words seriously and immediately made changes, taking on greater responsibility. I had to learn to step back and respect that they would do things differently than I would. Those were great lessons learned. From then on, when sub-committee chairs didn’t show up to a board meeting at the last last-minute and just assumed I would present their reports, I would politely decline and suggest another committee member take on the task. I really learned that I couldn’t do my management job well and other people’s governance work as well. Some lessons take a while to learn!

 

Looking back, and looking forward

Looking back, I am satisfied with the organisational changes we implemented, and I feel good about a lot of it. I think there’s also a lot we didn’t get done, and things we could have done better. Succession planning for the Executive Director position was done in a planned and open way with the Board’s Executive Committee. A selection committee was formed, and an excellent choice was made.

We definitely experienced growing pains. I realise now that as we were growing I didn’t have a lot of objectivity. Looking back, the growing pains helped me to learn and grow personally. I also see some of the pain others experienced as a result of change that could have been better managed. I understand my own limitations, and the kind of people I need around me to be effective. That has been very helpful, but I wouldn’t really want to go through it all again! Though of course we do go through a similar process, over and over, with each new challenge we take on.

There is a lot we did that laid a firm foundation for the next season in STW’s organisational life and that helped the organisation become more connected to the neighborhood and more knowledgeable about the social issues we were attempting to solve. We worked with children, youth and families, with schools, and we tried a number of social economy projects. We examined a lot of different approaches, both locally and nationally, and really upped our game in terms of food security. By the time I left, we were covering all our administrative expenses with internally generated revenue, and people were gaining relevant work experience. I think that was important.

So, I look back and I feel positive about the organisation’s transformation process. Towards the end, though, I was worn out. I learned a lot about my own capacity, which I thought was limitless, and I learned that it wasn’t.

While writing this chapter one of my co-writers asked me what I was most proud of from my time at STW. I had talked about how challenging it was, but looking back, what gives me joy?

One of the things I’m proud of, in addition to implementing important programming changes, is that we were also able to renovate our heritage building, at a cost of $2.2 million. This was done over a five-year period, with the tireless involvement of volunteers and partners. This was important not only because the building itself was restored, but because at first it seemed like such an impossible task. We never thought we would be able to fund and complete the work, but in the end it was fully funded thanks to a lot of hard work and generosity—two necessary components of any transformation project.

Several years on, I am currently privileged to serve as Executive Director of Accueil Bonneau, Quebec’s oldest organisation serving people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. I started in this new role the week that Quebec went into lockdown in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier professional challenges pale in comparison to those first 18 months at Accueil Bonneau. Once the worst of the pandemic was behind us, we began a rigorous and inclusive strategic planning process, and set some lofty goals for the next season of this nearly 150-year-old Quebec institution’s mission. A new chapter of organisational transformation is now being written by the diverse people—residents, participants, staff, volunteers, board members and community partners—that form the Accueil Bonneau community. A new season of possibilities has begun…

Discussion question:
Having read Fiona’s story about large-scale change in an organization in terms of human resources, budget, governance, reach, organisational culture, and structure, what resonates for you? Does it remind you of experiences that you’ve been through, and are there things that you might want to dig into a bit more?

Fiona Crossling

Fiona Crossling

Executive Director, Accueil Bonneau

An Applied Example of an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Process

An Applied Example of an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Process

An Applied Example of an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Process

This article describes the transformation that took place within a small community organisation intent on making one of its programs more accessible to racialized and immigrant women.

 

Introduction

As a white woman, I have—and always will have—a lot to learn about racism and privilege, how to be an ally, and how to support the racialized people around me. I’m working on it. I also know that I’ll have to keep learning and checking my blind spots and unconscious biases all my life.

Nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to have had opportunities to act as an ally at different times in my life. This is the story of an EDI process that began in 2008, when I was able to act as a facilitator because of my role as coordinator of a community organisation. My racialized co-workers, as well as those belonging to invisible minorities, were really at the heart of this day-to-day struggle, and I take my hat off to them. I’d like to acknowledge Heidi, Leona, Michèle, Sofïa, Salma, Naïma, and all the other facilitators at the organisation—for their patience and dedication, and for the learning they passed on to the team, at the time and since.

 

Context

The Montreal Assault Prevention Centre is a local feminist community organisation using empowerment and popular education models. The mission of this organisation is to offer concrete tools for preventing assault to those who are most vulnerable to assault: children, women, and people with intellectual disabilities or physical limitations. Year in and year out, the Centre has a budget of around $300,000 and operates with a team of four to five full-time staff and five to eight part-time facilitators. The Centre’s philosophy considers the intersectionality of oppression, meaning that people at the crossroads of discrimination are more at risk of being attacked. There are two main programs offered by the Centre, the ACTION self-defense workshop for women and girls of all abilities and the CAP program for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

 

The problem

The animators of the ACTION women’s self-defense workshop meet regularly to discuss the successes and difficulties encountered during the workshops, and to brainstorm solutions as a team. At one of these meetings in 2008, of which I was a part, we made a disturbing observation that ultimately led to an EDI process.

One facilitator reported that she had animated a workshop where a racialized woman attended but said very little after her introduction. She was a black woman, a single parent, who had experienced domestic violence. The facilitator said that the other participants, who were all white, didn’t let the racialized woman express herself fully because they “corrected” her on her experiences. In fact, the white participants said that the woman shouldn’t feel the way she did. They went on to suggest that she should have done a number of things other than what she had done. Although this annoyed the facilitator, who tried as hard as she could to reframe the discussion, the women went on judging the woman of colour.

During that meeting, we dug into this situation at length, because our approach is to give each woman a place to recognize her expertise, rather than imposing our interpretations on her! I remember that we raised the hypothesis that the other women in the workshop had reacted in this way because of prejudice, and that, in the end, the facilitator simply did not know how to prevent the discussion from getting out of hand, or how to give more space to the racialized woman. The facilitators wondered why we didn’t know what to do when faced with such prejudice.

Following this first observation, we talked more widely about the problematic situations we had noticed in our workshops that particularly affected racialized women. As the stories unfolded, we noticed that the racialized women who signed up for the workshops were often in the minority in the groups. They didn’t always stay until the end or, when they did, didn’t seem to participate fully in the workshop. They sometimes remained completely silent.

Based on this initial observation, we dug deeper and found that even though a large part of Montreal’s population is racialized (it is estimated that almost a third of Montrealers are of immigrant origin and may therefore be racialized), very few racialized women were present in the ACTION workshops. Each of us could count on one hand the number of racialized women in our classes!

I remember that meeting like it was yesterday. I was flabbergasted by our conversation. Then I asked myself why I hadn’t brought it up to a meeting before. And my unflattering answer was that I didn’t see the problem because there just weren’t that many racialized women in the workshops. So, the problem was invisible to me as a white woman who didn’t experience such situations myself. But I felt very badly after that meeting because the organisation’s mission is to offer tools to groups most vulnerable to assault, and I knew that racialized women, indeed all women at the intersections of oppression, may be at greater risk of assault.

 

An aside

I thought I was already an ally, but that conversation launched deeper work in allyship. It led to questions about whether I was willing to let go of my privileges in order to be on an equal footing with racialized women. It led to questioning my personal biases. It led to lots of learning and reading about groups of people that I knew nothing about. It gave me a whole new way of looking at my childhood experiences around questions of race. I now know that this indepth work will continue throughout my adult life.

 

The project

Following this meeting, the Co-ordinator at the time identified a source of funding and asked me to write an application to Status of Women Canada. Between submitting the application and obtaining the funding, the Co-ordinator left the organisation, which led to an internal reorganisation. That’s how I came to be the organisation’s Co-ordinator in 2010.

To carry out our project, we hired a racialized woman, with a background deeply rooted in anti-racism and anti-oppression, to act as the project co-ordinator. She was a soft-spoken woman with an iron will. Over the two years of this project, this woman identified our many expressions of unconscious racism and confronted the team frankly and firmly.

The project co-ordinator observed the ACTION workshops for six months and interviewed the racialized women who were taking part in the regular workshop. After this period, she spoke to me about the approach she planned to take with the facilitators. I immediately foresaw the resistance we would face from some of the team members. So, I reached out to a sister group to lead an anti-racism workshop for our facilitators. Anti-racism work was their area of expertise and we needed help in becoming better allies. Unfortunately, this workshop increased resistance, the opposite of what I had hoped. This made the rest of the EDI process very unpleasant. Why such an opposite effect? These awareness-raising workshops can sometimes, unintentionally, put white women on the defensive, rather than in ally mode, and that’s what happened during this first workshop with some of the facilitators. What’s more, women often (very) deeply feel that they know about assault and discrimination because we’ve been subjected to sexism since childhood. This can be particularly true for women who have experienced gender-based violence such as rape, incest, or domestic abuse. For some, the idea of being part of the problem of discrimination or racism is horrifying and completely contrary to the motivation behind becoming self-defense teachers in the first place!

This resistance took many forms in our team—from refusing to take part in meetings, to rejecting any suggestion to improve our practices, to personal attacks towards the project coordinator or towards me. It was, as I mentioned, very unpleasant.

I remained determined to integrate anti-racism into our practices despite this resistance. I continued to support the project coordinator and really appreciated her ability to stand her ground even when her colleagues discriminated against her and other facilitators. I imagine it wasn’t easy for her as a racialized woman. Her greatest strength was that she always proposed a solution when she identified a practice that needed changing, one that was tainted by racism or discrimination.

When she started giving feedback to the team, she began by suggesting changes to the central element of our workshop, the success stories. All animators love these success stories because they make self-defense come to life. Women who hear the stories rejoice and they want to hear even more. The success stories are also essential to the ACTION workshop because they demonstrate a wide range of ways of standing up for oneself in very different situations. Here are some of the findings of the project coordinator:

    • ACTION is a workshop that shares women’s stories and aims to be feminist and intersectional, so these stories should represent all women. While we had many stories from older women, women with disabilities, and unhoused women, we had none from Aboriginal women.
      • Suggestion: At the beginning of the workshop, acknowledge colonialism and the suffering it continues to cause in order to welcome First Nations women to the group.
    • The few stories of racialized women that we were telling were not identified as such, which had the effect of “whitewashing” the stories.
      • Suggestion: When we tell their stories, identify that it is racialized women who acted this way. We can also indicate their cultural background if we know it.
    • We did not include stories related to the fight against racism or other forms of discrimination, which left out a whole lot of women’s experiences.
      • Suggestion: Collect and share stories of how women have responded to homophobia, transphobia, racism, ageism, or other forms of subtle and obvious discrimination.

These initial findings were followed by a recommendation to review the facilitator’s manual to include stories that reflect the realities of a broader range of women’s lives. She then added more general reflections and suggestions:

    • Our representations of women’s bodies were very gendered and did not take trans or non-binary women into account.
      • Suggestion: Avoid generalizing about the features of women’s bodies.
    • We used chopsticks to simulate knives in armed assault practices as we thought it was deemed less intimidating for women. The project coordinator reminded us that these could be hurtful to women of Asian descent.
      • Suggestion: Use simple wood dowels instead.

Finally, the most crucial point of the EDI learning process in which we all took part was to learn that not only did we fail to take an anti-racist stance, but we unconsciously let inappropriate comments “go.”

    • General suggestion: Take ongoing anti-racism training courses, to give ourselves the tools to recognize and respond to such comments in a systematic way.
    • Targeted suggestion: Create and offer a workshop by and for racialized women only.

This last suggestion caused quite a stir among some of the facilitators! Some staff feared they would lose their jobs, and it must be noted that self-defense animators are not paid especially well—they very often relied heavily on this income to survive. Some felt that this was reverse discrimination, as men sometimes do when confronted with their sexism—they felt this was unjust. Others reacted quickly to integrate the proposals and develop the project. I remember another meeting where we quite uncomfortably brought up this resistance. I will leave that there!

In my mind, the ACTION workshop was developed so that women could talk together about what they were going through, so this last suggestion to offer the same safe space to racialized women was a natural one and would be implemented.

I did my best to become a shield so that the project coordinator didn’t receive this resistance. I was attacked for my “inflexibility” in this project. And it’s true that I insisted that the proposed changes be made in a timely manner. What I was saying was probably gentler, but in my head, I was saying: It’s going to happen, full stop! My colleagues undoubtedly sensed my determination and unwillingness to bend.

I have to say that I felt extremely frustrated and at times very angry with my team-mates. Why didn’t they see the need to change our ways of doing things? How could one not be touched by what the project coordinator was telling us? I had many doubts about the process during this time! Despite this, I felt that I had taken the right path. What we, white women, were doing as animators in our groups was simply a continuation of systemic discrimination in our society, and it had to stop. As the project continued despite the resistance, some facilitators left the organisation. It is immeasurably sad, but sometimes change brings its share of chaos.

Today, when I look back on this project, I’m very happy with the determination I showed in the face of the awful feelings and conflicts that arose. I’m proud to have persevered and to still see the fruits of this project today, some ten years later. In fact, the workshop that was designed at the time is still offered to racialized women by racialized women today. A workshop specifically designed for newcomer women has also been incorporated into the organisation’s programs. In addition, the current team of animators represents a much greater diversity.

 

Lessons learned

Transformation cannot take place without disturbing the status quo. It sows confusion, it can bring chaos, fear, and suffering before opening up new horizons.

Transformation also takes time, no matter how fast you think it should go or how obvious it is to you. You need to be patient, go step by step, give yourself the means to succeed, and never give up! Even if you want to go faster, you can’t. You have to respect the pace of the people involved in the change process.

When you want to take a step towards equity, diversity, and inclusion, you need to spend a lot of time preparing the land before launching your project. I would say that better preparation would definitely have improved our process. If I had to do a project like this again, I would seek more support before starting it.

I will add that It’s better to be transparent with the funders who support such projects. They know that organisations are going to have certain difficulties with EDI and can suggest solutions that other organisations have tried. At one point, I received inestimable support from a Status of Women Canada staff member when the project was stalled. I had been afraid to lose our funding, but instead I received the help I needed to go forward.

 

Conclusion

After all of these difficulties, the organisation’s remaining team members took great pride in the project, even going so far as to apply for an award of excellence. The award, received in 2011, enabled the team to celebrate their hard work.

 

Today

Since then, I’ve taken on the role of Executive Director of the Movement to End Homelessness in Montreal. I started in 2019 and I’ve seen some major social transformations in that time, and I am very worried about where we are headed as a society. Still, I am mindful of those earlier lessons and work on being an ally in as many ways as I can. An anti-racist lens influences the recruitment of team members, the research projects the organisation develops, and the training programs it offers. The lessons learned from that first EDI initiative are still with me, and I know that any changes I want to make towards more social justice will take time and patience.

Michèle Chappaz

Michèle Chappaz

Directrice générale, le Mouvement pour mettre fin à l’itinérance à Montréal

Partnerships, Relationships, and Collaborations

Partnerships, Relationships, and Collaborations

Partnerships, Relationships, and Collaborations

Founded in 2004, Projets autochtones du Québec (PAQ) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide shelter and culturally adapted social reinsertion services to First Nations, Inuit, and Metis men and women who are in situations of homelessness or difficulty. PAQ first operated as an emergency shelter out of an old laundry facility which belonged to the local health agency. The location matched the stage of development of the organization, as it began as a small service for a small yet growing number of Indigenous people who found themselves on the streets of Montreal.

Fast forward to around 2011, and the organization had already experienced a flood, an aging building, several changes in directorship within a short time span, and a looming eviction notice as the building needed to be repurposed. In retrospect, the eviction wasn’t such a bad thing. As much as we had grown accustomed to putting buckets under the leaking roof, and living in harmony with the mice, mites, bedbugs, and cockroaches, we were outgrowing our space.

Nonetheless, within the dirty but sturdy walls of the organization, there was a growing community and a sense of belonging, created not by the organization but by the people who gave it its raison d’etre.

To illustrate the setting, many of the walls were painted with Indigenous art done by residents of the shelter. The women’s dorm had no door but only a curtain to demark its space, there was no actual kitchen (only a stove and a small fridge plugged in someplace, with a laundry sink to deal with the dishes produced by the nightly supper), and the loud factory-like fans kept air circulating in the men’s dorm. Empty tubs of margarine were especially handy for dealing with the leaks in the men’s dorm roof whenever it would rain too hard. Fire trucks were all-too-common around breakfast-time, whenever someone forgot their toast in the toaster. Then there was the time the laundry nearly caught fire because our dryer ducts were too small, but no harm done.

 

Challenges

Like many community organizations, we were no strangers to a tight budget. At one point we were functioning on $400 per month, to feed nearly 30+ people per night. I can remember one of our shelter participants actually showing up in the evening with a donation of an industrial-sized roll of toilet paper that he evidently “recuperated” from the washrooms of a local government building. Bless his heart. Despite whatever he was facing day-to-day, PAQ was his home, and in that home was his family, his community, and community meant sharing.

Many Indigenous community members came to the city, perhaps for a better life, but often simply to escape something dark. But the south is not the north, the city is not a rural community, and Western norms of independence makes little room for interdependence. More and more Indigenous peoples were finding themselves in Montreal, in precarious situations, and facing a sort of culture shock.

 

Strengths

Addictions and violence were, of course, a reality at PAQ. However, what stood out the most within our walls was that it was home to a caring, generous, and hilarious community!
I would like to share a few of my memories with you to illustrate what that looked like:

    • The times when we had a group of community members volunteer to do a deep-clean of the shelter and boy did they ever make concrete shine!
    • The times when Jacob would wake up early, grab the Metro newspaper, and slip it under my door in the morning, always with a note, in my name, telling me to have a nice day.
    • Community members receiving country food from their northern community, and sharing it with absolutely everyone.
    • Hearing Charlie play the guitar and harmonica (at the same time), singing his famous Bacardi song.
    • Our dedicated cook, Agnes, who would make breakfast for supper whenever a community member gave her that special request.
    • Our shelter opening in the evening, and after having spent long days outside, community members would be the first ones with a smile on their faces, asking me how my day was and telling me to get home safe!
    • Having regular visits from volunteers Gino and Phil, who are among PAQ’s many angels, who would come with donations and hugs galore!
    • After a long day of work, I went outside, and there was Donald (who had trouble walking), cleaning the snow off my car because, in spite of the day he had, he cared more about how I was doing, and well, that’s just the gentle soul that he is.

Now, back to our eviction notice. We seemed to be faced with an injustice – having to move, having to go from a $250K budget to needing over $7M to relocate and purchase or build a new building, while still trying to consolidate as an organization. But suffering had its purpose, thank God! PAQ was blessed to have friends and a sense of community among people from different agencies who were supporting both the organization and myself in our efforts to consolidate, develop, and move.

We had the support of an internal staff member whose role was to support PAQ in its moving plans. We had a Community Organizer from the CIUSSS (health agency) who supported me and our Board of Directors in our consolidation and development. We had a Board member who went above and beyond to coach me and to lead our Board through its own growth. We had external partners who took time to guide and support PAQ in connecting us with the proper contacts, in making a case for the essential services we offered, and in counsel. PAQ’s community just seemed to attract people who believed that things should just be better for our community. It was a family that grew and grew and grew.

 

Laying the foundations for partnerships

Somehow, our challenges brought actors together from different agencies, who simply gave their best to support PAQ. Given that there was government funding available for transitional housing, we added that service to our shelter relocation plans in order to make our project financially viable. And transitional housing meant the beginnings of a continuum of services, moving away from simple emergency shelter services to actually providing a way OUT! I wish I could say I thought of that myself. But, truth-be-told, such ideas came from the many angels who brought their expertise and dedication to the table, for the good of our community! The ideas, strategies, and actions that helped PAQ to grow and provide better services was not born out of a strictly “for and by” approach, it was born out of the sense of commitment and community that others felt towards PAQ and the community that gave it life.

Our community was able to identify its needs and develop a vision. But in addition, our partners also had experience that they were willing to share, so we had the opportunity to learn from those who came before us. I would like to acknowledge the contribution of these institutional, political and community partners to our development.

Pushing and advocating is crucial. It is important. However, HOW we push, and HOW we advocate is pivotal. There were moments when that approach was necessary. However, building relationships, being humble, and recognizing the wisdom that others can bring to the table, is even more valuable in the long-term. I write these things now, because of course, hindsight is 20/20, and we all hopefully learn from our mistakes. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I heeded advice sooner than later.

Being humble meant also recognizing that in spite of the sense of injustice around our impending move and lack of budget, our organization DID have some serious consolidating and maturing to do, so that we would be adequately prepared to manage a larger budget and additional services within such a short time frame. We had our internal part to play, if we were to expect major funding increases. We needed to take that seriously. It was not simply a question of banging our fists on the table and making demands, it was a question of building effective services, taking the time to do things properly, and consolidating internally before thinking that we could build on a shaky foundation.

 

Building the structure for partnerships

When it came to the issue of needing governments to recognize our need for a new space, the gravity of the situation somewhat spoke for itself. I suppose that when bureaucrats visit your shelter and see a mouse run past them, it is somewhat evident that conditions are not ideal. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. The more you allow others to experience your reality on-the-ground, the better off everyone will be. Many of the government workers who helped us manage our project dollars would only get to see the reality of the organization reflected through our statistics and our reporting. They did not get to see the conditions we were working in, nor the reality of community members. I would definitely encourage organizations to invite government workers to visit, observe, and experience the reality of a community organization. Reports will never do the work justice.

I wish I could speak to the strategies behind these meetings with government representatives, but it’s all a bit of a blur now, and I’m fairly certain that other people just plopped those meetings into my agenda, and there you have it, relationships began to be built, and the grounds for collaboration were being tilled. What I am sure of is that I had plenty of support, once I recognized the value, and allowed that support in.

Slowly but surely, there was more and more recognition by governments that PAQ’s services were essential, that we were fit for the job in offering those services, and that it was now a question of where we would move, and who was going to give what amount of money for it.
The moment of truth came when, in the blink of an eye, and by the grace of God, a property across the street from our existing location became available. The clock was ticking. We had to place an offer! It was at the point when all levels of government came together, and each decided they were going to guarantee a certain portion of the cost. I recall a government employee saying “this is the first time we’ve all sat down around the table and worked together for one project”… and thus, a winning practice was born!

Blaming rarely works as the sole means to an end. Each agency and individual can have a role to play in the success of a project. That work is hardly ever done in a heroic vacuum. And to paraphrase the wise words of advice of our Community Organizer: Indigenous homelessness does not belong to PAQ to solve, it’s a collective responsibility. If PAQ ceased to exist, others would have to find ways to meet the needs of the community, and therefore it was incumbent on all actors around the table to do their part. It was also incumbent on us as an organization to listen to the questions that challenged us, and that challenged our decisions. That’s what helped us to make better choices.

Once it was recognized that Indigenous homelessness belonged to the whole of society, and we are ALL responsible, we began to have positive momentum. Our moving project became a collective responsibility, and it became a source of pride for all agencies involved. Suddenly, our partners and funders had a common goal: to see the growth and success of PAQ.

How much success would we have on the resolution of other issues if we were to adopt that approach, wherein, instead of seeking to lay blame, or seeking to be the heroes, we all recognize that each person and each agency has something relevant to bring to the table.

It takes a village, it takes community. The wellbeing of PAQ depended on its village, and the same is true for the wellbeing of those who access PAQ’s services. For my part, I have so many people to thank for contributing to a strong layer of PAQ’s foundation. Each person brought a piece of that foundation, each step of the way…and each of those blocks was important to bringing PAQ to where it is today.

Adrienne Campbell

Adrienne Campbell

Former Executive Director, Projets autochtones du Québec

Faith and Community Work

Faith and Community Work

Faith and Community Work

For twenty years I have worked for different social justice and community organizations that were founded by and have strong connections to Christian communities. I am currently the Executive Director of Logifem, a Montreal based organization that provides accommodation and support to women and children experiencing homelessness and that was founded by a group of parishioners from an Anglican church.

Back in 2018, I was having coffee with the director of another homelessness organization in Montreal and I talked about Logifem’s Christian roots and the way in which I saw those founding values as a strength for the organization to which he replied “You see that as a strength? Really? Because I would see any association between the church and any kind of social work as a huge weakness. In fact I think that the church has a lot to answer for. It’s the church’s attitude to almsgiving and charity that has kept poor people in poverty and stopped organizations looking for real solutions to poverty.”
This chapter is a reflection on my experience of the intersection between faith, in particular the Christian faith, and community work. On the one hand, I have witnessed faith communities mobilize effectively to do important social justice and community development work. On the other hand, I sympathize with the viewpoint of my colleague from the homelessness sector because I have also seen church based models of charity that were ineffective in reducing poverty and that were probably a lot more about making middle class Christians feel good about themselves. I’m sure many of these reflections could apply to other faith groups, but my particular experience is with Christian groups.

Books like Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton and When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert do an excellent job of explaining how the models of charitable works that are often pursued by faith groups end up doing more harm than good because of a lack of understanding of the realities of families and individuals experiencing poverty. Even worse than these ill-informed charitable models are the occasions when the Church has been a perpetrator of social injustice. In recent history we can note, for example, residential schools, sexual abuse scandals and active discrimination against women and the LGBTQ2A+ community.

Despite the failures and wrong doings of the church, ultimately I believe that faith groups can and do play an important role in social justice issues and community development. My reflections are informed from my work in Montreal and in the UK and would be different if I had been working in different parts of the world where the place of religion in society is different again.

 

Mobilization of resources

There are many examples in history of Christians who were motivated by their faith to mobilize for positive social change. We can think, for example of:

    • William Wilberforce, who was a leader in the movement to abolish the slave trade
    • Edna Ruth Byler who founded Ten Thousand Villages, one of the world’s biggest Fair Trade retailers seeking to reduce poverty through fairer trading relationships
    • Catherine and William Booth who founded the Salvation Army to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the poor, destitute and hungry
    • Millard and Linda Fuller who founded Habitat for Humanity, which has to date built or renovated over 400,000 homes worldwide for more than 2 million people
    • Pandita Ramabai who promoted education for women in India and set up many services for women

A key tenet of the Christian faith is the call to “Love your neighbour as yourself” and the bible is full of instructions to care for and defend the rights of the poor, orphans, widows, immigrants and other marginalized groups. At Logifem, our founder, Irvine “Benny” Benoy wrote about the way in which his faith led him to action:

“At St.Joseph’s church there were six or seven people meeting on Wednesday nights for bible study and prayer. We always included the needs of the homeless women in our prayers. One evening I was speaking to my [wife⦐ Mary and asked the question: “What are we praying for, for someone else to build the shelter? Why can’t we do it?” It seemed an impossible task for a group of older people with no money and no particular skills. As I was reading my bible, I came across many scriptures that seemed to be guiding me. In the book of Joshua, I noticed that Joshua was praying to God about the sorrowful condition of his Jewish brethren. God’s answer was very direct …: “Get off your face and do something” (Jos. 7:14). This is the way I interpreted God’s word.”

The religious convictions and sense of a bigger power behind action can be very useful in the beginnings of new projects. The people leading the project forward are motivated by their faith and their sense of calling. They also believe that because God has called them to this particular work, He will provide, which leads to perseverance through the many and great challenges of getting something new going.

Faith communities are also well placed to start new works because of the existing resources and infrastructure they have. This often includes buildings, some financial resources and most of all, people with shared values who are committed to each other, to doing good in some form or other and who have a diverse set of skills. Although some people now commute to their place of worship, most faith groups have local congregations resulting in deep knowledge of the local community and a strong commitment to that community.

When I still lived in the UK, I worked as the coordinator of a network called “Enabling Christians Serving Refugees” or ECSR which had been established by a coalition of organizations to support various church based efforts that had emerged to care for large members of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the UK in the 1990’s and early 2000’s in particular from the Balkans, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Somalia. I met with many church based groups who had similar stories to tell. Asylum seekers were housed in their area. With little or no resources they recognized the local church buildings and knocked on the door to ask for help. Struck by the poverty of these individuals and families, church communities quickly mobilized to provide second hand clothing and food, but also to provide English lessons, activities for children and most importantly community and friendship. These churches owned buildings that were underused during the week where activities could take place and donations could be received and stored. Church members were willing and able to provide material goods but also to volunteer their time to help these vulnerable newcomers navigate life in Britain. Sometimes church members already had cultural links to the refugees and asylum seekers either personally or from overseas missions projects they had been involved with.

Church congregations are usually local, but church networks are national and international which means that local community work can be upscaled relatively easily into a national effort. Now in the UK, the organization Welcome Network has a vision for every refugee to be welcomed by the local church. Services provided to refugees can vary from offering community and friendship to offering material goods up to and including the provision of short and long term accommodation through hosts and landlords participating in the welcome homes project.

Spirituality in community development work

There have, unfortunately, been some very clumsy and even coercive attempts to bring spirituality into community development work. One example would be an organization that required people experiencing homelessness to participate in a christian act of worship in order to receive a cooked meal. At Logifem in the past a prayer was said before meals and before team meetings and whilst no one was required to actively participate in these religious expressions, for some people they were uncomfortable moments.

That said, for many who are suffering in different ways, faith can be a source of hope and encouragement. When we think of refugees and asylum seekers, this can be particularly true for those who have come from cultures where religion is central rather than peripheral. But it can be true for others too. In 2013 the research agency Lemos & Crane published “Lost and Found: Faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people”, a research paper based on 75 in-depth interviews with people experiencing homelessness in London, UK. The report’s author, Carwyn Gravel is an atheist, but his research nonetheless led him to conclude that religious belief can be hugely beneficial to homeless people. He writes, “For homeless people, religious belief, practice and doctrine can help them come to terms with a past that is often characterised by profound emotional and material loss, enhance and give structure to the present where time hangs heavy for many, and create a purposeful future built on hope, fellowship and a sense of purpose.”

At Logifem in 2012 we offered a course called “Alpha”, designed to introduce people to the Christian faith through conversation. It was entirely optional and took place discreetly in our administrative building. For the residents who participated it was on the whole a rich experience. We were able to step out of our roles of the professional and the service user and instead explore big questions about life and meaning together.

Religion also offers structure and tools for processing difficult moments and marking important moments. In 2019 one of Logifem’s residents died of natural causes during the night. This was very distressing for the staff member who found the resident unresponsive as well as for the other residents and staff. Since the woman who had died was Greek Orthodox we held a service of remembrance for her at the shelter and the ancient readings and liturgies used brought comfort, meaning and closure. As well, when our newest shelter turned a year old we held a “Blessing Ceremony” and invited a local pastor to dedicate the building and its staff to the special purpose of serving women with children experiencing homelessness. This was a nod to the religious roots of Logifem. We made the language and expression of the ceremony inclusive, but it was certainly helpful to be able to lean on the old traditions of the Christian faith to temporarily remove ourselves from our everyday routines and think about our work in that building with a different perspective.

 

What happens when the work outgrows the community that founded it?

Many church congregations are well placed to start local grassroots community development projects, but in some contexts these projects grow to the extent that the church community can no longer sustain them. Often financial resources are required from outside of the church community. Governments and non-religious foundations will usually accept to fund community development work that has been founded by a church community as long as they are confident no proselytizing is happening in the context of the work. When a majority of financial resources come from outside of the religious community this might impact the extent to which the project or organization still identifies as religious.

It can be equally hard for religious organizations to find the right people to occupy the different staff and volunteer positions in their organizations from within their religious community. This was the case at Logifem. I became the Executive Director of the organization in 2011. Before this time, a majority of the organization’s staff was Christians, drawn to the organization because of its founding values, or through word of mouth from board members and other staff. However, as the organization grew, the ratio between Christian staff members and those of other faiths and none shifted so that whilst Logifem has more Christian staff than most other community organizations, they are no longer in the majority. In Québec where weekly church attendance is around 4%, it would be unrealistic to expect to fully staff an organization like Logifem with members of the Christian community.

Once faith based organizations are largely financed by non-faith based donors and to a lesser or greater extent staffed by non-practicing individuals, has the organization simply evolved into a non-faith based organization? Does the origins story become the only faith connection? Or can the organization retain religious faith as part of its identity?

In my early days at Logifem at times I felt like I was doing a dance of disappointment between our very religious supporters who felt that Logifem was losing its Christian values under my leadership and our secular staff and supporters who were uncomfortable with some of Logifem’s remaining Christian practices. There was no way that Montreal’s Christian community could sustain Logifem – our HR and financial needs were much too great for a relatively small community that was itself struggling as church membership decreased overall. A valid choice would be to let our origins story remain as our faith connection, but to consider ourselves a fully secular organization. Maybe this will happen in the future, but personally for the moment I think there is still value in acknowledging and nurturing our organization’s connection with the Christian faith.

Our organization’s connections with Montreal’s Christian community have helped us form many useful partnerships. Some of our volunteers were inspired by the faith and action of our founder, Benny Benoy and others are drawn to Logifem because of the sense of shared values and calling or because they have heard a representative from Logifem speak at a church or at another event. Many churches have helped us in practical ways for example by sending teams to paint, by collecting donations for us, by recruiting volunteers and by making donations. We have also received practical and financial support from other religious communities, in particular Montreal’s Sikh and Jewish communities.

Working with people experiencing homelessness is challenging and staff are at high risk of burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Personal faith is not a substitute for measures that should be taken to reduce these risks, including providing adequate support, training and working conditions, but it is often a factor of protection for workers. At Logifem, our Christian staff members have found strength in the practice of prayer, in their sense of calling or vocation and in encouragement from their church communities. Religious practices can shift our perspective from the immediate situation before us to the long term and can be a source of comfort and hope.

Central to Christianity and to many other faiths is the belief that each human being is deeply loved by God. The biblical story of the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to go and look for the one sheep who is lost is a beautiful illustration of this. At Logifem we don’t preach about God’s love for each of our residents, but our goal is always to treat each person who comes to us with dignity and respect and to show them that they matter. One of our residents who came to Logifem with her daughter after fleeing a violent relationship wrote:

I am a person alone with my 8 year old daughter. I don’t have any family, none. I really want to rebuild my life after four very hard years when I lost my joie de vivre. I lost friends, jobs, my house, my partner.

I need support. At Logifem I met an Intervention Worker who changed my life. Thanks to Adela, I believe again that I can be loved. This woman really knows how to get the best out of me.

By way of a conclusion

In many parts of the world it is a given that faith groups will be major players in community development and social justice work. In cities such as Montreal where a minority of people participate actively in religious activities, this is not the case. I think though that faith groups can and do play an important role in community transformation. Whilst organizations like Logifem may need to shift from the “Christian organization” identity of their early years, we can continue to benefit from partnerships with faith based communities and from the core values of love in action that were the driving force for our founders.

Sally Richmond
Executive Director
Logifem

Sally Richmond

Sally Richmond

Executive Director, Logifem