Friday, November 04, 2011
Fed changes start from frightening premise
It makes me nervous to read the news stories about plans the Canadian government has for reshaping the non-profit sector.
Sure, the sector needs some work. What sector doesn’t?
But it’s hardly the unaccountable, inefficient system that the federal government made it sound like this week in the media coverage about the new Canada Not-For-Profit Corporations Act.
“Right now, we ask [the non-profit sector] to take on these jobs,” federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finlay said while announcing new efforts to ensure more accountability from Canada’s 161,000 registered non-profits and charities.
“We give them money to do it. They receive the money whether they achieve their objectives or not. Now all we’re saying is all right, we still want you to do this, but you get more money if you actually achieve your objectives.”
Unless you’ve been involved with a non-profit having to jump through the many - and often meaningless - accountability requirements of federal funding, you might not appreciate how grating of a statement that is in a sector that works very hard for its money. How can we trust change pushed by a government that doesn’t have a clue?
Canada, Britain and the U.S. are all working very hard these days to extricate government from social responsibility. Their efforts tend to focus on initiatives that download the funding of community work to someone other than them.
Socially invested municipalities and neighbourhoods, new charity hybrids capable of earning their own revenue, mysterious “investors” who are apparently waiting in the wings to pony up for social causes as long as they can earn a return on investment - all are integral parts of the three countries’ plans for non-profit reform.
And maybe such strategies will indeed turn out to be beneficial. But pardon me for noticing that underneath every proposed change is an expectation of offloading the cost of social care.
It’s very popular among the government set these days to talk about how charities and non-profits should run more like businesses.
For the most part, they already do. And that’s remarkable given the nutty processes, procedural hurdles and nonsensical funding cuts they deal with as a matter of course. If the goal is a healthy community sector capable of dealing with increasing social complexity, I’d suggest Ottawa start with some personal reflection on the many ways its own systems and policies devalue, complicate and compromise efficient community work.
The nature of non-profit work - running child-care centres, looking after old people, supporting challenged families, preventing environmental catastrophe, finding God, reconnecting lost souls - doesn’t lend itself easily to standard measurement. In an era when “worth” has only one meaning to government, that’s a major disadvantage.
So much of non-profit work comes down to value-based goals like easing human suffering. Building community. Saving the planet for future generations. Alas, governments like things that show a return on investment before the next election.
Community work builds “infrastructure” as surely as construction companies build bridges and roads. So how come nobody has to build a bridge on year-to-year funding or uncertain contracts squeezed whenever the government feels like it? How come we don’t hear about road-builders getting stiffed as a matter of course on annual cost-of-living increases, as is the case for hundreds of social service agencies in B.C. doing the same work for a little less each year?
I do agree with government’s push for more tangible evidence of the benefits of community work. Improvements to the way outcomes are measured and reported would at least settle once and for all that the non-profit sector is doing essential, meaningful work.
The sector could use a new name, too, because “non-profit” and “charitable” instantly bring to mind some pathetic soul who can’t figure out how to make money and so has to beg.
But what it doesn’t need is a government-led fix that even in its early days has revealed a biased and negative view of the non-profit sector.
Modern-day western governments are obsessed with the idea that charities and non-profits are inefficient users of tax dollars. They think the growing social divide in their countries are because non-profits and community members aren’t doing their job well enough, not because they’ve been hacking apart the social safety net for the better part of 20 years.
They’re wrong. And they won’t set things right with just more of the same.