The hurdles that stop non-profits from innovating, advocating and navigating bureaucracy, and how we can overcome them.

By Craig and Marc Kielburger

 

Canada is a caring country. Nearly 13 million Canadians volunteered 2 billion hours in 2013; the vast majority of us (82 per cent) donated to charity. With the consumer holiday frenzy—a time of giving and a time of great need—it’s the perfect chance to consider our donation and spending habits. We can help charities do even more good, simply by letting them.

Recently, we caught up with Brian Emmett, chief economist for Imagine Canada, the umbrella organization representing Canadian charities. We got to talking about the hurdles that stop non-profits from innovating, advocating, and navigating bureaucracy. Emmett offered three suggestions to help Canada’s non-profits (and Canadians) give back even better: “financial sustainability, someone plugging for them in government, and the ability to engage in political activity.”

Firstly, we need a voice in government that speaks clearly for charities.

It might come as a surprise, but no one in our government holds sole responsibility for the welfare of charities. Currently, this job is sprinkled among different departments, all hardworking and well intentioned, but none with full ownership.

It’s hard to imagine Canada without the Daily Bread Food Bank or local women’s shelters. These organizations tackle social problem, of course, but they also help drive our economy. Emmett points out that non-profits employ some two million people, and generate 8.1 per cent of Canada’s GDP—more than the oil industry.

We’re not calling for a ministry of charities, but non-profits do need specific representation, perhaps a parliamentary secretary or senior bureaucrat. A sector with this much social and economic impact should have a champion.

Secondly, charities should be able to earn an income with products or services that further the social mission. Other countries are rapidly paving the way for their charities to get creative with business-style solutions. Australia, the UK, and more than 35 US states have all passed laws making it easier for charities to innovate and scale. Canada is still playing catch-up.

Old East Village Grocer is a London, Ont., store run by the charity ATN Access, which provides resources for people with disabilities. After three decades as a traditional non-profit, it launched a retail model in 2016.

“The constant search for funding wasn’t allowing us to effectively deliver our services,” says Andrea Topham, ATN executive director. But setting up the retail model to provide a fiscal safety net was difficult, she adds, due to Canada’s strict laws.

“Charities are becoming more like small businesses,” says Emmet, though they don’t benefit from the same government support programs, he adds.

Finally, we need to lift the 10 per cent rule. In Canada, only 10 per cent of a charity’s proceeds can legally fund advocacy. So women’s shelters can help survivors of domestic abuse, but they can’t advocate for the things that would help stop the systemic issue, like increased funding for youth and prevention programs. The government is moving forward on this, but we can do more.

If Canadians could do all of our holiday shopping at stores that both meet our product needs and also fund charities, wouldn’t we? And if we knew that our donation dollars were going further, wouldn’t we open our wallets wider?

This holiday season, help charities do more good.

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